Focus on one aspect of the sentence to narrow down your options.
Face it. GMAT Sentence Corrections can be a little overwhelming! And, if you are like most people, you might approach a sentence correction by carefully reading through all five responses and picking the answer that “sounds best.” You may even answer many questions correctly using this approach. However, reading through all five answers can be time-consuming. One way to speed up this process is to focus on a single error and to immediately cross off all answer choices with this error. This is a great way to apply process of elimination on the GMAT Sentence Corrections. In this post, we will focus on one of these error types: subject-verb errors.
What is the subject of a sentence?
You may vaguely remember having to identify the subject of a sentence in grade school, but what are we actually describing here? It is important to distinguish between a sentence’s subject matter and the grammatical subject of the sentence. Subject matter is just anything discussed in the sentence. The subject, however, is a structural term, referring to the word that is “performing” the verb. For instance, let us consider the following.
The sentence certainly discusses “mighty empires,” but the subject is the word “fall.” It is the fall of these empires that is fascinating – not the empires themselves.
Subject/verb agreement in number
One particularly important rule is that the subject and the verb must agree in number.
- If the subject is singular, the verb usually has an “s” (e.g. My brother walks the dog)
- If the subject is plural, the verb usually has no “s” (e.g. My brothers walk the dog)
At first glance, this rule seems intuitive enough, but the GMAT will often find ways to hide this subject/verb relationship. Let us consider the following sentence:
The artist’s skillful use of lights and shadows in her paintings lends to her artwork a transcendent quality.
The error here is a bit harder to spot – we must be very careful in identifying the subject of the sentence. What is it exactly that lends the artwork this transcendent quality? The paintings? The lights and shadows?
Upon closer examination, we see that it is actually the artist’s use of these lights and shadows that give the artwork this transcendent quality. Because the word “use” is singular, the verb “lend” must have an “s” at the end.
Subject/verb clarity and precision
In addition to the subject and verb agreeing in number, the link between the two must also be clearly and precisely defined. Let us consider the following case:
The island has an active volcano, which frequently results in destruction and devastation for the island’s inhabitants.
The sentence intends to establish that the volcano’s frequent eruptions cause destruction and devastation, but here, the sentence illogically suggests that the volcano itself results in destruction.
To restate this claim more precisely, we must clarify that the volcano’s frequent eruptions are what cause this destruction and devastation. See below for a corrected version:
Now the sentence is much clearer, and the subject/verb relationship makes much more sense.
Great. So now I know subject/verb agreement and subject/verb clarity. How can I apply this knowledge on the GMAT Sentence Corrections?
Recognizing an issue with the subject/verb relationship can really speed up our process on many GMAT sentence corrections. Let us look at a few examples together:
Official Guide 2018: Sentence Corrections #771 from p. 701 of GMAT Official Guide 2018 (copyright 2017 by the Graduate Management Admission Council, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ)
The absence from business and financial records of the nineteenth century of statistics about women leave us with no record of the jobs that were performed by women and how they survived economically.
(A) from business and financial records of the nineteenth century of statistics about women leave us with no record of the jobs that were performed by women and
(B) from business and financial records of statistics about women from the nineteenth century leave us with no record of what jobs women performed or
(C) of statistics for women from business and financial records in the nineteenth century leaves us with no record of either the jobs that women were performing and or
(D) of statistics on women from business and financial records in the nineteenth century leave us with no record of the jobs that women performed or of
(E) of statistics about women from business and financial records of the nineteenth century leaves us with no record of either what jobs women performed or
At first glance, there is a lot to sort through here, but let us carefully consider the subject and the verb of the original sentence:
Since the subject “absence” is singular, the verb must have an “s.” Based on this observation, we can immediately eliminate several answer choices.
If we happen to notice that “either/and” pairing is incorrect in answer choice (C), we will be left with one correct answer, (E). Looking at the subject/verb relationship helped us quickly narrow down to this answer. Let us consider one more example!
Official Guide 2018: Sentence Corrections #776 from p. 702 of GMAT Official Guide 2018 (copyright 2017 by the Graduate Management Admission Council, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ)
Yellowjackets number among the 900 or so species of the world’s social wasps, wasps living in a highly cooperative and organized society where they consist almost entirely of females – the queen and her sterile female workers.
(A) wasps living in a highly cooperative and organized society where they consist almost entirely of
(B) wasps that live in a highly cooperative and organized society consisting almost entirely of
(C) which means they live in a highly cooperative and organized society, almost all
(D) which means that their society is highly cooperative, organized, and it is almost entirely
(E) living in a society that is highly cooperative, organized, and it consists of almost all
Many people immediately want to eliminate answer choices (A) and (B) because of the repetition of the word “wasps.” However, we are going to hold off on eliminating these, since both clarify that it the wasps that live in a high cooperative and organized society.
If we consider answer choices (C) and (D), the word “which” creates an illogical subject/verb relationship:
The social wasps themselves cannot “mean” anything, so both (C) and (D) are out. Answer choice (E) would also be incorrect because of the lack of parallelism. See below:
Answer choice (A) introduces some unnecessary wordiness, indicating that “wasps live in a society where the wasps consist of…” There is no need to repeat the word “they” here. Answer choice (B) communicates the point much more directly and is the best answer. Recognizing the unclear subject/verb pairing in the other answer choices allowed us to consider a much smaller pool of answer choices, just (A) and (B). We know now that (B) is the correct answer!
Our ultimate goal on Sentence Corrections is to avoid having to carefully scrutinize all five answer choices. It is much more efficient to only have to consider two or three options. Examining the subject/verb relationship is just a way to efficiently narrow down our options. We may not be able to determine the answer from the subject/verb relationship alone, but this relationship can certainly help us work more efficiently through the answer choices.
To do well on GMAT sentence corrections, we do not necessarily have to know every single grammar rule in existence. It can be much more productive to know a handful of specific grammar rules that the GMAT uses frequently. This way, we can use these specific grammar rules to eliminate two or three answers immediately and trust our ear to guide us the rest of the way. As you prepare for the Verbal section, try to identify why certain answer choices are bad (other than “it just sounds weird”). If you can say, “Hey, this option is wrong because it is a dangling modifier,” or, “This one is wrong between the verb does not agree with the subject,” then you will likely recognize similar trends on future GMAT questions and will be able to get more questions right.