Subject Verb Agreement on the GMAT

Many concepts covered on the GMAT come up in every day conversation. One of the common mistakes frequently tested on the GMAT that people make mistakes with in colloquial speech is that lack of agreement between a subject and verb when the verb is placed before the subject (There’s a lot of reasons this happens…) People make this mistake regularly and no one really seems to notice it, but the GMAT thoroughly tests this type of mistake, so you likely will have had sufficient exposure to this scenario by test day.

However, some mistakes in English grammar come up only rarely on the GMAT. This doesn’t mean we should ignore them, only that they aren’t as prevalent as some of the other topics covered during prep. Of all these “fringe” topics, the one I get questioned about the most is “who vs. whom”. The GMAT rarely tests your understanding of this distinction, but it is difference that many people don’t really know. (I proposed an idea for the board game Guess Whom, but I was swiftly removed from the gaming convention).

In typical GMAT style, we’ll start with the formal theory, but concentrate on the shortcuts that let us bypass the theory and pick the right answer in 15 seconds or less.  The word “who” is a relative pronoun that is used instead of another pronoun, it is used when you want to replace another pronoun such as “he”, “they” or “we”. The word “whom” is the objective case of who, and it is used when “who” is not the subject of its own clause.  More succinctly, it should be used when you want to replace the words “him”, “them” or “us”. The formal grammatical rules can seem a little unclear, so just stick to thinking which word you could replace in the sentence and maintain the logic.

Generally, when the option is given to replace one word with the other, just determine whether “he” or “him” makes sense as a substitute, and go with the associated pronoun. It’s easy to remember which pronoun is associated with which word because him and whom both end with m, whereas he and who do not.

Some simple examples:

“Who is at the door?”  He is at the door.

“Whom should I thank?” You should thank him.

“For whom the bell tolls.” It tolls for him.

“Who let the dogs out?” He did. (15 years later this mystery remains largely unsolved)

If these examples make sense, then it’s time to examine an actual GMAT question and evaluate the answer choices offered:

Presenters at the seminar, one who is blind, will demonstrate adaptive equipment that allows visually impaired people to use computers.

(A)   One who
(B)   One of them who
(C)   And one of them who
(D)   One of whom
(E)    One of which

Looking at the answer choices, three indicate “who”, one has “whom” and one has “which”. Answer choice E can quickly be discarded as “which” has a very specific meaning on the GMAT, and it never refers back to a person. The question is now whether we use who or whom. If we replace it by a pronoun, would we say “one of they is blind” or “one of them is blind”. Since it is them (which ends in an m), the correct answer must be D) One of whom.

As mentioned earlier, the distinction between “who” and “whom” doesn’t come up very often on the GMAT, but it doesn’t hurt to have that knowledge as another differentiator between correct and incorrect answering choices, particularly in sentence correction. It’s interesting to note that sometimes critical reasoning or reading comprehension stimuli will contain the proper use of whom, but it is infrequently actually tested in a question. (The real question is how successful Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey’s band would have been had they called it “The Whom”)

Colloquial English has somewhat evolved to dispense with the word “whom”, as “who” is understandable in both situations. However, this is the same type of linguistic evolution that has brought us the words “thru”, “u r” and “sp?”. Needless to say, the GMAT will expect you to use the English language correctly, so even if you think it sounds stuffy; knowing the difference between the uses of these two words can be the difference between sounding learned and sounding uneducated.  If you’re one of the many test takers who don’t get a question about this concept, you can at least incorporate it in your dealings with other people, many of whom will thank you for correctly using the English language.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? We have GMAT prep courses starting all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice 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.