Understand this very tricky grammatical structure for GMAT Sentence Correction!
First, give these two SC questions a try.
1) Why the various Generals of the Army of the Potomac before Ulysses S. Grant were so singularly unsuccessful against Robert E Lee are debated about in no less than five hundred historically oriented journals.
(A) are debated about in no less than
(B) are debated in no less than
(C) is debated about in no fewer than
(D) is debated in no fewer than
(E) is debated in no less than
2) That the Fifth Lateran Council (1512 – 1517), had it addressed the growing concerns of reformers within the Catholic Church rather than simply shoring up its own political prerogatives with respect to the monarchies of Western Europe, could have avoided the series of events that led to the Protestant Reformation, still causes regret among modern Western Christian thinkers.
(A) had it addressed the growing concerns of reformers within the Catholic Church rather than simply shoring up its own political prerogatives with respect to the monarchies of Western Europe, could have avoided the series of events that led to the Protestant Reformation, still causes
(B) if it addressed the growing concerns of reformers within the Catholic Church rather than simply shoring up their own political prerogatives with respect to the monarchies of Western Europe, could have avoided the series of events that led to the Protestant Reformation, still cause
(C) if they addressed the growing concerns of reformers within the Catholic Church instead of simply shoring up their own political prerogatives with respect to the monarchies of Western Europe, they might have avoided the series of events that led to the Protestant Reformation, still cause
(D) if they addressed the growing concerns of reformers within the Catholic Church instead of simply shoring up their own political prerogatives with respect to the monarchies of Western Europe, they could have avoided the series of events that led to the Protestant Reformation, still a cause of
(E) if it had addressed the growing concerns of reformers within the Catholic Church rather than simply having shored up its own political prerogatives with respect to the monarchies of Western Europe, it might have avoided the series of events that led to the Protestant Reformation, still a cause of
You may well be wondering: what on earth are the subjects of these sentences?
First, a bit of review. Every sentence has at least one independent clause – a main noun subject plus a main verb. (Subject in purple, verb in green).
A coordinating conjunction (e.g. “and”, “or”, “but”, “yet”, etc.) can join (i.e. “coordinate”) two different independent clauses, each with its own main subject and main verb. Each one is independent, and could be a standalone full sentence. This is a grammatically legal way of having two full sentences “glued together.”
In addition to one or more independent clause, a sentence can also have a dependent or subordinate clause. These typically begin with a subordinating conjunction (see the “on a white bus” rule in this post.) The dependent clause has its own subject & verb inside it: it’s like a mini-sentence within the sentence. The subordinate clause can play many roles in the sentence. It often acts as an adjective or an adverb (see those two posts for example sentences).
In a complex sentence, a subordinate clause can act as an adjective or an adverb —- or as a noun! When a subordinate clause acts as a noun, it is called either a noun clause or a substantive clause (as I will call it) or a nominal clause. A substantive clause typically begins with a relative pronoun or relative adverb — who, what, where, when, why, how, whoever, whatever however, wherever, whether, that— the familiar interrogative set plus a few more. The substantive clause acts as a noun and can take the place of any noun-role in a sentence: it can be a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, the object of a preposition, the subject of an infinitive phrase, etc. etc. This can be confusing, because the substantive clause, like any clause, has a noun & verb inside of it, but the entire clause is acting as a noun in the larger sentence. Here’s an example of a substantive clause as the subject of the sentence. The substantive clause is in blue.
That entire blue part is the subject in the main clause of the sentence. The main verb “does not seem”, is singular. As a general guideline, a substantive clause, regardless of content, typically counts as a singular noun, and thus takes a singular verb. That’s the rough-and-ready rule for noun clauses and subject/verb agreement. (Exceptions will be discussed below.) Inside the substantive clause, the clause has its own subject (“Fred’s wife”) and own verb (“approves”).
A substantive clause can also act as a direct object:
The main clause has a subject (“you”) and a verb (“do … understand”), and the direct object of that verb is the substantive clause. Of course, within the substantive clause is its own subject (“Hamlet”) and verb (“treated”).
Similarly, a substantive clause can be an indirect object (#7), the object of a preposition (#8), or the subject of an infinitive (#9).
In each of these, the entire substantive clause acts as a noun and fulfills some “noun role” in the main sentence; furthermore, inside each substantive clause is the clause’s own subject and verb. (The relative pronouns “whoever” and “whatever” are the subjects of the substantive clauses in #7 and #9, respectively.)
Substantive clauses and subject-verb agreement
Above, I cited the rough-and-ready rule — when a substantive clause is the subject of a sentence, it is generally construed as singular and takes a singular verb. It’s unlikely you will see substantive clause used as subject at all on the real GMAT, and if even you do, you probably could just ignore the exception, choose the singular verb automatically, and you would be right 99% of the time. Yes, there is an exception — the grand clarification of noun clauses and subject-verb agreement —- and yes, I will discuss this, but first of all be aware: it is exceedingly unlike that a SC question on a live GMAT would ever stray into this territory. For all intents and purposes, the discussion of this exception is “grammar beyond the GMAT.”
Here’s the exception. If the substantive clause begins with a relative pronoun —- who, whom, what, where, whoever, whomever, whatever, wherever — then whether the clause is singular or plural depends on whether the relative pronoun itself is understood as singular or plural.
10) What annoys me is all the noise during the movie.
11) What annoy me are all the people who talk during the movie.
In #10, the relative pronoun is understood as singular, and thus the entire substantive clause is construed as singular: that’s why both verbs (“annoys”, “is”) are singular. In #11, the relative pronoun is understood as plural, and thus the entire substantive clause is construed as plural: that’s why both verbs (“annoy”, “are”) are plural.
12) Whoever broke into your house in broad daylight ____ incredibly brazen.
Should this question have the singular “was” or the plural “were”? That depends on whether we think one person or multiple people participated in this daylight break-in. There’s absolutely no clue in the sentence that would help us to determine this (hence, this absolutely could not be a GMAT SC question!). We would have to know or infer from context the correct verb to use.
Once again, this exception, while fascinating in and of itself, is far beyond anything you are even remotely likely to see on the GMAT.
You don’t need to remember the terminology, such as “substantive clause,” but you do need to recognize the grammar and sort it out on GMAT Sentence Correction. Having read this article, take another look at those two practice questions before reading the solutions below.
Practice question explanations
1) The entire first part of the sentence “Why the various …. against Robert E. Lee” is a giant substantive clause. This clause is the subject of the sentence, and as such, requires a singular verb —- “is” instead of “are.” (A) & (B) are out right away. The phrase “debated about” is awkward and not idiomatic, so (C) is wrong. This comes down to a “less” vs. “fewer” distinction —- one of my favorites! We are talking about “historically oriented journals”, and journals are discrete countable items. One can count how many journals one is reading, or how many feature this ongoing Civil War debate. We would say “how many journals” — using “how much” instead of “how many” would clearly be wrong. For countable nouns, nouns for which we would ask “how many?” instead of “how much?”, we have to use “fewer.” The phrase “no fewer than five hundred historically oriented journals” is perfectly correct, and the phrase “no less than five hundred historically oriented journals”, while it may sound correct, is dead wrong. The answer must be (D).
2) This is a complicated sentence! There are at least three different layers of grammar to keep of track here. First of all, there is a gargantuan substantive clause, “That the Fifth Lateran Council … the Protestant Reformation”: this is the subject of the whole sentence, and requires a singular verb, the main verb of the entire sentence.
Within this monstrosity of a substantive clause, there’s a main subject of the clause (“the Fifth Lateran Council”), a main verb of the clause (“could have avoided”), and two subordinate clauses nested within it.
The first subordinate clause nested inside the substantive clause is the large hypothetical clause (“had it addressed …. Western Europe”). The second subordinate clause is a relatively short adjectival clause (“that led to the Protestant Reformation”), a restrictive clause, modifying the noun “events.”
First of all, in the overall sentence, the enormous substantive clause is the subject and requires singular verb. Only (A) has the singular verb “causes” — (B) & (C) have the plural verb “cause”, and in (D) & (E) there’s actually no verb at all in the main sentence.
Furthermore, within the hypothetical clause beginning with “had” or “if,” the subject is a pronoun. The antecedent of the pronoun is “the Fifth Lateral Council”, which is singular. This needs to take singular pronouns: it and its. This is a mistake the GMAT loves — using plural pronouns (“they”, “their”) for a singular collective noun. Yes, there were many people participating in the Fifth Lateral Council, but the entity itself, the Fifth Lateral Council, was a singular event. GMAT loves to bait test-takers with this mistake. (B) & (C) & (D) make this mistake.
Also, within the epic substantive clause, the main subject of the clause is “the Fifth Lateral Council”, followed by a long “if” clause, followed by the main verb of the clause. Answer choices (C) & (D) & (E) all make another classic GMAT mistake, a pattern of the form:
The main subject of the clause (“the Fifth Lateral Council”) is directly the subject of the main verb of the clause (“could have avoided”) — we don’t need the extra pronoun (“they” or “it”) in front of that verb. The GMAT loves to stick a large modifying clause between the subject and the verb because, with so many words intervening, people not reading carefully will not see the connection between the subject and the verb, and will mistakenly think the verb needs a pronoun subject directly in front of it. Beware of this common GMAT SC mistake.
For a variety of reasons, (B) & (C) & (D) & (E) are all wrong. Answer = (A).