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GMAT Sentence Correction (SC): Most Common Modification Errors

Written by Sameer Kamat

GMAT Sentence Correction (SC) questions can seem difficult for non-native English speakers. But with the right practice, they are the easiest to fix to get a high GMAT score. The GoGMAT test preparation series on MBA Crystal Ball moves on to a dreaded topic on the GMAT verbal syllabus. With the examples used you’ll find it easier to understand GMAT SC questions.


GMAT Sentence Correction: Most Common Modification Errors

Modifiers, elements of a sentence that serve to modify or limit the meaning of other words, can range from a single adjective to complex phrases or even clauses. Although typically considered a feature of written speech, modifiers can be found in almost any typical English sentence. Sometimes misused even by native speakers of English, modifiers often cause errors both in grammar and in meaning. Such errors are among those most frequent on GMAT Sentence Correction questions. This article will discuss mistakes in the use of modifiers that are regularly tested on GMAT.


Misplaced Modifiers

Words and phrases that modify nouns must stand directly next to the nouns they modify. Violation of this rule results in a mistake typically referred to as a misplaced modifier. A modifier is misplaced if it stands next to the wrong noun. Consider the following sentence correction question:

Alice took a math class to complete her major requirements, which turned out to be rather interesting.

In this example, the modifying phrase which turned out to be rather interesting is meant to describe the math class, not the requirements Alice has to complete for her major. Therefore, it should be moved next to the noun it describes: To complete her major requirements, Alice took a math class, which turned out to be rather interesting.

Be particularly careful with the position of short, one-word modifiers, since their misplacement is sometimes not easy to notice but results in unwanted changes in meaning. Compare the following two sentences:

A picture that was supposedly painted by Vermeer has been stolen.

A picture that was painted by Vermeer supposedly has been stolen.

In the first sentence above, supposedly modifies painted by Vermeer, that is, we are not certain whether the picture is in fact a Vermeer painting. In the second sentence, supposedly modifies has been stolen, thus conveying a meaning entirely different from that of a first sentence: we no longer question the authenticity of the picture; what we doubt instead is whether it has become an object of theft.


Dangling Modifiers

A modifier is referred to as dangling if the word it is supposed to modify is not to be found anywhere in the sentence. This mistake frequently occurs in sentences that start with participial phrases. Look at the following examples:

Wrong: Thoroughly inspected for signs of wear or damage, the engineer found the machine to be in perfect order.

Correct: Thoroughly inspected for signs of wear or damage, the machine was found to be in perfect order.

Wrong: Having completed the technical inspection, the machine was found to be in perfect order.

Correct: Having completed the technical inspection, the engineer found the machine to be in perfect order.

In the first pair of sentences, the modifier thoroughly inspected for signs of wear or damage is clearly intended to modify the machine, not the engineer. Therefore, the machine should be made the subject of the main clause that directly follows the modifier. Conversely, the sentence that starts with having completed the technical inspection should have the engineer as its subject, since this modifier clearly describes the engineer’s actions, not those of the machine.


Adjectives vs. Adverbs

A change of modifiers, however slight, can result in an unwanted change in the author’s intent. Consider the following example:

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is his supposedly best-known painting.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is his supposed best-known painting.

In the first sentence, the adverb supposedly modifies best-known. If the adverb is replaced with an adjective, an unnecessary change of meaning occurs: among da Vinci’s works, Mona Lisa might not in fact be the best-known one, but it is certainly a painting, so we want the adverb supposedly to modify the adjective best-known, not the noun painting.

Conversely, were we to modify a noun (as in “Mona Lisa is Leonardo da Vinci’s supposed masterpiece”) we would need an adjective supposed, not an adverb supposedly. In GMAT problems, such adjectives as supposed. Usual, seeming, frequent, recent, significant, and independent are sometimes replaced with their corresponding adverbs ending with -ly to create changes in meaning that can be easy to overlook.


Which vs. the Present Participle

Another common modification mistake that appears on the GMAT is incorrect use of modifying clauses that start with which. Consider the following example:

The factory has recently installed new machines for processing raw material, which has led to an increase in its output.

No matter how common in everyday speech, sentences like the one above are considered wrong on GMAT. What the author obviously wants to say here is that the installation of new machines has led to increased factory output. However, the clause beginning with which can only refer to the noun or noun phrase that directly precedes it. In the example above, it seems that raw material has led to an increase in the factory’s output, so the sentence requires correction.

Turning the first clause (the factory has recently installed…) into a noun phrase and making it the subject of the sentence is one way to correct this mistake: The installation of new machines for processing raw material has led to an increase in the factory’s output. Alternatively, the sentence can be corrected by using a present participle: The factory has recently installed new machines for processing raw material, significantly increasing its output. The -ing form is often used as a modifier on GMAT to express the result of the main clause.


Regardless of what type of modification errors you encounter, the most important rules concerning modifying words or phrases are these: (1) Modifiers should make sense referring to the words they seem to modify and (2) to avoid ambiguity or changes in meaning, modifiers should be placed as close as possible to the words they are intended to modify.

Continue learning on our GMAT discussion forum. If you have any GMAT related questions about this post or any other GMAT topic, head over to the GMAT preparation helpdesk and shoot your queries.


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Sameer Kamat

About Sameer Kamat

Founder of MBA Crystal Ball | Author of 'Beyond The MBA Hype' | Cambridge MBA Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter @mba_cb