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GMAT Grammar Rules: The Missing Verb Mistake

This post is about a patently obvious rule of grammar.  Sometimes the most obvious rules are not so obvious in the midst of complexity.  First, try this practice question about the famous 16th century Japanese military leader Oda Nobunaga.


Practice Question

In the 1560 Battle of Okehazama, in which the warlord Imagawa Yoshimoto was defeated and killed, Oda Nobunaga, recognizing that although being outnumbered ten to one, the terrain gave his smaller force a decisive advantage.

A. Nobunaga, recognizing that although outnumbered ten to one, the terrain gave his smaller force

B. Nobunaga, recognizing that although they were outnumbered ten to one, the terrain giving his smaller force

C. Nobunaga recognized that, although outnumbered ten to one, the terrain gave his smaller force

D. Nobunaga recognized that, although his men were outnumbered ten to one, the terrain giving them

E. Nobunaga recognized that, although his men were outnumbered ten to one, the terrain gave them


The rule

As obvious as it may seem to say, every clause needs a verb.  Period.  This sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Nevertheless, complexity lies ahead.



There are two kinds of clauses: independent and dependent (a.k.a. subordinate).  An independent clause can be a stand-on-its-own sentence all by itself.  Every sentence needs at least one independent clause, and if the sentence involves a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, yet, so) or a correlative conjunction (not only … but also, either … or, neither … nor, whether … or) it can join two independent clauses.

A subordinating conjunction (after, although, as, as if, as long as, as soon as, as though, because, before, if, in order that, since, so, so that, than, though, unless until when, whenever, where, whereas, wherever, while, etc.) begins a subordinate clause.  This cannot stand on its own as a complete sentence — a complete sentence needs at least one independent clause.

Both kind of clauses need a full subject + verb.


The missing verb mistake

Unlike some other grammar rules, these rules are univocally black and white.  Despite the clarity, it is easy to get lost and lose track of where the verb is.  That’s mistake #1: getting lost in the complexity of the sentence, and losing track of what the main verb is.

Another common mistake, made often in colloquial English, is following a subordinating conjunction not with a full noun + verb clause but with only an adjective or a participial phrase.  Consider these:

2) Wherever found in Nature, diamonds are quickly mined.

3) Though running late, he stopped at the bank.

4) As seen on TV, the Acme Platypus Washer will give you the cleanest platypus in town.

All three of these may sound correct to your ear, but all three of these are wrong.  This is a very common GMAT Sentence Correction mistake, precisely because it tempts students who only rely on their ears.  Learn to spot this classic mistake pattern.

At this point, you may want to go back and review the question at the beginning, before reading the explanation below.


Practice Question Explanation

One of the splits in the answer choices is “recognizing” vs. “recognized”.  Notice that the entire first part of the sentence, before Oda Nobunaga’s name, consists of prepositional phrase and modifying clauses.  The verbs “was defeated and killed” is the verb of the subordinate clause following the words “in which”, so they can’t be the main verbs of the sentence.  Everything after the word “that” is another subordinate clause, so the verbs “outnumbered” and “gave” cannot be the main verb either.  We need a main verb.  The only possibility is: “recognized.”  We have to choose “recognized”, not “recognizing”.  (A) and (B) are incorrect.

What happens after the word “that” is tricky —– there’s one subordinate clause nested inside another.

Both clause #1 and clause #2 need a full noun + verb structure.  The classic mistake, I discussed above, would be if one or both of these clauses were replaced with a participial phrase.  In fact, that’s exactly what we find in two of the answer choices.

(C) clause #1 = participial phrase, clause #2 = noun + verb

(D) clause #1 = noun + verb, clause #2 = participial phrase

(E) clause #1 = noun + verb, clause #2 = noun + verb

(C) and (D) make this classic mistake, so only (E) is grammatically correct.  That is the best answer.


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12 Responses to GMAT Grammar Rules: The Missing Verb Mistake

  1. Carien June 8, 2013 at 5:56 am #


    Thank you the explanation about the missing verb. I understand the concept of subject+verb in every clause, but now I am confused why the following sentence is correct:

    “Through the expensive binoculars, the turkey vulture appeared to be the size of a robin.”

    The first part is a modifier right? But there is no verb or subject in that part of the sentence. Why is that?

    Many thanks in advance,

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike June 8, 2013 at 11:38 am #

      The word “through” is a preposition, and so the words “Through the expensive binoculars” is a prepositional phrase. Clauses have N+V, but phrases don’t. Here, the prepositional phrase is a modifier that modifies the verb —- it’s an adverbial phrase. See this article:
      Mike :-)

      • Carien June 8, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

        Thanks Mike, great explanation!

        • Mike McGarry
          Mike June 10, 2013 at 10:10 am #

          You are more than welcome. Best of luck to you.
          Mike :-)

  2. Rajat April 26, 2013 at 5:56 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I understand the concept of missing verb. I wanted to understand in more detail about the ‘ing’ form of the verb and its correct usage. If you say we cannot eliminate Ans choice (A) based on the meaning alone please give some more insights.Could you modify (A) to make it a correct answer. Please do retain the participle.

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike April 26, 2013 at 10:41 am #

      (A) is wrong because it lacks a verb. Unfortunately, the only possible choice for a verb is the word that is a participle in (A) — “recognizing” would have to become “recognized”, so that the sentence as a whole has a main verb. That’s our only choice. It’s impossible to give that sentence a main verb and still keep that participle.
      This sentence is not a particular good sentence for what you want to see. Here’s another sentence —- “Newton, understanding the limits of mathematics at that time, invented calculus.” —- main verb, “invented” is a past tense, and the participle, the answer of “understanding”, is also understood in the past, matching the verb tense.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  3. Rajat April 25, 2013 at 12:36 am #

    Here, apart from the missing verb split, cant we look at this from a meaning perspective.

    Ex- Recognizing does not make sense in (A) and (B) (ex- tense)

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike April 25, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      Actually, you can’t judge on that basis. You see, a present tense participle takes the tense of the main verb of the sentence —- e.g. “Yesterday, I saw a man walking his dog.” The “walking” is understood as in the past because the main verb is past tense. That’s why “recognizing” could be correct — if there were a main verb in the past tense. The missing verb mistake matters.
      Mike :-)

  4. Lily October 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    I am getting confused with “Although”. Shall it be followed by a clause? Could it be followed by a phrase? How come this is a correct sentence: “Although the first U.S. auto company to manufacture compact automobiles, American Motors was never able to fully capitalize on its head start in the small car market.”? Shouldn’t although be followed by subject and a verb? Thanks!

    • Mike McGarry
      Mike October 20, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      Lily: That’s a great question. This structure of “although” followed by a participle or noun with a modifier is very common in colloquial speech and, in some instances, even in some sophisticated writing, for GMAT SC standards, it’s always wrong. The sentence you quote is a fine sentence that probably would pass as perfectly correct in almost every other context, but not on the GMAT. The word “although” *always* must be followed by a full noun + verb clause. Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Dipankar February 13, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

        Although American Motors was the first US company to manufacture compact automobiles, it was never able to fully capitalize on its head start in the small car market.
        Is the above the corrected sentence??
        Although followed by a noun(American Motors) + a verb (was) ??

        • Mike McGarry
          Mike February 14, 2013 at 10:28 am #

          Yes, that sentence is correct. Following “although” is a NOUN (“American Motors”) and VERB (“was”), so that’s full clause, and after the comma, we have “it was”, another NOUN + VERB pair. This sentence is perfectly correct.
          Mike :-)

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