GMAT tip: look for dangling modifiers!

GMAT

Trusting your ear can get you far, but knowing some key grammar rules gets you even farther!

Many people describe their approach to Sentence Corrections on the GMAT in the following way: they read through all five answer choices and simply choose the answer that sounds the best. Honestly, this is not a bad approach. Many of the wrong answers will “sound wrong” upon reading them, and simply trusting your ear can get you pretty far on this question type. To answer the hardest questions though, we will need to know some specific rules. This article will not aim to outline every specific grammar concept there is, but we will focus on one particularly useful concept: dangling modifiers.

What is a Dangling Modifier?

Let us consider the following sentence:

Having studied every page of the textbook for several hours, the exam was not very difficult for Trent.

Perhaps you noticed that the sentence sounds a little weird, but can you pinpoint precisely what is wrong? Let us break this into two parts:

[Having studied every page of the textbook for several hours,] the exam was not very difficult for Trent.

The red text is a modifier. It is not the main part of the sentence but sets up the rest of the sentence. The black text is the main clause of the sentence. The modifier is describing someone who has done extensive studying – in this case, Trent. However, since “the exam” is the subject of the main clause, the sentence illogically claims that the exam that has studied every page of the textbook. See the annotated sentence below:

Screen Shot 2020-03-05 at 10.10.32 AM

The modifier is now describing the correct subject, Trent. This sentence works!

Great. So now I know what a modifier is. How can I apply this knowledge on the GMAT Sentence Corrections?

Obviously, not every sentence correction question is going to have a modifier error, but many of them do! If we can recognize a modifier error, we may be able to easily and quickly eliminate as many as three or four answer choices, saving valuable time on the Verbal section. Let us look at the following question:

OG 2020: Sentence Corrections #826

When viewed from the window of a speeding train, the speed with which nearby objects moves seems faster than that of more distant objects.

  • the speed with which nearby objects move seems faster than that of
  • the speed that nearby objects move seems faster than for
  • the speed of nearby objects seems faster than
  • nearby objects’ speeds seem to be faster than those of
  • nearby objects seem to move at a faster speed than do

So before we start reading through all of the answer choices and deciding which one sounds the best, let us analyze the initial sentence for any obvious errors.

Initially, we can see that the first part of this sentence is a modifier, indicating that something is being viewed from the window. We can then see that it would not make sense for “the speed” to be viewed from the window. See below:

Screen Shot 2020-03-05 at 10.11.30 AM

Notice that we can immediately cross off four answers. We have one correct answer (E). Let us look at the sentence with our correct answer plugged in.

Screen Shot 2020-03-05 at 10.13.13 AM

It is worth noting that you may not be able to narrow down to one answer using the modifier alone. However, you will often be able to narrow down to two answers, in which case, you may need to find another error to distinguish between those final two. Let us consider one more example.

OG 2020: Sentence Corrections #880

Unlike the automobile company, whose research was based on crashes involving sport utility vehicles, the research conducted by the insurance company took into account such factors as a driver’s age, sex, and previous driving record.

  • company, whose research was based on
  • company, which researched
  • company, in its research of
  • company’s research, having been based on
  • company’s research on

As before, we will analyze the initial sentence and identify a modifier.

Screen Shot 2020-03-05 at 10.15.16 AM

This question differs somewhat in that we need to change the modifier rather than the main clause. Since the subject of the main clause is “the research,” our modifier must describe this research. It does not make sense to say that the research is “unlike the automobile company.” We would want to say that the research is “unlike the automobile company’s research.” Let us go through the answer choices and mark which answer choices express the correct modifier.

Screen Shot 2020-03-05 at 10.16.00 AM

It looks as though we are down to (D) and (E), which both correct compare “the automobile company’s research” to “the research conducted by the insurance company.” Now we only really need to decide between two answers as opposed to five.

To choose between (D) and (E), we will focus on concision. The phrase “the company’s research, having been based on” in answer choice (D) is wordy and awkward. It is much more concise to simply say “the company’s research on…” Answer choice (E) is the correct answer. Let us see this answer plugged in.

Screen Shot 2020-03-05 at 10.16.50 AM

The Takeaway

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. Dangling modifiers is just one thing we can look for to efficiently narrow down our options.

In Conclusion

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 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.

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