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GMAT Tuesdays: Sentence Correction — Absolute vs Appositive Phrases

These two noun phrases can be tough to distinguish. They can look almost identical at times because their structure is similar and they can appear anywhere in the sentence.

The real key is to understand how they are used. In this video, I hope to explain how these two different phrases are used and how to distinguish between them. It all comes down to usage.

Check out this week’s board:
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10 Responses to GMAT Tuesdays: Sentence Correction — Absolute vs Appositive Phrases

  1. Prakhar December 11, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    I have 1 question on this topic.

    Lack of fresh water is an ongoing problem in the outposts, and it is expected to continue until reinforcements arrive.
    (A) Lack of fresh water is an ongoing problem in the outposts, and it is expected to continue until reinforcements arrive.
    (B) Lack of fresh water is an ongoing problem in the outposts, which was expected to continue until reinforcements arrive.
    (C) Lack of fresh water is an ongoing problem in the outposts, and they are expected to continue until reinforcements arrive.
    (D) The outposts lack fresh water, a problem that is expected to continue until reinforcements arrive.
    (E) The outposts have a lack of fresh water, a problem expected to continue until reinforcements arrive.

    OA- E

    How could in this sentence “a problem expected to continue until reinforcements arrive.” can modify entire sentence.

    Thanks and Regards,
    Prakhar

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin Rocci December 15, 2015 at 11:00 am #

      Hi Prakhar!

      Happy to help! I have a question before I answer. Are you asking why “E” is an absolute phrase or are you asking how we can make the phrase “a problem expected to continue until reinforcements arrive” modify the whole sentence?

      Thanks!
      Kevin

      • Rahul March 5, 2016 at 12:22 am #

        Could u pls explain why D is incorrect? My understand is that “problem” is an abstract noun, hence modifying the entire previous clause.

        Thanks

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 8, 2016 at 4:38 am #

          Hi Rahul,

          If you’re asking about Prakhar’s question above this, here, the reason (D) is incorrect is because the apposition implies that the “problem” is the water itself rather than the lack of water. The portion after the comma must modify the nearest noun, and in (D) the nearest noun is just “water” whereas in (E) the noun is the entire phrase “lack of fresh water.”

          I hope that helps! 🙂

          • Rahul March 8, 2016 at 4:42 am #

            Alright. But my understanding is that ” problem” is an abstract noun. A modifier beginning with an abstract noun should modify the entire preceeding clause.
            Whereas, a concrete noun will modify the previous noun only.

            Thanks

            • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
              Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 8, 2016 at 11:30 am #

              Hi Rahul,

              There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement on the question in the blogosphere, both regarding the source and the OA. In my opinion, this is not a great question, and I hesitate to come down in favor either of (D) or (E). I also hesitate to say whether a “problem” will always be abstract; I think you could argue that a problem could be something tangible.

              In any case, since this question is not from Magoosh or the Official Guide, I’m not going to be able to give you a solid answer here. Sorry about this.

              • NA. Tuan November 14, 2018 at 8:52 pm #

                In D, can we consider “a problem that …” an absolute phrase?

                If so, is D correct because it modifies for whole sentence?

                i.e. am I correct to say that D causes ambiguity because the phrase can be both an absolute phrase (modifier for the whole sentence) and an appositive phrase (modifier for the noun)?

                Also, I have another question: for nouns formed by “A of B”, e.g. lack of water,
                is it also ambiguous because the can modify B or A?

                Thank you very much.

                • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
                  Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 26, 2018 at 12:22 pm #

                  Hi NA,

                  As mentioned before, this is a poorly designed, kind of confusing question. It could be argued that D is correct, since it is simpler and more elegant, and because context strongly indicates that “problem” is describing the entire preceding clause (“fresh water” is obviously not a problem in and of itself). It could also be argued that E is more correct, because we have a structure in which a noun phrase appositive “a problem” is in parallel structure with the noun phrase it describes, “lack of water.”

                  As for “A of B” noun phrases, these are not inherently ambiguous. The general rule is that the “A” in “A of B” would be described by an appositive or modified by an absolute phrase.

                  “the top of the mountain, a very high point.” (“A very high point” clearly represents “top,” and would not be read as describing the mountain as a whole.)
                  “the top of the mountain, a place we like to have picnics.” (Again, the appositive clearly describes “top” and not “mountain.” Even though the mountain as a whole could be a place where people like to have picnics, the rules of English structure clearly indicate the appositive will modify the “A” in “A of B.”)

                  Now, let’s look at the way that absolute phrases are context dependent rather than structurally dependent when you’re dealing with A and B:
                  “the teeth of the bear, long and sharp.” (“long and sharp” must modify “teeth” and not “bear,” per “A of B” rule.”)
                  “the paws of the bear, furry and black.” (Here, “furry and black” could characterize either a bear or just its paws. But with an “A of B” structure, there’s no ambiguity. Structurally, “furry and black” must modify “A,” which is “paws.”)

                  Bear in mind that in “A of B,” “of B” is a prepositional phrase, and is thus a vital modifier rather than the “main” noun which is getting modified.

  2. Prakhar December 11, 2015 at 9:59 am #

    Hi Kevin,

    As per the example in the video, how can the same phrase modify-
    a) The entire sentence.
    b) The factual art

    While reading the examples I am able to recognize which one is apposite and which one is absolute. But still have doubt.

    Can you please put some more light.

    BTW, your videos are really very helpful 🙂

    Thanks and Regards,
    Prakhar

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin Rocci December 16, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

      Hi Prakhar!

      Thanks! I am happy to hear that the videos help! 😀

      I think the key here, when looking at a phrase, you need to ask yourself, “Can this modify the previous noun?” If the answer is yes, then there is a good chance you are looking at an appositive. If the answer is no, then you are probably looking at an absolute phrase.

      So if we look at the first sentence, the phrase “never-ending, infinitely…” Can that phrase modify the previous noun? Does this phrase describe the previous noun. Well, if we look at the closet noun, “museum,” it doesn’t make sense. The museum is not never-ending nor infinite. Also, this noun is inside a prepositional phrase, so we wouldn’t even need to look at this noun. Let’s go further back, before the prepositional phrase to “popular.” Can the phrase describe “popular?” Nope, that doesn’t make sense either. You don’t describe popularity as “never-ending” nor “infinite.” For these reasons, it makes more sense that we are looking at an absolute phrase.

      Is this helpful? Remember that you need to really think about the meaning of the phrase. The best way to get at understanding whether something is absolute or appositive is to understand the meaning of the phrase and what it conveys. Then look to see if the nouns near the phrase can be described this way.

      Happy Studying!


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