Understanding Participles on the GMAT

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomThere is a lot of confusion surrounding the topic of Participles so let’s take a look at it today.

Quite simply, participles are words formed from verbs which can be used as describing words (on the other hand, gerunds are verbs used as nouns, but that is a topic for another day!).

There are two types of participles:

1. The Past Participle – usually ends in -ed, -d, -t, -en, or –n

For Example: chosen, danced, known, sung etc

2. The Present Participle – ends in –ing

For Example: choosing, dancing, knowing, singing etc

These participles often start the participle phrases used to describe nouns/noun phrases/entire sentences. The participial phrases are underlined in the examples given below.

Examples:

I want to stand next to the girl wearing the yellow dress.

Standing next to the tall gentleman, she looked petite.

Battered by hail, the car collapsed.

The most important crop of this region is rice, sown in the month of June and harvested in October.

Here is how participle phrases are usually used:

Present Participle Phrases (the underlined parts of the sentences are participial phrases):

1. At the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma and then a clause (present participle phrase + comma + clause) – In this case, the participle phrase could modify the subject of the clause or the entire clause.

Examples:

Wagging its tail, my dog ran up to me. (modifies ‘my dog’)

Silencing the students, the principal stepped on to the podium. (modifies the entire clause because the principal silenced the students by stepping on to the podium)

2. At the end of a sentence separated from the clause using a comma (clause + comma + present participle phrase) – In this case, the participle phrase modifies the entire preceding sentence.

Example: The principal stepped on to the podium, silencing the students. (modifies the entire preceding clause)

3. Following a noun without a comma – In this case, the participle phrase modifies the noun.

Example: I want to stand next to the girl wearing the yellow dress. (modifies ‘the girl’)

Past Participle Phrases (the underlined parts of the sentences are participial phrases):

1. Following a noun separated by a comma (noun + comma + past participle phrase) – In this case, the participle phrase modifies the noun.

Example: The most important crop of this region is rice, sown in the month of June and harvested in October . (modifies ‘rice’)

2. At the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma and then a clause (past participle phrase + comma + clause) – In this case, the participle phrase modifies the subject of the clause.

Example: Battered by hail, the car collapsed. (modifies ‘the car’)

Next week, we will take some questions to show the classic usage of participle modifiers in GMAT. But today we need to move on and discuss an important point regarding the rules discussed.

Important Note: In regular English grammar, a past participle phrase following a clause and separated by a comma (clause + comma + past participle phrase) could modify the entire preceding clause. But GMAT is not very keen on this usage; so avoid it. That said, remember that studying grammar rules in isolation is worthless. If the sentence demands such a construction, then it is correct to use it. We cannot explain this point without a question so let’s take one from our own collection.

Question: Due to the slow-moving nature of tectonic plate movement, the oldest ocean crust is thought to date from the Jurassic period, formed from huge fragments of the Earth’s lithosphere and lasted 200 million years.

(A)   formed from huge fragments of the Earth’s lithosphere and lasted 200 million years.

(B)   forming from huge fragments of the Earth’s lithosphere and lasting 200 million years.

(C)   forming from huge fragments of the Earth’s lithosphere and lasted 200 million years.

(D)   formed from huge fragments of the Earth’s lithosphere and lasting 200 million years.

(E)    formed from huge fragments of the Earth’s lithosphere and has been lasting 200 million years.

Here is our official solution:

The correct response is (D).

The meaning of the sentence is that the “oldest ocean crust” was “formed” in the past during the Jurassic period and is currently still “lasting” (since if it’s the “oldest” it must still be around!). We need the past tense/participle verbs to be used correctly.

If you chose (A), the ocean crust was “formed” in the past” but if “lasted” is past tense then the oldest ocean crust is no longer around, which would mean it couldn’t be the “oldest.”

If you chose (B) or (C), “forming” implies the crust is still being formed. While it’s true the Earth’s crust is constantly in flux, we’re concerned with the “oldest ocean crust” – that part that is no longer continuing to form, but was formed at some point during the Jurassic period.

If you chose (E), you correctly used “formed,” however the present perfect “has been lasting” is unnecessarily wordy. The simple participle verb form will suffice.

Does logic dictate that (D) is the correct answer? Yes. Will you ignore it because it uses past participle form modifying the previous subject/clause instead of ‘Jurassic Period’? No. Note that it is correct grammatically and you should know it. Whatever we can infer about the preferences of GMAT is from the questions it gives. GMAT doesn’t clarify its stand on every grammatical issue and the stand is probably flexible depending on the sentence under examination. So you need to be flexible in your understanding of what is and is not acceptable in GMAT. Use logic – remember, GMAT is a test of your reasoning skills. Get to the best answer under given circumstances.

Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep in Detroit, Michigan, and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!