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.

But at the same time, it is very, very difficult for me to watch people twist themselves into knots trying to find alternate, sometimes borderline nonsensical, interpretations for relatively straightforward statements, and to fixate on aspects of grammar that aren’t actually germane to the issue(s) at hand.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Consider the following question:

One of the twenty-two official languages of India, many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals make use of Sanskrit in the form of hymns and mantras.

(A) many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals make use of Sanskrit in the form of hymns and mantras
(B) many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals would make use of Sanskrit in the form of hymns and mantras
(C) playing a role in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals is the use of Sanskrit, having the form of hymns and mantras
(D) Sanskrit is used in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals in the form of hymns and mantras
(E) Sanskrit being used in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals in the form of hymns and mantras

From what I gather, when a lot of studiers look at this type of question, their analysis goes something like this:

The beginning of the sentence consists of an appositive, which is a phrase that differs from a clause in that an appositive does not contain a verb. Furthermore, it is correct to use a comma to separate this phrase from the following clause because “many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals make use of Sanskrit in the form of hymns and mantras” is an independent clause, and appositives should be separated from main clauses by commas. (A) and (B) both contain full sentences, but I think that (B) is incorrect because the sentence is not discussing a hypothetical situation, and so there is no reason to use the conditional “would.” However, I am confused by the use of the gerund “playing” at the beginning of (C), and I believe that there is a subject-verb disagreement in this answer. In (D) and (E), I find the prepositional phrase “in the form of hymns and mantras” ambiguous because I don’t think these answers are making it clear if these things are used in the ceremonies and rituals or in Sanskrit. I also think that it is possible that hymns and mantras could be interpreted as types of languages, so wouldn’t it be correct to place “hymns and mantras” after the comma? 

Does that make your head spin too? 

As someone who has effectively made a career out of teaching people to separate relevant from irrelevant information and to work through dense pieces of text more efficiently, I find this type of over-complication unspeakably frustrating.

In fact, I sometimes wish I could just crash through the computer, grab people by the shoulders, and tell them that there’s an easier way to do things. 

Unfortunately, even I can’t violate the laws of physics. I do, however, have this blog, which allows me to unapologetically simplify things as follows: 

Logically, what is one of twenty-two official languages of India? Sanskrit. 

So Sanskrit, the subject, must be placed immediately after the comma. 

That eliminates everything except (D) and (E).

(E) is a fragment because it substitutes the gerund being for a conjugated verb, eliminating that option. Besides, the presence of the word being almost always signals a wrong answer.

So (D) is the answer. Done. 

For the record, the rule is that modifiers must be placed as close as possible to the nouns or phrases they modify.

When a sentence opens with an introductory phrase that describes but does not name the subject, the subject must be placed immediately afterward. If the subject is not placed immediately afterward, a dangling modifier is created. 

The original version of the sentence above contains a dangling modifier because many Hindu ceremonies is clearly not one of the twenty-two official languages of India.

If you want to get more technical, an introductory phrase can take the form of a participial phrase, with either a present or a past participle: 

Present: Tracing its linguistic ancestry back to Proto-Indo-European, Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages for which substantial written documentation exists, 

Past: Counted among the twenty-two official languages of India, Sanskrit is used in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals in the form of hymns and mantras

Or it can take the form of an appositive — that is, it may begin with a noun phrase. 

Appositive: An ancient language that plays a significant role in classical Indian culture, Sanskrit is used in many Hindu ceremonies and Buddhist rituals in the form of hymns and mantras.

Now, these grammatical rules may be helpful for understanding some common “templates” for sentence construction, but they are also not terribly relevant to your ability to identify dangling modifiers.

When it comes to that error, only thing that counts is your ability to recognize whether the description at the beginning of a sentence is followed by the noun it most logically describes. (Not a noun it maybe sort of might be able to describe if you understand the sentence in a very particular way.) 

This is an infinitely simpler approach, and it is also one that is far more in line with what the test is actually trying to accomplish

In fact, I strongly encourage anyone studying for the GMAT to read this announcement from the GMAC. The essential point is that as the pool of test-takers has grown more international, the GMAC has deliberately shifted the focus of the test from idiomatic usage to more logic-based constructions. Obviously, yes, you do need a certain level of grammatical knowledge to be successful on the GMAT, but sometimes you also just need to know what makes the most sense. 

If you come from an educational system that stresses theoretical knowledge, as well as the constant demonstration of that theoretical knowledge, then approaching Sentence Corrections with the goal of simplifying things to this extent might be a bit of paradigm shift. But do keep this in mind: pretty much every Sentence Correction you ever look at will test multiple errors simultaneously. There’s a good reason for that, one that goes beyond the strictly grammatical: among the things that the GMAT tests is the ability to distinguish between information that is actually relevant to the task at hand and information that is merely present. Note the parallel with Critical Reasoning here.

By treating all present information as relevant and allowing (even encouraging) yourself to get sidetracked by it, you are actually reinforcing the exact opposite of the mentality you need to be successful — professionally as well as on the GMAT. And if you spend your time analyzing every bit of every practice question, you’re unlikely to suddenly be able to zero in on the key factors when you take the test for real. 

And for some interesting musings on the issues surrounding dangling modification (as well as some entertaining examples of improper modification), see this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed

Yes, you can delete ACT scores; no, you shouldn’t just keep taking the test

After my recent post discussing why it’s not a good idea to treat real SATs or ACTs like practice runs, a tutor wrote to ask me to weigh in on the ACT’s score-deletion option and its effect on the test-prep process. In truth, I probably should have covered it in my earlier post, but since I didn’t (mea culpa!), I’m going to discuss it here. 

So first, for those of you who aren’t familiar with ACT scoring policy, the ACT takes the concept of score choice to a level beyond that of the SAT. Most colleges will allow you to select which set(s) of scores you want to send, but a few holdouts — including several Ivy League schools — still require you to send all of your scores. If you take the SAT, you do in fact need to send everything; however, if you take the ACT, there’s still a back door into score choice. 

Basically, the ACT has a policy that allows test-takers to permanently remove a score from their record, provided that it was obtained from a paid registration (that is, not state or district-mandated testing) has not yet been sent to any colleges. All you need to do is submit a written request to the ACT (see here; click on “Scores,” then scroll down to “How do I delete a test-day record?”), and your scores will be permanently expunged. 

Obviously, this policy has some major benefits, most notably the fact that you can actually see your scores before deciding whether to delete them. If you walk out of the test thinking you nailed it and then discover that wasn’t quite the case when you get your score report a few weeks later, you won’t have to worry about colleges ever seeing them. In contrast, if you want to delete your SAT scores, you must do so without knowing what they are. (The College Board gives test-takers until 11:59pm on the Wednesday following the test to decide whether they want to cancel their scores.)

In theory, this sounds like a great deal. Take the test, see how you do, and if you don’t like the results, all you’ve lost is your registration fee.

If you want, you can sign up the next month and do it again.

And if that doesn’t work, you can sign up the following month and do it again.

And again. And again. And again.

Are you starting to see how this could be a problem?

To be clear, I am by no means suggesting that there aren’t situations in which this policy can really come in handy.

For example, if your practice test scores are inconsistent/borderline and you reallyreally want to get the test over with, then yes, you can go ahead and sign up without worrying that taking the risk will ruin you. I’ve had students in that situation who were unsure about whether they should take the test in a particular month or wait until the next administration, but they were close enough that the ACT’s policy made it worth it for them try. In their cases, it paid off.

Likewise, there are students who seriously overestimate their abilities, sign up for the test before they’re ready, and then get a very rude awakening. If these students later buckle down and end up raising their scores significantly, they won’t run the risk of having one bad decision influence their admissions prospects.

Those are best-case scenarios.

The worst-case scenario looks like the first ACT student I ever tutored. She had taken the test seven — yes, seven — times before I started working with her, in the spring of her junior year.

Why had she taken the test seven times? Because, she had been told, she could just keep deleting the scores.

Did I mention she attended one of New York City’s top prep schools and was stuck at around a 21?

As I discussed in my other post a few days back, repeated test-taking is also not a good idea from a psychological perspective. First most students will inevitably start to get discouraged when their scores remain flat from test to test. If they do eventually end up in the hands of a capable tutor, the mental stumbling blocks can pose just as big a problem as the content-based ones.

I speak from experience here: for a number of my “second-round” students, half the game just involved convincing them that yes, they were actually capable of improving. It was some of the most nerve-wracking tutoring I ever did. The kids were on edge, the parents were on edge and begging the kids to give it one more real go, and both of them just wanted the whole thing to be over with already.

There’s also the fact that students who know they can always sit for a test again tend to take each individual administration less seriously than they otherwise would. Why bother, if there’s always another chance? The result is that a process that could be gotten over with quickly ends up taking months longer than necessary. It also reinforces an attitude that is not particularly helpful for college, or life for that matter. College professors and bosses don’t necessarily accept re-takes, even when the stakes are high. It’s generally better to treat things as if they count the first time around.  

Then there’s the unfortunately reality that scores tend to stay more or less stable after the third test.

A couple of months back, I ran across a horrible article in which a supposed test-prep expert talked about how wealthy students were gaming the college admissions process by taking standardized tests over and over again, and getting tutored in between, until they hit their target scores.

The truth, however, is that while students may occasionally hit their goals after, say, test #5, those with the savviest parents (or the savviest tutors) rarely take the test for real more than three times, four at absolute most.

These students still take plenty of tests, but they’re more likely to pay for private proctored practice tests, which allow them to work out the kinks before going in for the real thing. They have people making sure they take the process seriously, and that they try their hardest when it counts.

Part of the reason that realistic adult guidance is important here, especially for lower-scoring students, is that there tends to be a correlation between students’ scores and their capacity to self-evaluate. From what l’ve observed, lower-scoring students are more likely to overestimate their abilities, and to underestimate the amount of work necessary to improve.

They are also more likely to fall prey to the “maybe I’ll luck out and do really well this time” mentality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. For students in this category, total score choice is a curse in disguise; it gives them an excuse not to have to confront their weaknesses and allows them to indulge in wishful thinking. (I’ve witnessed this phenomenon in action as well, and it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to counteract.)

My other concern about over-relying on score choice is strictly practical. It is very easy to intend to cancel a scores but then never actually get around to doing so. People get busy, they procrastinate, they forget… These things just have a way of happening. If you’re not careful, you could easily end up unintentionally sending a score that you should have asked the ACT to delete months ago. 

So the bottom line is that if you want to take advantage of the ACT’s score choice policy to and try to get the test over with early, that’s certainly fair. 

Under almost no circumstances, however, would I recommend that someone sign up for the real test without taking at least one practice test first. Buy the Red Book (or if you don’t want to buy it, sit with it in the bookstore), block off a couple of hours, and see how you do. If you’re scoring in or close to your target range right off the bat, it’s probably worth a shot, even it’s early in the year; there’s no sense in prolonging things unnecessarily. 

But make no mistake: although ACT-style score choice can be a boon in the right situation, it is not the solution to all your test-prep woes. You still have to put in the time and study, and you still have to take the process seriously. Eventually, “one more time” runs out, and you have to accept where you are. It’s up to you to use the time you have to your own best advantage.

Do a few questions before you get to the test

Do a few questions before you get to the test

For those of you taking the SAT tomorrow (and scouring the Internet for a few last-minute tips), here’s a small one that could actually have a significant effect on your score.

To introduce it, a personal anecdote (notice how many time the word I appears in the following sentences). About five years ago, I was going over a student’s QAS score sheet from her first real SAT. She was a good student and strong test taker, and in fact she’d scored a 2200. It was pretty much in line with her practice tests, but when I looked at the scoring breakdown by section, something leapt out at me: virtually every question she had gotten wrong came from the first three sections. And when I read over her essay, I saw that it was, well… Let us say it was not her best work.

At that point, I put two and two together. “G,” I said pointedly. “Were you awake when you started this test?”

She smiled guiltily and ducked her head, then shook it slightly.

Well, that solved that mystery.

Before that incident, I didn’t do much coaching about what people should and should not do on test day beyond the basic (don’t stay up until 2am, don’t have two cups of coffee if you don’t normally drink coffee, eat a good breakfast…), but that conversation made me rethink things a bit.

Along with most other people, I’ve never truly understood just why the College Board and the ACT should put a bunch of already stressed out, sleep-deprived teenagers through the torture of waking up at 6am on a *Saturday* to take a test that in some cases will have a significant impact on the rest of their lives. Since it doesn’t look as if that policy is going to get rethought any time soon, though, you need to be prepared.

Unless you’re the lucky sort of person who can go from 0 to 100 and be totally on the second you open that test booklet, even if you’ve been dozing through the (endless, endless) instructions, this for you. You cannot afford to have a warm-up period —  questions from the beginning of the test count just as much as those anywhere else on the test, and you need to be in the zone from the moment you break the seal on your test booklet. And one way to ensure that you’re already in full test mode is to do a handful of questions before you get to the test.

When I say a few, I mean a few. Not so many that you start to freak yourself out, one or two easy/medium ones from each section. You don’t even need to check your answers — and in fact, you probably shouldn’t. The goal isn’t to score yourself, just to get things working so that the transition to starting the test doesn’t feel quite so abrupt. If your brain groans in protest, let it. At least you’ll get that part over without any damage. By the time you start the real thing, you’ll be past that stage and able to focus much more clearly.

A little fear is not a bad thing

I confess, I get nervous when my students tell me that they feel confident. Well, some of my students, at least. You’d think I’d be happy to hear that, right? I mean, I’m a tutor — shouldn’t I want my students to feel confident? Yes, of course… When it’s merited, that is. But confidence is unfortunately not always merited, especially when it comes to standardized testing. What some students know and what they think they know are often not the same thing at all. And in those cases, a small helping of fear can be a lot more effective than all the confidence in the world.

At this point, I think that it’s helpful to distinguish between types of confidence:

On one hand, there’s the kind of confidence that results from genuine mastery of material, or from sustained, regular preparation. My students who have made 100+ point leaps, especially in reading, do not score 520 one day and 670 the next. No, their increases come in fits and starts. They go up a bit, they plateau, sometimes they go down a little, and eventually their scores start to go up again. They put in the work, and they do lots and lots of practice.

At a certain point, they get it: the test is hard, it’s designed to mess with them, and there’s no easy way to beat it (ew). Then they get scared and start to really listen to what I have to say. By the the time they take the test, they know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and while they feel pretty comfortable with their ability to score in a particular range, they also know not to take anything for granted — they’ve had the experience of getting things wrong when they were so sure they got them right too many times. Almost inevitably, when I ask them how the real thing went, they hesitate and say something along the lines of, “There were a few questions I wasn’t totally sure of, but I think it went ok.” Or just, “it was really long.”

That’s when I know I’ve done my job.

Usually, these students end up with a score they’re relatively pleased with. It might not be perfect, but it’s typically a lot higher than the one they started with. Sometimes it’s even good enough to make them competitive applicants at some very selective schools.

The second kind of confidence, however, manifests itself quite differently. It’s typically exhibited by students scoring somewhere in the 500-600 range — solid enough to see just how effective certain techniques can be, but not quite advanced enough to be able to implement things on the fly, under pressure, and without a huge amount of practice. Unfortunately, they tend to overlook that last part. The students in this category often start serious prep late, take no more than a handful of practice tests, persistently view answers in terms of what they think sounds good or bad rather than considering what the test is asking of them, memorize a handful of vocab words and assume they know enough to figure out the rest, skip tutoring sessions, and assume that just understanding why they got a particular question or two or ten wrong means that they’ll never make a similar mistake again.

They also refuse to skip questions — or, for that matter, skip enough questions — because they still cling to the hope that if they answer every question, maybe, just maybe, they’ll luck out and get a perfect score. Or at least one that’s above 700 (hey, it could happen, right?).

Yet after only a few sessions, they’re remarkably confident.

I really dread hearing that phrase — for these kids, their confidence is disproportionate to their actual knowledge, and they almost inevitably they end up scoring a lot lower than expected. (Which means that their parents have just wasted a lot of money, and we’ve both just wasted a lot of time.) They’re surprised; I’m not. They haven’t yet figured out what they don’t know, and what they don’t know is hurting them. But sometimes there’s no way to head it off — some people need to have the experience of crashing and burning before they start to understand what they’re up against, preferably before the fall of their senior year.

I’m not at all trying to suggest that it’s a good thing to be quaking in your Adidas when you go in to take the SAT — the other end of the spectrum is the kind of anxiety that causes someone to second-guess every answer they pick, and that’s just as dangerous. But I do want to suggest that confidence works both ways: if you’ve studied your butt off and really know how to work through difficult questions while keeping your cool, you’re probably entitled to feel good about your performance.

But if you haven’t spent a whole lot of time dealing with your weaknesses — if you think it’s just all going to come together because it’s the real thing, and this stuff all looks pretty familiar from the couple of practice tests you’ve taken — your confidence is probably misplaced, and you’re likely to fall into trap after trap. Getting nervous is a step up. In small doses, fear focuses you; it keeps you on your toes. it means that you know what you’re up against and recognize that it isn’t quite as easy as you might have initially thought. It means that you understand you need to take your time, work carefully, and realize that answers you wouldn’t immediately think to pick can still be right.

Newsflash: the SAT and the ACT are *standardized* tests. They’re set up so that barring some serious work on the fundamentals of whatever’s giving you trouble, you’ll score in the same general range on every test. Your score won’t just shoot up because you understand what you did wrong on a handful of questions. Getting just a little bit scared and realizing that if you truly want your score to go up, you might have to get out of your comfort zone, might be the best thing you can do.

The SAT and…crossword puzzles?

When people ask me whether I enjoy my job, my usual response is something along the lines of, “Some people do crossword puzzles, I write SATs” — the implication being that I view the test as a sort of amusing intellectual game. The other implication, of course, is that I don’t actually do crossword puzzles.

Or, well, didn’t.

A couple of weeks ago, while I was walking downtown with a friend, I got hungry and made him sit with me in Koreatown while I indulged a late-night craving for kimbap. In return, he proceeded to pull out the NYT crossword puzzle and insist that I help him with it. I groaned and told him for the thousandth time that I’m just not good at crossword puzzles (I write SATs, isn’t that enough?!), but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and after I managed to figure out a couple of clues (“River’s movement?” Ebb and flow), I sort of had to admit that was having fun.

The following week, he offered to buy me dinner in exchange for helping him with the Sunday puzzle, and since I obviously wasn’t going to turn down the prospect of a free meal, I found myself once again hunched over the Times magazine. As we worked through the clues, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities between the crossword puzzle and the SAT.

On one hand, that wasn’t exactly a revelation. Crossword puzzles are about reasoning with language, sometimes understanding a given phrase in its usual meaning, sometimes understanding it in a completely different — and completely unforeseen — way. (My personal favorite? “An expert in locks.” Answer: wigmaker). What’s more, you never know which angle you’ll have to approach a clue from: you could tie yourself in knots trying to think way outside the box, only to have the answer be staring you right in the face all along.

The premise of all that wordplay is that language is flexible — it can twisted inside-out and batted around and used to suggest meanings that are entirely unexpected yet perfectly and incontrovertibly logical. And in order to do well, you have to become equally flexible in response.

Sound familiar?

I was reminded of the infamous Aunt Sylvie question, which I promptly pulled up and showed to my friend; he answered it in about five seconds with flawless reasoning, pointing out that he’d only been able to do so because he’d spent the previous two hours looking for double meanings!

Now, sitting down for half an hour and taking a stab at a puzzle isn’t exactly going to be a magic pill that boosts your Critical Reading score 100 points instantaneously. Those things are hard; it took my friend and I a couple of hours of reasonably steady work to do the Sunday puzzle, and we’re both adults with college degrees, not to mention professional SAT tutors. And neither of us could have finished the puzzle alone. If you do decide to try one, I highly suggest that you do it with a parent or another adult. And although you might figure out a few clues upfront without too much trouble, be prepared to get frustrated.

If you stick with it long enough, though, you might see your mindset start to shift. You’ll start to look for alternate possibilities faster and realize that you might end up having to think in the opposite direction from what you originally thought. There’s also a chance you’ll start to see the SAT like more of a game and less of an unfortunate fact of high school life.

Hey, it’s summer. You’ve got time.