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Dropping Common Words in Parallel on the GMAT

The GMAT loves to test Parallelism on Sentence Correction.  When are we allowed to drop words or phrases in the second branch of parallel structure?  First, try these four practice questions, which each explore that very issue.

1. Hannibal chose to invade Roman territory by the northern route, crossing the Alps doing it, instead of by sea.

A. doing it, instead of

B. to do so, rather than

C. to do it, rather than coming

D. to do so, instead of invading

E. to do it, instead of invading Roman territory

2. Maxwell’s theory of Electromagnetism in 1865 was the first “unified field theory”, with Electroweak in 1961 only being the other, because no further theory has united the electroweak field with either the Strong (Hadronic) force or Gravity.

A. with Electroweak in 1961 only being the other, because

B. with Electroweak in 1961 being the only other, because

C. and Electroweak in 1961 only was the other, because

D. and Electroweak in 1961 only being the other, as

E. and Electroweak in 1961 the only other, as

3. Peter O’Toole was nominated for his first Oscar in 1962 and his eighth in 2006, but he never actually won the award.

A. his eighth in 2006, but he never actually won the

B. for his eighth Oscar in 2006, but actually he never won the

C. for his eighth in 2006, but he never won the actual

D. nominated for his eighth in 2006, but actually he never won the

E. he was nominated for his eighth Oscar in 2006, but he never won the actual

4. George Clinton, the governor of New York for many years, served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, and again under James Madison, to become only one of two men to serve as Vice-President under two different US Presidents.

A. again under James Madison, to become only one of

B. served again under James Madison, to become one of only

C. again under James Madison, becoming one of only

D. served again under James Madison, becoming only one of

E. he served as Vice President again under James Madison, becoming only one of

Explanations will come at the end of this article.



The GMAT loves parallelism because it’s not purely formulaic: it’s a logical structure as well as a grammatical structure, and one must think about both grammar and logic to determine whether it is correct.   In principle, any two (or more) grammatical forms can be in parallel: nouns (fight or flight), verbs (hit and run), adjectives (necessary and proper), adverbs (truly, madly, deeply), or prepositional phrases (in sickness and in health).  On the GMAT Sentence Correction, though, single-word parallelism is not all that interesting.  The GMAT likes putting more complicated, multi-word structures in parallel: infinitive phrases, participial phrases, gerund phrases, and entire clauses.  Of course, any clause has its own full [noun] + [verb] structure.  The question is, if clause #1 is in parallel with clause #2, how much of the full clause structure does clause #2 have to repeat?


Dropping common words

The virtue of parallelism, the very reason writers employ this organizing structure all the time, is the ability to streamline by dropping any words that would be repeated.   Suppose we have two clauses:

Clause #1: A told B about X over lunch on Monday.

Clause #2: A told B about Y over lunch on Wednesday.

Now, suppose we want to join those two clauses with an “and”.  If we just write all of clause #1, then “and”, then all of clause #2, we will have an abominable monstrosity, much longer and more awkward than anything that ever could possibly be correct on the GMAT Sentence Correction.   We need to drop almost all words that are in parallel.  We tend to leave prepositions, because prepositions specify the exact relationship between nouns, and when most of the words are missing in the second branch, the prepositions can be essential clues for figuring out how the brief second branch relates to the fully elaborated first branch.   Here, the words “A told B … at lunch” are all repeated, so we can drop that.  Because the GMAT values concision, it’s best to drop as much as we can.   Even though the other prepositions are repeated, here we will keep those for clarity (even common prepositions can be dropped if the clarity does not suffer).  That gives us:

Parallelism: Over lunchA told B about X on Monday and about Y on Wednesday.

Notice that the full [noun] + [verb] structure is absent from the second clause.  That’s how we get from separate clauses to parallel structure — a great fact to know if you are a writer, but this is a bit different from your job on the GMAT Sentence Correction.


Recognizing parallelism

This is one of the most challenging things about parallelism: recognizing it when many common words have been dropped.   Consider this related parallel structure.

Parallelism: A told B about X at lunch on Monday, and about Y on Wednesday, but on Friday C told A that X and Y are not true. 

Is this correct?  YES!  Is the part “.. and about Y on Wednesday …” a full clause?  YES. It is a full clause, properly in parallel, despite the fact that many common words, including the subject and verb of this clause, have been omitted. Don’t look at one little piece of real estate in the sentence and conclude: something’s wrong here, because I don’t see a subject and a verb right here. You always have to look at the whole flow of the sentence, and ask yourself whether words that appear to be missing in the second branch of parallelism are implied by the first branch. Parallelism is a large organizing structure, relating different parts of the sentence to each other. Whenever analyzing a sentence on GMAT Sentence Correction, you always have to keep in mind the logic of the entire sentence.



If the above discussion gave you any insights, you may want to give the questions at the top another look. Here’s another SC question that explores parallel structure:


If you have any questions, let us know in the comments section below.



Practice question explanations

1) Split #1: repeating a predicate.   One cannot use “it” to represent the action encapsulated in a verb.  The proper way to refer to such action is with the substitute phrase “do so“.   Choices (A) & (C) & (E) make the mistake of using the pronoun.

Split #2: “instead of” vs. “rather than“.  The “of” in “instead of” is a preposition, and its object must be a noun.  Thus, “instead of” can only be used to compare single nouns, and the GMAT Sentence Correction seems to avoid even this use.  The GMAT also seems to avoid the “instead of” [gerund] structure.   The “than” in “rather than” is a subordinate clause, so the structure “rather than” is considerably more flexible in what can follow it.   Choices (A) & (D) & (E) all use an “instead of” structure of which the GMAT would not approve.

Split #3: common words in parallel.  The common words “to invade Roman territory” can be dropped.  The only difference between the two branches is the proposition, “by the northern route” vs. “by sea“, so that’s all that needs to be said in the second branch.   Choice (C) & (D) include more than necessary, and choice (E) is simply ridiculous in its awkward length.

The only possible answer is (B).

2) Split #1: the placement of “only”.  What do we wish to show is limited?  The most natural phrasing is “was the only other”: what is limited is the fact that, after the first, there’s only one more.  The phrase “only was the other” is awkward, as if the thing that needs to be qualified as limited is the verb, not the other.   The answer choices that have “only” before some form of the verb, choices (A) & (C) & (D), are awkward.

Split #2: the “with” + [participle] mistake.  The GMAT does not like expressing an action by following the word “with” with a participial phrase.  That’s too much action inside a preposition: if you want to talk about that much action, construct another [noun] + [verb] clause!   The choices that include “with” + “being“, choice (A) & (B), are awkward, and never would be correct on the GMAT.

Split #3: common words in parallel.  All the common words can be omitted, even the verb.  Even just the words “Electroweak in 1961 the only other” are enough to constitute the clause in the second branch, because the verb is implied by the first branch.   Thus, (E) is the most concise, and it is perfectly correct.

The only possible answer is (E).

3) Split #1: placement of “actually”/”actual”.   Both the phrase “he never actually won” and “actually he never won” are correct: the difference in implication is so slight that it doesn’t matter.  BUT, the phrase “he never won the actual award” is strange.  This implies that he won something else (an imaginary award?), but not the actual award.   This is a problem with choices (C) & (E).

Split #2: common words in parallel.  We don’t need to repeat a host of common words “[he] was nominated for  … Oscar“.   We don’t need the noun/pronoun, the verb, or even the preposition “for“.   We can drop all of that, and the meaning is still perfectly clear.  Therefore, (A) is the most concise version, and it is grammatically and logically correct.

The only possible answer is (A).

4) Split #1: “to become” or “becoming“.  The use of the infinitive “to become” suggests an infinitive of purpose, which in turn, suggests that Clinton purposely set out with the goal of becoming a Vice President of two different Presidents.  That’s not what the sentence is trying to say.  Clinton served his offices, and then it just happened, he fulfilled this odd distinction.  The participle “becoming” allows for the “it just happened” way of looking at it, whereas the “infinitive” suggests a purpose, which does not make sense.   Choices (A) & (B) are incorrect.

Split #2: the placement of “only“.  What do we wish to show is limited?  The striking fact is that this distinction, Vice President of two different Presidents, has happened only two times. (BTW, the other was John Calhoun).   Thus, “only two men” makes perfect sense.  By contrast, the “only one” is entirely illogical — Clinton became “only one of two men”: how could this one man, George Clinton, possibly be more than one?   Choices (A) & (D) & (E) are incorrect.

Split #3: common words in parallel.  We don’t need to repeat the common words “[he] served as Vice President” — all that can be dropped.  Choice (C) is the most concise choice, and it is perfectly correct.

The only possible answer is (C).


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