Dangling modifiers, the GMAT, and the dangers of over-complication

Dangling modifiers, the GMAT, and the dangers of over-complication

In an attempt to better understand the grammatical issues that students studying for the GMAT typically find most challenging, I’ve started — belatedly, I admit — dipping a toe into the Sentence Correction forums on beatthegmat and gmatclub

The experience is something I can only describe as a flashback to the days when I used to read students’ obsessive parsing of SAT grammar questions on College Confidential. I don’t dispute that there’s a lot of helpful information, and some really outstanding analysis, but a lot of what I read also makes me want to bury my head in my hands and groan. 

To be fair, many of the students posting are not native English speakers, or come from countries where the English spoken is sufficiently different from standard American English that what’s on the GMAT might as well be a foreign language. That’s a huge challenge, and I’m not denying that. (more…)

GMAT idiom questions that aren’t

GMAT idiom questions that aren’t

When it comes to the GMAT, idiom questions seem to cause a disproportionate amount of anxiety.

To some extent, this is understandable. English is filled with idioms: fixed phrases that, by definition, are what they are for no other reason than that the language evolved a particular way. There is no logical reason that insist on is correct while insist at is not. And for ESL students, the sheer number of these phrases can seem overwhelming. 

The reality, however, is that “pure” idioms are simply not that much of a focus on the GMAT. There are, of course, certain idioms that you absolutely need to know; however, the fact that two answers might contain the phrase research on while three others contain research into does not necessarily mean the only way to answer the question is to know which preposition the GMAT considers correct. (more…)

“Which” vs. “that” and the GMAT, simplified

The question of when to use which vs. that is one of the most common issues that people studying for the GMAT face. I’ve done some hunting around on the web, and while there are a lot of articles explaining the distinction, most of them present the issue is much more complicated terms than is necessary. Knowing the grammar behind the rule might occasionally come in handy, but the reality is that most of the time it’s pretty irrelevant. In this post, I’m going to give you the shortcut.

The most important thing to know is that which follows a comma and that does not. In other words, comma = which, no comma = that.

Incorrect: The treaty of Tordesillas, that was signed on June 7, 1494, and authenticated at Setúbal, Portugal, divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and the Crown of Castile.

Correct: The treaty of Tordesillas, which was signed on June 7, 1494, and authenticated at Setúbal, Portugal, divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and the Crown of Castile.

Incorrect: The treaty which was signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, and authenticated at Setúbal, Portugal, divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and the Crown of Castile.

Correct: The treaty that was signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, and authenticated at Setúbal, Portugal, divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and the Crown of Castile.

Note that the GMAT almost always tests this rule by incorrectly using which without a comma rather than that with a comma, as in the second set of sentences above.

Why? Because the use of which without a comma is much more difficult for most people to identify as an error. That’s hardly a surprise since that construction is considered perfectly acceptable in everyday writing, particularly in British English. The GMAT, alas, is entirely uninterested in that fact and insists that you adhere strictly to the “only use which after a comma” rule.

Regardless of what you happen to think of that, knowing the GMAT’s preference can help you quickly eliminate answers on questions like this:

The treaty which was signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, and authenticated at Setúbal, Portugal, divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Portugal and the Crown of Castile.

(A) The treaty which was signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, and authenticated
(B) The treaty signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, and authenticated
(C) The treaty which was signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, and being authenticated
(D) The treaty of Tordesillas, signed on June 7, 1494, and it was authenticated
(E) The treaty that was signed at Tordesillas on June 7, 1494, its authentication

Sorry, you didn’t think I was going to make things overly straightforward here, did you?

Even if you can’t use the rule we just covered to get all the way to the answer, (B), you can at least cross out (A) and (C) right away. That allows you more room to work carefully through the other answers. (D) and (E) both create awkward and ungrammatical constructions, so they can be eliminated.