The past perfect tense in a GMAT Sentence Correction question can subtly change the meaning of a sentence, making an answer choice incorrect, even if the verb agrees with its subject in number. The past perfect tense is often used to describe an action that was completed prior to another past action:
I went to the store after I had gone to the bank.
The first-person here completed going to the store after completing going to the bank. The author uses past perfect because it clarifies the sequence of events.
Let’s look at a question involving past perfect tense:
Encouraged by the scholarship granted him for his athletic ability, the young basketball player decided on a nearly 50 percent increase in the amount of scheduled time he’d previously devoted to practicing free throws and layups.
(A) decided on a nearly 50 percent increase in the amount of scheduled time he’d previously devoted to practicing free throws and layups.
(B) decided on an increase of nearly 50 percent more than the previously scheduled time for practicing free throws and layups.
(C) increased by nearly 50 percent the amount of time scheduled to practicing free throws and layups as he had previously devoted.
(D) increased by nearly 50 percent the time devoted to scheduling free throws and layups practice that he’d previously devoted.
(E) decided to increase the time scheduled by nearly 50 percent the number he’d previously devoted to practicing free throws and layups.
For this question, we need to make sense of the sequence of events. First the player had previously scheduled practice-time then he decided to increase it. Since the first action was completed before the second (he scheduled the original practice-time, then increased it), it makes sense that the first action would be past perfect and the second action would be simple past tense. What it confusing about this sentence is that the first action is placed after the second action. While this original sentence may sound wordy, it is grammatically correct.
In (B), the increase is modifying “scheduled time” rather than “amount of time,” which is the more precise meaning, while (D) has a similar problem in “time devoted to scheduling.” It’s the amount of practice-time that is increasing, not the amount of time spent scheduling. In (C), “scheduled to practicing” is awkward and unclear, and the construction of (E) also suffers from a lack of clarity with the use of the word “number” and the placements of “time scheduled.”
Before you read through the answer choices for any SC featuring underlined past tense and past perfect verbs, try to write down the sequence of events. Get the meaning as clear as possible, and you can more eliminate the tricky answer choices that change the verb tenses to distort the meaning of that sequence!
Vivian Kerr is a regular contributor to the Veritas Prep blog, providing advice to help students better prepare for the GMAT and the SAT.