The Empty ‘It’ on the GMAT Sentence Correction

First, three practice questions.

1) From a cache of burnt bones, including bone tools, found in South Africa, Homo erectus had estimated control of fire 700,000 years ago, although other hominid groups might have even mastered fire earlier.

(A) Homo erectus had estimated control of fire 700,000 years ago, although other hominid groups might have even mastered fire earlier

(B) Homo erectus is estimated to have controlled fire 700,000 years ago, with other hominid groups having mastery fire even earlier

(C) it is estimated that Homo erectus had control of fire 700,000 years ago, although other hominid groups might have mastered fire even earlier

(D) it is estimated for Homo erectus to have controlled fire 700,000 years ago, although other hominid groups might even have mastered fire earlier

(E) 700,000 years ago, Homo erectus  is estimated as having controlled fire, with other hominid groups even having mastery fire earlier

2) While Columbus is generally cited as the European who “discovered” America, thinking that he was in East Asia, and it was Amerigo Vespucci correctly deducing that the New World was a landmass previously unknown to the Europeans.

(A) thinking that he was in East Asia, and it was Amerigo Vespucci correctly deducing

(B) he thought that he was in East Asia, and it was Amerigo Vespucci who correctly deduced

(C) he thought that he was in East Asia, instead of Amerigo Vespucci who correctly deduced

(D) thinking that he was in East Asia, but Amerigo Vespucci correctly deduced

(E) in East Asia according to his thought, and Amerigo Vespucci correctly deduced

3) It is more effective for the union as a group to address a grievance to management than for multiple individual employees to do so.

(A) It is more effective for the union as a group to address a grievance to management than for multiple individual employees to do so

(B) It is more effective when the union as a group addresses a grievance to management than multiple individual employees doing it

(C) The union as a group addressing a grievance to management has a greater effect than the multiple individual employees who address it

(D) By addressing a grievance to management, the union as a group is more effective than when multiple individual employees do it

(E) A grievance to management is most effectively addressed by the union as a whole, instead of by multiple individual employees

 

Pronouns and the Empty It

In another post, I addressed typical pronoun mistakes.  Of course, one of the biggies is: Every pronoun must have a clear antecedent that matches it in number (i.e. singular vs. plural).  The GMAT loves to create incorrect Sentence Correction answer choices using pronouns with ambiguous or missing antecedents.  It would seem that this rule is so reliable that one could carve it into stone.

Well, in this case, what seems to be true is deceiving.   In fact, there’s a common exception: the very tricky case of the empty it.  This is sometimes called a “dummy pronoun”, or, in far fancier language, a “pleonastic pronoun” (you definitely do not need to recognize that word for the GMAT!!).

The “empty it” is an “it” that appears at the beginning of a sentence or clause: this pronoun has no simple noun antecedent.  The “empty it” often serves to make sentences more indirect and wordy, so usually they are not correct on the GMAT.  For example:

tei_img1

The first sentence is 100% grammatically correct, but it is wordy and indirect; the second is much more concise and powerful.   That’s an example of an “empty it” making a sentence wordier and rhetorically weaker.  This is most often the case, but in rare cases, the “empty it” is perfectly acceptable.

 

Emphatic structure

I spoke about this structure a little in a previous blog on sophisticated idioms, and indeed, this is a sophisticated idiom.  Sometimes in certain circumstances, because of context, we need to emphasize that something is true contrary to general expectations.  Under such circumstances, we reword a simple action (e.g. A does X) to emphasize either a significant or unexpected subject (e.g. It is A that does X) or a significant or unexpected object (e.g. It is X that A does.)  In this rewording, we bring extraordinary attention to whatever word follows the “it is.”  Under ordinary circumstances, this rewording makes the sentence long and is entirely unnecessary.  The correct use of this structure involves a kind of “one out of ten thousand” sort of emphasis.  Think about it this way: all academic authors feels that what they are writing is important.  Call that “ordinary importance”: essentially, every sentence in GMAT RC is written at that level.  This emphatic structure is used when we need to reach back for something extra; that is, when “ordinary importance” doesn’t even begin to describe the emphasis that something needs.   The most common situation is one in which almost everyone believes one thing to be true, but in fact, something very different is actually true; thus, the true statement will contradict the expectations of a wide readership and surprise these people.  That’s a situation in which this emphasis would be appropriate.

For example, folks often think of Thomas Edison as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb; that was in 1879.  That’s the general (mis)conception.  In fact, though, Humphrey Davy had made an early incandescent light bulb as early as 1802.  It’s just that Edison’s design, for a variety of reasons, was the first commercially successful light bulb.  In this situation, we might say:

5) Many people think that Edison was the inventor of the electric incandescent light bulb, but it was Humphrey Davy who first designed a working incandescent bulb.

The statement of a fact that contradicts a widely held expectation justifies the use of the emphatic structure here.

 

Extraposition

Sometimes, the real subject of a sentence is a long infinitive phrase or “that”-clause (substantive clause).  If the this phrase or clause is long and the predicate (verb + what follows the verb) of the main clause is short, then idiomatically the sentence is much smoother if an “empty it” holds the subjects place, and the real subject, the phrase or clause, is moved later in the sentence.  (The grammatical name for moving something later in the sentence is called “extraposition”, a word you definitely do not need to know!)

For example,

6) It is noteworthy that Robert E. Lee opposed slavery, even though he led the Confederacy forces.

7) It is important to wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat.

Both of those sentences are grammatically correct, and they would be much less awkward if the long clause or phrase were in the subject’s position at the beginning of the sentence.  What appears here is actually the most elegant way to phrase the information.  (If we changed the infinitive in #7 to a gerund, “washing”, then that could be an ordinary subject: “Washing your hands through after handling raw meat is important.”)

 

Summary

If the foregoing article gave you any moments of “aha!”, then you might want to give the questions at the top another look.  Here’s another practice question from inside Magoosh:

8) What the eye sees …

If you need clarification about anything I said here, feel free to leave comments in the comment section below.

tei_img2

 

 Practice problem explanations

1) Split #1: the adverb “even.”  This is an issue of Logical Predication.  The word “even” should modify “earlier”, because what is astonishing about the other hominid groups is that their mastery of fire might have been earlier than that of Homo erectus.  The word “even” should immediately precede “earlier”, and not precede some part of the verb, because it doesn’t modify the verb.  Only options (B) & (C) get this correct.

Split #2: the clause at the end.  For an action, we need “although” with a full bonafide [noun] + [verb] structure, as (A) & (C) & (D) have.   The structure involving “with” is not adequate to describe a full action, so (B) & (E) are incorrect.

Split #3: Choice (A) has awkward and somewhat illogical phrasing: “Homo erectus had estimated control of fire 700,000 years ago.”  That makes it sound as if the Homo erectus were standing around 700,000 years ago saying “We don’t know whether this is fire, but we estimate that it is”!!  We modern people are doing the estimating, and that’s not clear from this structure.  Choice (A) is wrong.

Split #4: Choice (D) has an awkward structure.  We can say “J is estimated to do X” of a bonafide noun J, but with the “empty it” structure, the passive form of the verb “estimate” cannot take an infinitive.  Choice (D) is wrong.

Split #5: idiom mistake.  Choice (E) makes the mistake of using “is estimated” with an “as” phrase.  The verb “estimate”, whether active or passive, never takes an “as”-clause.  Choice (E) is wrong.

The only possible answer is (C).

2) A question about Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.

Split #1: all choices begin with the “while” clause, and then four of the five have a phrase or clause, then a conjunction (“and” or “but”), and another independent clause.  Since the “while” clause is a subordinate clause, and since the conjunction must join two independent clauses, what begins the underlined section in these choices must also be an independent clause.  Let’s look at these:

(A) thinking that he was in East Asia = NOT an independent clause

(B) he thought that he was in East Asia = YES, an independent clause

(C) [different structure]

(D) thinking that he was in East Asia = NOT an independent clause

(E) in East Asia according to his thought = NOT an independent clause

Right away, we can eliminate choices (A), (D), and (E).

Split #2: illogical comparison.  Choice (C) uses the comparative structure “instead of Amerigo Vespucci.”  Logically, we know that the comparison is with Columbus, but that is not clear grammatically, because the “instead of” phrase is nowhere close to the mention of Columbus.  The juxtaposition “he was in East Asia, instead of Amerigo Vespucci” illogical suggests that Amerigo Vespucci was a place in contrast to East Asia.  Choice (C) is incorrect.

The only possible answer is (B), which makes effective and perfectly appropriate use of the emphatic structure.

3) Choice (A): this choice correctly compares two infinitive phrases, beginning with the subject of the infinitive in a “for” preposition.  This choice correctly uses the “empty it” construction, because the main predicate “is effective” is very short compared to the two infinitive phrases.  This choice also uses the correct abbreviated phrase for repeating a predicate.  This is correct on all front.

Choice (B): this choice violate parallelism by comparing a “when” clause to a gerund phrase.  Also, this using the incorrect abbreviation “doing it” in its attempt to repeat a predicate.  This is incorrect.

Choice (C): The phrase “has a greater effect” is grammatical correct but a little awkward.  The nature of the comparison is unclear here: it seems to compare the action of the union to the people, the “multiple individual employees.”  We know what this one is trying to say, but it doesn’t say it in the most effective way.  This is incorrect.

Choice (D): this choice violate parallelism by comparing “the union” to a “when” clause.  Also, this using the incorrect abbreviation “doing it” in its attempt to repeat a predicate.  This is incorrect.

Choice (E): The passive structure is unusual in this.  We absolutely cannot have the object of “instead of” be another prepositional phrase — “instead of by multiple individual employees.”  The GMAT seems to avoid completely comparisons with “instead of”, using “rather than” in almost all of those situations.  This is incorrect.

The only possible answer is (A).

 

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  • Mike MᶜGarry

    Mike served as a GMAT Expert at Magoosh, helping create hundreds of lesson videos and practice questions to help guide GMAT students to success. He was also featured as "member of the month" for over two years at GMAT Club. Mike holds an A.B. in Physics (graduating magna cum laude) and an M.T.S. in Religions of the World, both from Harvard. Beyond standardized testing, Mike has over 20 years of both private and public high school teaching experience specializing in math and physics. In his free time, Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Learn more about the GMAT through Mike's Youtube video explanations and resources like What is a Good GMAT Score? and the GMAT Diagnostic Test.