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.
(A) their decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them they
(B) its decrees generally were obeyed as if to be law, and through these it
(C) their decrees, generally obeyed as law, through it they
(D) its decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them it
(E) 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:
(A) demonstrative pronouns (e.g. this, that, those, etc.)
(B) reflexive pronouns (e.g. myself, yourself, etc.)
(C) indefinite pronouns (e.g. anyone, anybody, etc.)
(D) interrogative pronouns (e.g. who?, what?, etc.)
(E) 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
When the antecedent of a pronoun appears in the possessive, this can be a tricky case. You see, if I am talking about “Kevin’s car,” the immediate rhetorical focus is the car, not the person. Fifty years ago and more, it was considered incorrect for an antecedent of a pronoun to appear in the possessive. The rules about this have relaxed, although admittedly, the GMAT doesn’t test this often. This is not really a “trap” anymore.
Most likely, the GMAT would not have a problem with that sentence. The antecedent, Mr. Marcus Tullius Cicero, is in the possessive, but it’s unambiguous otherwise. Once again, some true conservatives—folks much more conservative that the GMAT!—would have some issue with this, but you don’t need to worry about them. And, again, the GMAT doesn’t test this often.
One case that is 100% uncontroversial is the case is as follows—a noun in the possessive certainly can be the antecedent of a possessive pronoun.
Without a doubt, that sentence could be 100% correct on the GMAT. Absolutely no one would have an issue with that.
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. 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
Multiple 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.
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).
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