Breaking Down GMAT Modifier Questions

On the GMAT, an exam about reasoning and logic, there are few things more frustrating than long sentences punctuated by a host of modifiers, particularly prepositional phrases, participial phrases and appositive phrases, to say nothing of relative clauses. Sentence correction questions are about making sure there are no mistakes in a given sentence, and the more commas and modifiers a sentence has, the more difficult it is to ascertain whether or not it is structured correctly (hint: ~80% of the time, it’s not).

Simple phrases offer closure. They make one simple point and then end. This is not to say that longer sentences do not have their place. Only that these sentences are harder to evaluate. Sometimes they are much harder to evaluate. The way sentences are described in elementary school is simple. A phrase has a subject, a verb and an action. Ron writes GMAT columns. This is as simple as it gets. However, simple is not the name of the game on the GMAT (unless you count trying to trap you as simply as possible).

Now compare the first two paragraphs. Both have roughly the same number of words and characters, but the first is only two sentences long while the second clocks in at ten separate phrases. If I were asked to correct one of these twelve sentences, I’d hope that it was one from the second paragraph (fingers crossed: Ron writes GMAT columns). The longer the sentence is the more moving parts one has to keep track of when looking for grammatical mistakes.

Let’s look at a typical sentence correction GMAT question to highlight what I mean:

Marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the festival called Eid-ul-Adha, during which sheep are traditionally sacrificed, is celebrated everywhere in the Muslim world.

(A)     Marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the festival called Eid-ul-Adha, during which sheep are traditionally sacrificed

(B)      Marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, featuring the traditional sacrifice of sheep, the festival called Eid-ul-Adha

(C)      A festival marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, called Eid-ul-Adha, during which sheep are traditionally sacrificed

(D)     A festival marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, called Eid-ul-Adha, featuring the traditional sacrifice of sheep

(E)      A festival marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca during which sheep are traditionally sacrificed, called Eid-ul-Adha

This question has everything you can expect to see from a GMAT modifier question: A long sentence, part of the sentence underlined, multiple modifiers (and ritual sacrifice). This implies that the underlined part of the sentence must match the non-underlined portion as we are unable to modify that section in any way.

Let’s break this sentence into its component parts to determine what goes where, much like a puzzle:

Marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca: Participial modifier that is describing the festival

The festival called Eid-ul-Adha: This is the subject of the sentence

During which sheep are traditionally sacrificed: relative clause that further describes the activities at the festival (no word yet if there’s also cotton candy)

Is celebrated everywhere in the Muslim word: Not underlined, and contains the verb “is” as well as a description of where the festival is celebrated.

Each portion of the initial sentence is separated by commas, the last of which is not underlined, so all we can change is the order of the first three parts. The original sentence makes sense the way it is written, since the participial modifier at the beginning of the phrase immediately precedes the subject “festival”, and the relative clause describing the unfortunate fate of the sheep is also properly placed directly next to the festival. There doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with the sentence structure, but sentence correction is all about eliminating what we know to be wrong so let’s run through the decision points of the other choices looking for glaring errors.

Answer choices C, D and E all begin with “A festival marking the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca”, which then forces the (new) participial modifier “called Eid-ul-Adha” far away from the key word festival. It is no longer clear whether Eid-ul-Adha is the name of the festival or the name of the pilgrimage, or possibly something else entirely. Participial phrases need to be as close to the term they modify to avoid this exact problem, so these three choices can be eliminated in one fell swoop. This is the power of a 3-2 split; you can go from 1/5 to 1/2 in a single step (much like multiplying by 5/2).

Answer choice B connects the two modifiers, implying that the second now modifies the first. This again introduces illogical meaning as well as grammatical ambiguity, making it inferior to the initial answer choice. As is the case roughly 20% of the time in sentence correction, the initial sentence was correct and the proposed modifications each introduce new errors that make them inferior replacements.

The correct answer is (A). 

Sentence correction is mostly an exercise in logic with the rules of grammar serving as a medium to test student’s ability to reason out solutions. Sometimes multiple sentences could properly convey the information and be grammatically correct, but only the options on the table are available for evaluation. As such, if you understand where and when modifiers are allowed and look out for illogical meaning, you will correctly answer the majority of these questions. Once you’ve gotten a good idea of the traps the verbal section has in store for you, you can become the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you occasional tips and tricks for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.