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GMAT Grammar: Adjectival Phrases and Clauses

Deepen your comprehension of these complex grammatical forms so you use them effectively on GMAT Sentence Correction

What is an adjectival phrase?  What is an adjectival clause?  What’s the difference between them?

 

Points of Grammar:

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun.  They are the colorful emotional words that spice up the language.  For example, the quartet of adjectives based on the ancient medical theory of humors — “sanguine“, “choleric“, “bilious“, and “phlegmatic” — span the range of human dispositions.

A phrase can be either a prepositional phrase (preposition + noun-object) or a participial phrase (participle form of a verb, with possible a direct object and/or adverb).  If it modifies a noun, then it’s an adjectival phrase.

The independent clause of the sentence – main subject and main verb — will not be an adverbial clause.  A dependent (a.k.a. subordinate) clause also has its own subject and verb, and if it modifies a noun, then it’s an adjectival clause.

 

Examples of Adjectival Phrases:

1) The book on my desk is by Tolstoy.

The preposition phrase “on my desk” is an adjectival phrase.  It modifies the noun “book” — it specifies which book.

 

2) Diogenes is remembered as the man carrying a lantern in broad daylight.

The participial phrase “carrying a lantern in broad daylight” is an adjectival phrase.  It modifies the noun “man” — it specifies which man.

Incidentally, within that participial phrase, the prepositional phrase “in broad daylight” is an adverbial phrase. It modifies the verb participle “carrying” — it specifies when he carried the lantern.

 

3) The Lone Ranger riding into the sunset is a vivid memory for an older generation of Americans.

The participial phrase “riding into the sunset” is an adjectival phrase.  It modifies the noun “Lone Ranger” — it specifies the setting/activity of the Lone Ranger at that moment.

 

Examples of Adjectival Clauses:

4) “Any man who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad.”  – W.C. Fields

The dependent clause “who hates dogs and children” is an adjectival clause.  It modifies the noun “man” — it specifies what kind of man.

 

5) “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is a double-whammy. The gigantic dependent clause “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is a big adjectival clause.  It modifies the noun “dream” — it specifies what kind of dream.

Furthermore, the clause “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is also an adjectival clause.  It modifies the noun “nation” — it specifies what kind of nation.

Thus, this famous sentence has one adjectival clause nested inside another. Notice, also, the powerful use of parallelism.  Such a high level of grammatical sophistication, conveying lofty moral ideals, is not at all surprising from one of the finest orators this nation has ever seen.

 

Why Are Adjectival Phrases & Clauses Important for the GMAT?

Like adverbial phrases, adjectival phrases are one of the marks of sophisticated writing.  I guarantee you will see them all over the GMAT Sentence Correction section. Learning them now, you will be forearmed.  Furthermore, the more fluent you become with adjectival phrases, the more effectively you can use them in your own writing, including in the Analytical Writing Assessment of the GMAT; a well-chosen adjectival phrase will color a sentence with a vivid sense of tone, the perfect enhancement for any argument.

 

For free, here’s a practice GMAT SC question, involving these ideas: http://gmat.magoosh.com/questions/1140

 

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

8 Responses to GMAT Grammar: Adjectival Phrases and Clauses

  1. Itachi February 19, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

    Great page.

    I sometimes have a problem while differentiating an adverb phrase from an adjective phrase when there are multiple phrase mentioned after the verb. For example-

    1) He dipped his pen into the ink pot by the book on the table.

    Now there are three phrases- “into the ink pot “, “by the book” and “on the table”. I am sure the first phrase “into the ink pot” is an adverb phrase as it is clear that it modifies the verb dip. However, the ambiguity is due to the other two phrases. I am not sure whether “by the book” and “on the table” are adverb phrases or “adjective phrases”. It will be really nice if you can diffuse the ambiguity. Thanks in advance.

    • Mike
      Mike February 20, 2014 at 9:45 am #

      Dear Itachi,
      Remember that noun-modifiers (i.e. adjectival phrases & clauses) always always “touch” the noun they modify. Here, “by the book” modifiers “ink pot” — it answers the question “which ink pot?” “The one by the book.” The phrase “on the table” modifies “book” —- it answer’s the question “which book?” “The one on the table.” Both of those are noun-modifiers, i.e. adjectival phrases.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  2. Ammad October 3, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    This is an excerpt from your this article ” a well-chosen adjectival phrase will color a sentence a touch OF WITH A vivid sense of tone, the perfect enhancement for any argument.”

    Shouldn’t it have been ” .. will color a sentence with a touch of vivid sense of tone..” ??

    I hope you will reply to this.

    Article is great like always!

    • Mike
      Mike October 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      Dear Ammad,
      You’re right — something was funky about that sentence. I think I started saying one thing, changed my mind to say something else, but didn’t edit out the first thing. I simplified the sentence — it should be fine now. Thanks for pointing this out, and thank you for your appreciation.
      Mike :-)

  3. Tayyab Rasool March 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    I took great help from this website page

    • Mike
      Mike March 10, 2013 at 10:53 am #

      Thank you for your kind words. Best of luck to you!
      Mike :-)

  4. Confuse Mind August 16, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    Where there are multiple adjective clauses modifying one noun connected in a parallel structure, is it necessary to repeat the relative pronoun?

    city where X and where Y
    city where X and y

    • Mike
      Mike August 17, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

      If X and Y are parallel in structure, and you wanted to emphasize the parallelism and/or similarly, you would not repeat the relative pronoun —
      “NYC is a city where pigeons crowd on ledges and commuter stand shoulder-to-shoulder on subway platforms.”
      If X and Y have very different structures, or if you wanted to emphasize the contrast, you would repeat the relative pronoun —-
      “NYC is the city where the Dodger and Giants once played and where the Mets now play.”
      Does that make sense?
      Mike :-)


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