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GMAT Pronoun Traps

On the GMAT Sentence Correction, one of the most common types of traps involves simple ordinary pronouns, usually personal pronouns.  What’s so hard about pronouns?  Well, consider this practice Sentence Correction question.

1.  While the Senate of the Roman Republic did not have the power to enact laws, their decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them they exercised considerable influence.

  1. their decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them they
  2. its decrees generally were obeyed as if to be law, and through these it
  3. their decrees, generally obeyed as law, through it they
  4. its decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them it
  5. their decrees were generally obeyed as was the law, and through it they

That question is packed with pronoun problems — do you see them all?  A full explanation will appear at the end of this article.


Introduction: what is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun, taking the place of that noun.  Technically, there are a few different kinds of pronouns. The most common are the personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, they and associated cases) — these are the focus of the present post.   These typically have a subjective or nominative case (“I“), an objective case (“me“), and possessive forms (“my” and “mine“).  Just FYI, some other pronoun types include:

  1. demonstrative pronouns (e.g. this, that, these, those, etc.)
  2. reflexive pronouns (e.g. myself, yourself, etc.)
  3. indefinite pronouns (e.g. anyone, anybody, etc.)
  4. interrogative pronouns (e.g. who?, what?, etc.)
  5. relative pronouns (e.g. who, what, that, whoever, whatever, etc.)

Sorting out the differences among these is a bigger task, and not necessarily helpful for excelling on the GMAT Sentence Correction.  Let’s stick to big pronoun ideas.

Here’s a BIG pronoun idea: The noun a pronoun represents is called the antecedent.  A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in gender and number.  With this terminology, we are ready to discuss traps.


Trap #1: Antecedents in the possessive

By a time-honored convention that the GMAT follows, the antecedent cannot be in the possessive form.


That sentence would be 100% wrong on the GMAT, because the antecedent, Mr. Marcus Tullius Cicero, is in the possessive.  We would have to use the word “Cicero’s” in the place of “his” at the end of the sentence, or we would need to restructure the entire sentence to take Mr. Cicero out of the possessive.


Trap #2: Collective nouns

Consider the following list — the US Supreme Court, the steelworkers union, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, the prison population, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Coca-Cola corporation, a herd of cows, the UCSF Medical Center, and the New York Mets baseball team. J  What do all of these have in common?  Precious little, but all are collective nouns — that is to say, each one is a singular noun representing a collection of individuals.  Each one, as the subject of a sentence, would take a singular verb.  Thus, as an antecedent, each demands a singular pronoun: e.g. “the Berlin Philharmonic performs blah blah blah and then it does ….

This is perhaps the most common pronoun mistake on the GMAT.   Folks see a collective noun, such as one on that list, and they think “Gee, there are a ton of folks in that group“, and as a consequence, they use the plural pronoun.  That is wrong 100% of the time.  Expect to see incorrect Sentence Correction answer choices of this very pattern on the real GMAT.  Do you see which answer choices in the question above have laid this trap for you?


Trap #3: Repeated pronouns

The pronouns with the same antecedent are often repeated in a sentence — that’s fine:

3)  Fred came to town because he wanted to introduce his sister to his lawyer.

That sentence has several pronouns, and they all unambiguous refer to “Fred” — this is 100% grammatically correct.  It’s also fine if totally different pronouns refer to different antecedents.

4) Marcia loved her colleagues because they would go out of their way to help her on days when her children were home from school.

There are five pronouns in that sentence, but because one antecedent is singular and one is plural, the antecedent of each pronoun is perfectly clear.   The problem arises when the antecedents are the same in number, and thus cannot be distinguished.


Those two sentences are complete train wrecks!  In the first sentence, we may be able to sort out who is who if we know our Twentieth Century history, but in the second sentence, unless you personally know the people and their proclivities, you would have no way to sort out what’s going on.

The GMAT hates ambiguity on Sentence Correction.  In any Sentence Correction question, the same pronoun must refer to the same antecedent.  It is 100% unacceptable to have the same pronoun refer to two different antecedents: even if you think you can interpret from context the antecedent in each case, the grammar and syntax themselves must make all distinctions crystal clear.  It’s not enough for logic to fill in the holes in grammar: in a well-constructed GMAT sentence, logic and grammar must say exactly the same thing.  Anything less than that is unacceptable to the GMAT.

This third trap also appears in some of the answer choices in the question above.


Get it?

If you understand those three, you will understand virtually every pronoun situation the GMAT Sentence Correction will throw your way.   If you have had some flashes of insight while reading this article, take another look at the practice question before reading the solutions below.   Here’s a practice question from inside the product that also explores pronoun issues:


Questions? Comments?  Let me know!  :)


Practice question explanation

Split #1: as discussed above, the Senate of the Roman Republic is a collective noun.  Yes, it had many members, but like all collective nouns, it is singular.  It would take a singular verb in the present tense, and it demands a singular pronoun — “it” and “its”.  Choices (A) & (C) & (E) make the mistake of using the plural pronouns, “they” and their”, so these are wrong.   Choice (A) compounds the mistake with the phrase “through them they …”, using the same pronoun with two different antecedents.

Split #2: The word “decrees” is plural and demands the plural pronoun.  (C) & (E) make the additional mistake of referring to “decrees” with the singular pronouns.

Split #3: the comparison.  We are comparing the subject to subject, noun to noun, so the word “like” is perfectly acceptable —- “decrees …. like laws“.  This is what (A) & (D) have.  If we use the word “as”, we need a whole phrase — the construction “as was the law” in (E) is acceptable but wordy.  The “as” + [noun] construction of (C), “as law“, is not favored by the GMAT.  Choice (B) has the atrocious “as if to be law” — wordy, tentative, hypothetical, and grammatically incorrect: take that out back and shoot it!

The only possible answer is (D).


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+!

12 Responses to GMAT Pronoun Traps

  1. Gaurav Kaushik February 18, 2014 at 9:18 am #


    Can you please shed some light on the difference between usage of ‘these’ and ‘them’ in choices B and D respectively. If the parts before comma were same in the two options, which one of them would be the correct option?

    • Mike
      Mike February 18, 2014 at 10:07 am #

      Dear Gaurav,
      Both are perfectly correct. If the portions before the comma were identical, there would be no valid way to choose between them, because each would completely acceptable. Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  2. vinay October 12, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    Can I start a sentence with a pronoun ?

    Eg :

    “It is the political situation in Syria that is causing the increase in gas prices”.
    Here ‘it’ doesn’t have an antecedent .
    Please advise .

    Thanks ,

  3. Shailendra August 11, 2013 at 7:13 am #

    Dear Mike,

    I have two questions –

    1) On example 2 — my understanding is possessive pronouns can refer to nouns in possessive. So “his” can refer to “Cicero’s”. Am I wrong ?

    2) On example 1 — choice B, for a moment assume “as if to be law” is okay — then using “these” to refer to “decrees” is okay ? My understanding is “demonstrative pronouns” can appear only as adjective – so it should have been “these decrees”. Am I right on that split ?

    • Mike
      Mike August 12, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      At least on the GMAT, a noun in the possessive cannot be the antecedent for ANY pronoun, even a possessive pronoun. Perhaps in other context, that would be acceptable, but not on the GMAT.
      As for your second question — demonstrative pronouns are pronouns, so they can be used to modify nouns, but it’s also perfectly appropriate to use then as free-standing pronoun, just as we would use any other pronoun.
      Mike :-)

      • Shailendra August 12, 2013 at 10:15 am #

        Hi Mike,

        Please see this Agastha Christie question from MGMAT –

        They mention Possessive Poison is not the rule to be followed on GMAT.

        • Mike
          Mike August 12, 2013 at 10:48 am #

          Normally, I would agree with what MGMAT has to say, but in this instance, I have never seen the cases they are discussing in official material. I will continue to disagree with them, although I believe we are probably in a region so specialized that it will never appear on the GMAT.
          Mike :-)

  4. kalra August 4, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Can you please explain where can we use the pronoun ‘THIS’. I guess it is wrong most of the time but where can it be used. Thanks.

    • Mike
      Mike August 4, 2013 at 11:39 am #

      Dear Karla,
      That’s a great question. In colloquial English, we use “this” as a pronoun all the time, but I don’t know that I have seen it on the GMAT SC. The GMAT will use as “this” as an adjective — “this company”, “this person”, etc. —- but I have not seen it much as a pronoun on the GMAT.
      Mike :-)

  5. dhler July 25, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I have some difficulty in understanding the first correct example in Trap 3.

    “3) Fred came to town because he wanted to introduce his brother to his lawyer.”

    I think the last possessive pronoun “his” is quite ambiguous, because it can refer to the lawyer of his brother, or Fred’s lawyer.

    Am I right on this? Hope for your reply.

    • Mike
      Mike July 26, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

      Dear Dhler,
      You’re right — there was an ambiguity there, so I changed the example sentence. It should be clear now. Thank you for pointing this out.
      Mike :-)

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