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Modifiers on the GMAT Sentence Correction

First a few GMAT Sentence Correction practice questions involving modifiers

1) Between 1892 and 1893, Claude Monet produced a series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, revised in his studio in 1894, and with the French public receiving it as an emblem of all that was noble about their history and customs.

  1. produced a series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, revised in his studio in 1894, and with the French public receiving it
  2. produced a series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, which he revised in his studio in 1894 and which the French public received
  3. produced a series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, which he revised in his studio in 1894, and that the French public received it
  4. painted the Rouen Cathedral, which he revised in his studio in 1894, and that the French public received it
  5. painted the Rouen Cathedral, revised in his studio in 1894, and the French public received it

2) A highly educated member of wealthy and aristocratic Boston family, Percival Lowell was interested in astronomy due to his belief in canals on Mars, which modern astronomers dismiss as material for pop science fiction.

  1. Percival Lowell was interested in astronomy due to his belief in canals on Mars, which modern astronomers dismiss
  2. Percival Lowell’s interest in astronomy was due to his belief in canals on Mars, but with modern astronomers dismissing it
  3. Percival Lowell’s interest in astronomy, due to believing in canals on Mars, a view that modern astronomers dismiss
  4. Percival Lowell was interested in astronomy because he believed in canals on Mars, a view that modern astronomers dismiss
  5. Percival Lowell was interested in astronomy due to his belief in canals on Mars, with modern astronomers dismissing it

3) Studies show that teachers unconsciously assume that students who regularly perform poorly on assessments have below-average abilities, and in neglecting to provide the academic challenges that would catalyze their intellectual potential, the students often accept this damaging diagnosis and the life limits it implies.

  1. in neglecting to provide the academic challenges that would catalyze their intellectual potential
  2. when they neglect providing the academic challenges that would be catalyzing their intellectual potential
  3. when teachers neglect to provide the academic challenges that would catalyze their students’ intellectual potential
  4. in neglecting in providing the academic challenges that would catalyze their students’ intellectual potential
  5. in being neglectful with respect to providing the academic challenges that would be catalyzing their intellectual potential

4) Inaugurating the Romantic movement with its publication in 1798, the authors of the Lyrical Ballads were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who would later be named Britain’s Poet Laureate.

  1. Inaugurating the Romantic movement with its publication in 1798, the authors of the Lyrical Ballads were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who would later be named Britain’s Poet Laureate
  2. Inaugurating the Romantic movement with its publication in 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who would later be named Britain’s Poet Laureate, wrote the Lyrical Ballads
  3. Inaugurating the Romantic movement with its publication in 1798, the Lyrical Ballads were written by William Wordsworth, who would later be named Britain’s Poet Laureate, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
  4. The Lyrical Ballads, written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who would later be named Britain’s Poet Laureate, and inaugurating the Romantic movement with its publication in 1798
  5. The authors being Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who would later be named Britain’s Poet Laureate, the Lyrical Ballads inaugurated the Romantic movement with its publication in 1798

 

Modifier basics

First of all, let’s distinguish between noun modifiers and verb modifiers.  Adjectives modify nouns, and longer phrases or clauses that modify nouns are sometimes called adjectival phrases or clauses.  Adverbs modify verbs, and longer phrases or clauses that modify verbs are sometimes called adverbial phrases or clauses.

Most modifier questions, and common modifier mistakes on the GMAT, involve noun modifiers.  Verb modifiers simply have looser rules — there is quite a bit of freedom in where a verb modifier could be placed in a sentence.   Most of what I say below will apply only to noun modifiers.

 

The Modifier Touch Rule

This is a biggie, one of the most important grammar rules for GMAT Sentence Correction.  The Touch Rule says: a noun modifier should be adjacent to (i.e. “touch”) the noun it modifiers.  A blatant violation of this rule is known as a misplaced modifier, which I consider among the funniest of all grammatical mistakes.

motgsc_img1

Oakland, CA, is an awfully cool place, but it’s not a “who” and it doesn’t have a large vocabulary: that modifier should modify the subject, Chris.  Criminals typically don’t contribute to the solving of their own crimes: that modifier should modify the subject, “the detective.”  Old folks are sometimes strange, but the long modifier should modifier “the pair of cats.”  These are all misplaced modifiers, all delightfully illogical, and all in violation of the Modifier Touch Rule.  All would be 100% wrong on the GMAT Sentence Correction.  Did you find the misplaced modifiers in the practice problem sentences at the top?

 

Exceptions to the Modifier Touch Rule

As with almost anything in grammar, the Modifier Touch Rule is not a mathematically precise rule, and admits of exceptions.  The BIG exception involves the distinction of vital vs. non-vital noun modifiers.  A vital noun modifier always has logical priority over a non-vital noun modifier, and therefore could prevent a non-vital modifier from “touching” the noun by coming between the non-vital modifier and the noun.

4) In the last decades of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov produced a massive book on orchestration, which is still read by composition students today.

The modifier “which is still …” doesn’t modify the noun “orchestration” (which is something that can’t be “read”) — instead, it modifies “book”,  and it’s fine that it doesn’t touch “book”, because the modifier “on orchestration” is a vital noun modifier — that is, it narrows down and identifies the indefinite noun “book.”

Other examples of exceptions to the Touch Rule involve a short set of words, such as an example phrase or a short intransitive verb phrase, can come between a noun and its modifier.

5) The most expensive component of any catalytic convertor is the small quantity of precious metal, such as platinum or rhodium, which acts as the catalyst

6) Last week, the senator resigned who made the disparaging remark about older women.

In #5, the modifier “which acts as the catalyst” modifies “precious metal”, even though the short example phrase comes between.   In #6, the modifier “who made …” modifies “the senator”, even though a short verb comes between.

 

Modifiers and Possessives

This is another classic trap pattern on the GMAT Sentence Correction.   Suppose we have the format

[modifier] [A's][B]

where A & B are nouns.  A possessive itself acts as a modifier, so really the only true noun here is B, and the possessive of A is modifying it.  Therefor the modifier at the beginning must apply to B.  That’s what must be true, but a common GMAT Sentence Correct mistake is to have the first modifier refer to A; most often, this occurs at the beginning of the sentence.  Examples:

motgsc_img2

All three of those would be 100% wrong on the GMAT.  In all three cases, the modifier at the beginning of the sentence is intended to modify the noun in the possessive, not the true noun that follows.  All three are illogical.  In all three cases, we would have to reword:

7b) One of America’s greatest military minds, General MacArthur decided to

8b) Alaska has a population under 800,000, mostly in the southern cities, and its northern third is ….

9b) Much shorter than Mount Whitney, Mount Diablo has a viewshed that includes

Did you find this mistake in the practice problem sentences at the top?

 

Modifying a clause

Consider this sentence, which would be incorrect on the GMAT.

motgsc_img3

The word “which” is a relative pronoun (others include “who/whose/whom”, “that”, “when”, “where”), and like any pronoun, must have a clear antecedent.   For example, in this sentence, the clear antecedent of “it” and “its” is gold.  What is the antecedent of “which”?

The antecedent of “which”, the “thing” that enables gold to remain lustrous, is the action described in the main clause.   A pronoun cannot have a clause as an antecedent, so a relative clause (i.e. a subordinate clause starting with a relative pronoun) cannot modify a clause.  How can we correct this problem?

Strategy #1: create a word.  Choose a new word, a noun,  that encapsulates the action in the clause, and then modify this noun with a relative clause.  Here, the clause is “gold resists the corrosive action of air and water” — if we are going to encapsulate this property as a noun, perhaps we would use the noun “low reactivity”.   Then the sentence  becomes

10b) Unlike most other elemental metals, gold resists the corrosive action of air and water, a low reactivity that enables it to maintain its characteristic luster unabated over time.

That sentence, a little wordy, still would be correct on the GMAT.

Strategy #2: use a participial phrase.  Unlike relative clauses, which can modify only nouns, participial phrases are much more flexible.  A participle or participial phrase can modify a noun, or a verb, or an entire clause.

10c) Unlike most other elemental metals, gold resists the corrosive action of air and water, enabling it to maintain its characteristic luster unabated over time.

In this case, this is a particularly elegant solution to the problem.  Did you notice this kind of mistake in the practice questions at the top?

 

Summary

If you had an “aha!” while reading this, you may want to go back to the sentences at the top and reconsider your answer.  If you have further questions about modifiers, or any thoughts you would like to share, please let us know in the comment section following the solutions below.

 

Practice Problem Solutions

1) Split #1: look at the modifier “revised in his studio” or “which he revised in his studio” — both of those are correct in and of themselves.  BUT, what do they modify?  Clearly, the “series of paintings” could be revised in Monet’s studio, but the cathedral itself couldn’t fit inside someone’s studio.  (D) & (E) are entirely incorrect.

Split #2: pronoun problem.  In (C) & (D), the pronoun “that” refers to the series of paintings, so the appearance of the second pronoun “it” for the same thing is incorrect.

Split #3: Choice (A) has the structure “with” + [noun] + [participial phrase].  The GMAT does not like this construction.  If you want to describe a full action, use a full [noun]+[verb] clause.  Because of this, (A) is wrong.

This leaves (B) as the only possible answer.

 

2) Split #1: diction.  The word “due” is an adjective, so it must either modify a noun directly, or appear after a form of “to be” in the predicate.  I would be correct either to say:

Percival Lowell’s interest in astronomy was due to his belief in canals on Mars

which (B) has, or

Percival Lowell was interested in astronomy because he believed in canals on Mar

which (D) has.   Both of these statements are correct.  By contrast, the following is a diction mistake:

Percival Lowell was interested in astronomy due to his belief in canals on Mars

This implies that the astronomy was “due to his beliefs”, which is not the intended meaning.   (A) & (C) & (E) all make this mistake.

Split #2: (B) & (E) have the structure “with” + [noun] + [participial phrase].  The GMAT does not like this construction.  If you want to describe a full action, use a full [noun]+[verb] clause.  These two are incorrect because of this.

Split #3: the modifier.  In answer (A), what is the proper antecedent of the pronoun “which”?  Naively, it would seem to modify “Mars” which makes no sense — modern astronomers don’t dismiss the fourth planet!  If we make the argument that both prepositional phrases, “in canals” and “on Mars” , are vital noun modifiers, then we could argue that the antecedent is “belief” — that makes more sense.   Would everyone agree both of those prepositions are vital noun modifiers?  That’s unclear.  This makes (A) questionable.  By contrast, choices (C) & (D) eliminate all ambiguity by inserting a noun word — in (D), this allows us to modify correctly the clause “because he believed in canals on Mars“.

Split #4: notice that version (C) has no main verb — it commits the missing verb mistake.

For all this reasons, (D) is the best answer from among these five.

 

3) Split #1: modifier problem.  The sentence begins with an independent clause, then a comma and the word “and”, introducing a second independent clause, the main clause of which follows the underlined part.  If the underlined part begins with participial phrase, this must modify “the students”, the subject of the second independent clause.  This is problematic, because the students don’t “neglect to provide the academic challenges” — that’s a teacher’s job, not a student’s job!  Choices (A) & (D) & (E) all have a participial phrase that illogically modifies “the students”, so these are incorrect.

Split #2: choice (B) makes the classic repeated pronouns mistake.  “… when they[the teachers] neglect providing the academic challenges that would be catalyzing their [the students'] intellectual potential …”  The pronoun “they”/”their” refers to two different antecedents in the same sentence!  That’s 100% illegal on the GMAT.  (B) is incorrect.

This leaves (C) as the only possible answer.

 

4) A SC problem with the whole sentence underlined!  These are challenging ones.  Let’s look at (A) first.

(A) Inaugurating the Romantic movement with its publication in 1798, the authors of the Lyrical Ballads were Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who would later be named Britain’s Poet Laureate

The modifier “inaugurating the Romantic movement with its publication in 1798” must applied to the Lyrical Ballads, not to the two authors, as (A) & (B) suggest.  Those two are wrong.

Choice (C) correctly has this modifier modifying “the Lyrical Ballads”, and everything else is clear and grammatically correct.  This is a promising choice.

Choice (D) makes the missing verb mistake — there is no main verb in that version.  (D) is wrong.

In (E), the second half is clear and direct, but the first half compresses the information into an awkward absolute phrase using the participle “being” — that’s almost always wrong on the GMAT Sentence Correction.  Here, the effect is clumsy and indirect.  Choice (E) is far from ideal.

By far, the strongest answer is (C).

 

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+!

22 Responses to Modifiers on the GMAT Sentence Correction

  1. Nitin July 2, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    Mike,
    You said about example phrase, could you please define it more?
    Can we include apposite and additive modifiers in this list while using them before Which unless there is ambiguity?

    • Mike
      Mike July 3, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      Nitin,
      I’m happy to help. :-) An “example phrase” is a phrase that lists examples of some larger category. Appositive phrases can always come between the noun and its modifier. Additive phrases sometimes can, although often ambiguity would result.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Nitin July 4, 2014 at 9:53 am #

        It seems ‘short set of words’ as mentioned by you are those words that act as subordinate to previous noun?
        Manhattan Guide also mentions that ‘small set of words’ in exception part without explaining equivocally of what these words can really be?
        What if in your sentence I want to modify only such as platinum or rhodium? or modifying the bigger set of metals itself did its work? If I want to modify rhodium then I think I should choose apposite?

        • Mike
          Mike July 4, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

          Dear Nitin,
          My friend, here’s the problem. When one reads extensively, one develops a deep intuition for the nature of the language, and one has a “feel” for a pattern such as a “short set of words” that comes between a noun and its modifier. You are asking questions that seem to suggest that you want someone else, me or MGMAT, to give you all the insights that come with this intuition. That’s impossible. My fried, you have to read. You have to develop a daily habit of reading. You need to read for 1+ hour a day. The GMAT Reading List blog will suggest what to read. By reading, you will develop all the right-brain intuitions for patterns that cannot be captured and distilled in left-brain rules. If you read every day, for more than an hour a day, and do this for months, that will have an extraordinary impact on your GMAT Verbal performance, because in addition to all the rules you can articulate, you will also have an intuitive sense for the “feel” of the language.
          Does all this make sense?
          Mike :-)

  2. Brijesh June 19, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    Dear Mike,
    I don’t understand why the use of ‘being’ (Q 4, E) — in GMAT Sentence Correction practice questions — is wrong. I think sentence is correct. Please clarify.

    Brijesh

    • Mike
      Mike June 19, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

      Dear Brijesh,
      As a general rough & ready rule, the word “being” is usually part of a wrong answer on the GMAT SC. That’s not always true, but it’s true about 90% of the time the word appears on the GMAT. In particular, I don’t know if you understand absolute phrases — if you are not familiar with these, follow the link in the OE of answer (E) — but I have never seen an absolute phrase with “being” as part of a correct answer on the GMAT SC.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  3. Alice Yang October 16, 2013 at 6:23 am #

    Hi, Could you kindly tell what is the meaning of “split” in SC modifier questions?

    • Mike
      Mike October 16, 2013 at 10:04 am #

      Dear Alice
      Very good question. In GMAT SC, we use individual points of grammar to decide between answer choices. A “split” is a particular difference, such as “is” vs. “are” — when we figure out which is correct, we can immediately eliminate the ones with the wrong form. See this blog for more details:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2013/using-splits-on-sentence-correction/
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Alice October 16, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

        Hi,

        If we see difference, whatever that is, and we would say that we have found the split, right? So the first thing we need to do is to seek for split and eliminate the wrong choice and then get the right answer and it should take about a most 1 minutes?

        • Mike
          Mike October 17, 2013 at 10:48 am #

          Alice,
          Yes, as I say in that article on splits, searching for splits is the most efficient way to go through GMAT SC. If you find a difference, and one way is wrong, you can immediately eliminate all choices that have this wrong version. For many questions, this allows you to solve in under a minute. Of course, in the 700+ level questions, when the entire order of the sentence changes from answer to answer, it’s harder to isolate groups of answers with splits, so this strategy doesn’t always work. Nevertheless, it’s very helpful.
          Mike :-)

  4. Gaurav August 24, 2013 at 8:03 am #

    According to manhattan gmat sentence correction, “which” should always be preceded by the noun it is referring to. But what you say doesn’t match with that.

    • Mike
      Mike August 26, 2013 at 11:35 am #

      Gaurav,
      I would say, read what MGMAT has to say on what they call “mission-critical” modifiers — that’s their term for what we call “vital noun modifiers” —- you will see that what they say and what I say are really very much in accord.
      Mike :-)

  5. sudheer May 16, 2013 at 4:01 am #

    Hi Mike – Thank you for providing these at free of cost :) I need one clarification with 4th question… Doesn’t Option C incorrectly use ‘were’ instead of ‘was’? Especially when we are using ‘its’ to refer to the publication…. I chose ‘E’ as the next best option.

    • Mike
      Mike May 16, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

      Dear Sudheer,
      That’s a really tricky issue. The *Lyrical Ballads” is the title of a singular work, so we refer to it with a singular pronoun, but the title itself is plural, so when we have [title]+[verb], we use a singular verb. This ambiguity, the title vs. the work with the title, is absolutely no something you will see on the GMAT SC.
      Mike :-)

      • sudheer May 17, 2013 at 7:44 am #

        Thanks for your reply, Mike.

        • Mike
          Mike May 17, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

          You are quite welcome.
          Mike :-)

      • Wizzard April 30, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

        Hi MIke,
        Thanks for this wonderful post! Especially as I believe Modifiers are one of the most critical issues when it comes to 700-800 SC problems.

        Nevertheless, I didn´t fully understand your explanation to the point previously addressed by Sudheer. From my understanding the phrase “Lyrical Ballads” is being treated once as singular (its) and once as plural (were) in answer choice C.

        Thanks,

        • Mike
          Mike May 1, 2014 at 4:14 pm #

          Dear Wizzard,
          My friend, to some extent, I am sorry I wrote this question. I simply needed a famous work of literature with two authors, and I chose the Lyrical Ballads. At the time, I didn’t realize how confusing this singular work with plural title would be. The work is singular. The title is plural. You absolutely will not have to do with this sort of issue on the GMAT, I assure you.
          Mike :-)

          • Wizzard May 8, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

            Gotcha. Thanks a lot!

            • Mike
              Mike May 9, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

              Dear Wizzard,
              You are quite welcome. Best of luck to you!
              Mike :-)

  6. Himanshu April 25, 2013 at 9:05 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    This is wonderful.

    Thanks
    Himanshu

    • Mike
      Mike April 26, 2013 at 10:23 am #

      Dear Himanshu,
      I’m glad you found this helpful.
      Mike :-)


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