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

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.

In fact, this type of pattern of alternating prepositions is sometimes nothing more than a distraction. In some cases, it may be possible to answer “idiom” questions without even addressing the idiom at all.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the following question. (It’s directly based on #789 on p. 707 in the 2017 Official GMAT Guide – please note that I can’t reprint the official version here for copyright reasons.)

While many of the neanderthal fossils discovered recently in southwest France appear to offer evidence of a connection between neanderthals and modern humans, the number of ambiguous fossils appear more likely at this point that they will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans rather than resolve them.

(A) appear more likely at this point that they will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans rather than
(B) appear more likely that it will aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans at this point than
(C) appears more likely to aggravate debates on the origin of modern humans at this point rather than
(D) appears more likely at this point to aggravate debates over the origin of modern humans than to
(E) appears more likely that it will aggravate debates on the origin of modern humans at this point than to

When you look at this set of answer choices, it might seem logical to conclude that the question is testing debates on vs. debates over. If you’re not sure which version is correct, you might start to panic a little — but that would be a shame since you can answer the question without addressing the idiom at all.

The first things to notice is that (A) and (B) begin with appear (plural) whereas (C)-(E) begin with appears (singular). That split indicates that the question is testing subject-verb agreement.

What is the subject of that verb? That is, what seems more likely to inflame debates? The number of ambiguous fossils (complete subject). But careful here: the true subject is the number (singular). The plural noun fossils belongs to the prepositional phrase of ambiguous fossils.

So the subject is singular and requires a singular verb (appears), eliminating both (A) and (B).

Now, look at (C), (D), and (E). Literally, just look at them. (D) is the shortest of the three, a clear sign that you should pay special attention to it. 

Now, think in terms of parallel structure: more likely to aggravate…than to resolve.

(E) does not keep the verbs parallel at all (that it will aggravate vs. to resolve), so it can be eliminated. 

Now you’re down to (C) and (D). If you know your word pairs and can recognize that more must be paired with than, not rather than, you can eliminate (C).

Otherwise, if you find yourself absolutely stuck between two very similar answers without any way to decide between them, you’ll usually be better off opting for the shorter one. In this case, that rule of thumb will get you to (D), the correct answer.

So there you have it: an “idiom” question that really isn’t.  

And for an overview of all the rules tested on GMAT Sentence Corrections, click here.

The Complete GMAT Sentence Correction Guide is now available on Amazon!

The Complete GMAT Sentence Correction Guide is now available on Amazon!

The Complete GMAT Sentence Correction Guide offers a thorough review of every major grammar concept tested on the GMAT as well as extensive practice sets and strategies for identifying correct and incorrect answers more quickly and easily.

To help students apply their skills to the test, the book also features 150 GMAT-style multiple choice questions accompanied by thorough explanations.

The book can be found on Amazon here, or on The Critical Reader Books page. 

For a preview, click here. (And for a really condensed preview, check out the Complete GMAT Sentence Correction Rules page.)

And if you are a tutor interested in a review copy, please contact us. We can still send out a few copies.