What Do Relatives and Sentence Correction Have in Common on the GMAT?

The holiday season is upon us in much of the world, and in the U.S. there is a special holiday this year called “Thanksgivikkah!”  This is a combination of the words “Thanksgiving” and “Hanukkah” (The first full day of Hanukkah happens to be on November 28th this year – the same day as Thanksgiving in the U.S. This has never happened before and will not happen again in any of our lifetimes).

Of course the holidays also include Christmas, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, New Year’s and many other special times and that means one thing: RELATIVES. Lots and lots of RELATIVES.

You know that your relatives have some special requirements, Aunt Judith cannot eat onions and Grandpa will not sit at the table but must eat while in his recliner in front of the television. The kids don’t like green beans and if there is no pumpkin pie Uncle Dan will actually boycott dinner.  (I am sure that in other parts of the world the relatives are just as weird as here in the U.S.).

Add to that the fact that your house only has two bathrooms for 15 people and sometimes suddenly it seems like the only way to restore sanity is for the relatives to be GONE!

The same is true on sentence correction. RELATIVE Clauses are modifiers that have some very special requirements and sometimes the best way to make the sentence work is to remove the relative clause altogether. That is what I wrote about in an article called “No relatives, no problems on Sentence Correction.”

The main point of that article is that sometimes relatives – and relative clauses – are just too much and it might be easier to get along without them for a little while. For sentence correction this means that relative clauses are very easily misplaced and that switching the relative clause for some other modifier can often fix the problem.


But today I am here to CELEBRATE relatives as we approach Thanksgivukkah and all of the other holidays. Sometimes relatives – and relative clauses – bring something special that nothing else can bring. And a Holiday – or a sentence – would not be complete without them.

Specifically, relative clauses are very specific, so if they are not misplaced (which as I mentioned above is an easy thing to do) then the relative clause is likely to be the correct answer! Sometimes switching the relative clause for another modifier is not an improvement. 

Try this example from the Official Guide 13th edition (it is about a family!):

The 32 species that make up the dolphin family are closely related to whales and in fact include the animal known as the killer whale, which can grow to be 30 feet long and is famous for its aggressive hunting pods.

A. include the animal known as the killer whale, which can grow to be 30 feet long and is
B. include the animal known as the killer whale, growing as big as 30 feet long and
C. include the animal known as the killer whale, growing up to 30 feet long and being
D. includes the animal known as the killer whale, which can grow as big as 30 feet long and is
E. includes the animal known as the killer whale, which can grow to be 30 feet long and it is

The first difference (or “decision point” as we call it in the Veritas Prep Sentence Correction Book) is at the very beginning of the answer choices: it is the plural “include” versus the singular “includes.”  In this case you can see two clues that point in the right direction. If you were to strip the early part of this sentence of unnecessary modifiers the sentence becomes, “The 32 species…are closely related …and…include”

The subject is “32 species” and “The 32 species…include” not “includes.” Also, the verb “includes” must be parallel in number to the verb phrase “are closely related,” which is clearly plural.

So answer choices D and E are out. Leaving you with A, B, and C. The first portion of the answer choice is identical for each of these three, but each has a different modifier after the word “whale.” Only answer choice A has the relative pronoun “which.” The other two answers have the participial phrase beginning with “growing.”

As indicated in the official GMAC explanation, the participial is ambiguous in that “growing” could refer to the 32 species as well as to the Killer Whale. This is a time when you want the clarity of a relative clause. Because the relative clause specifically applies to the closest prior noun – Killer Whales – there is no ambiguity.

There are times, like Thanksgivukkah, and the holidays in general, when you want your relatives around! They have specific idiosyncrasies, but you are used to their ways, after all they are your family. Relative Clauses have very specific requirements as well and they are easy to misplace. But when they are not misplaced, relative clauses are clear and specific and can be a strong choice.

Happy Holiday season!

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David Newland has been teaching for Veritas Prep since 2006, and he won the Veritas Prep Instructor of the Year award in 2008. Students’ friends often call in asking when he will be teaching next because he really is a Veritas Prep and a GMAT rock star!