Recognizing Illogical Modifiers on the GMAT

Without descriptive words, phrases or clauses, sentences lack color.   A misstep of many is not paying close enough attention to the proper placement of modifiers.    The makers of the GMAT are aware of this shortsightedness of many test-takers.  As a result, they do test your ability to recognize illogical modifiers.

Descriptive items need to be next to or as close as possible to what they are intending to modify.   The following rules govern adjectival phrases and clauses:

 

The following is a grammar exercise from one of GMAC’s practice tests:

Introduced by Italian merchants resident in London during the sixteenth century, in England life insurance remained until the end of the seventeenth century a specialized contract between individual underwriters and their clients, typically being ship owners, overseas merchants, or professional moneylenders.

The sentence is rambling and awkward.   However, it is not as difficult to decipher what the correct response is if you keep in mind the idea of correct modification.   Notice the beginning phrase:  Introduced by Italian merchants resident in London during the sixteenth century.  It is descriptive and therefore needs to modify the word that immediately follows the comma.

Now look at the opening words of the answer choices:

(A) in England life insurance remained until the end of the seventeenth century a specialized contract between individual underwriters and their clients, typically being

(B) in England life insurance had remained until the end of the seventeenth century a specialized contract between individual underwriters and their clients, who typically were

(C) until the end of the seventeenth century life insurance in England had remained a specialized contract between individual underwriters and their clients, typically

(D) life insurance remained in England until the end of the seventeenth century a specialized contract between individual underwriters and their clients, typically

(E) life insurance remained until the end of the seventeenth century in England a specialized contract between individual underwriters with their clients, who typically were

The first three answer choices can be eliminated:  in England and until the end of the seventeenth century were not introduced by Italian merchants.    It was life insurance that was introduced by Italian merchants.   Thus, only the final two are possible responses.

Of these two, GMAC is additionally testing the idiomatic construction: between…and.   For instance, one would say:  I cannot choose between the veal chop and the rack of lamb.   One would NOT say:  I cannot choose between the veal chop with the rack of lamb.   Thus, (E) can be eliminated.

The correct answer is (D). 

Let us look at another example from the makers of the GMAT:

Currently 26 billion barrels a year, world consumption of oil is rising at a rate of 2 percent annually.

Again, be alert to the opening descriptive phrase:  Currently 26 billion barrels a year, which needs to modify what follows the comma.   Here are the answer choices with the introductory words bolded:

(A) world consumption of oil is rising at a rate of

(B) the world is consuming oil at an increasing rate of

(C) the world’s oil is being consumed at the increasing rate of

(D) the rise in the rate of the world’s oil consumption is

(E) oil is consumed by the world at an increasing rate of

What is currently 26 billion barrels a year?  Certainly it is not the world, the world’s oil, the rise or oil.   It is the world consumption of oil.

The correct answer is (A). 

Modification is important.  It adds clarity, sensibility and specificity to ideas that a writer is attempting to convey.     When modifiers are incorrectly positioned, they create ambiguity for the reader.    Open your eyes and pay closer attention to all modifiers in a sentence to see whether they are properly placed.   With greater attentiveness and a bit of practice, you will hone your ability to recognize these types of errors.   And in return, you will see your GMAT score in the grammar improve.

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John Chismody is a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Pittsburgh, PA. After receiving his BS in Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, he went onto Duquesne University to receive his Masters. He moved to the Big Apple for a while, then down to South Beach, but has returned to his native home of Pittsburgh and continues to teach for Veritas Prep. 

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