The SBC GMAT Files

Sentence Correction: Modifiers Left To Dangle! When The Whole Sentence Is Underlined

Students who otherwise feel quite comfortable with Sentence Correction often panic at a certain dreaded question type: questions in which all or most of the sentence is underlined.

The major concern I hear is that the questions are time-consuming, and involve going over 3-4 lines of text with our eyes, five times in succession. Another worry I hear is that students aren’t sure what kind of errors they should be solving for. An otherwise competent Sentence Corrector may throw up her arms in despair and panic about solving the question in time.

I actually don’t think the issue is so much one of time – the issue is that these questions throw us off balance and require us to change the habitual groove we got into while solving scores of other SC questions. We need to use our eyes differently to scan the question: not back and forth from the underlined part, or vertically up and down to look at the word occupying the same position, because usually the answer choices will not be vertically comparable in that way. So we shouldn’t actually scan lightly here, as if we were trying to fish out an error, but we should rather be reading for logic and clarity.

If we analyze typical sentences in which all the words are underlined (see, e.g. O.G 12, # 98, 101, 108, 110, 112 ), we discover that although such sentences may include any error type (subject-verb agreement, parallelism, pronouns, etc.), the most characteristic type of change in the answer choices are radical changes in the word order of the sentence. Underlining the whole sentence gives the question writers the freedom to turn the entire sentence inside out and upside down. These changes often affect the clarity of the sentence: in particular we should be on the lookout for misplaced modifiers.

Compare the following two constructions (O.G. 12 # 110):

a) Published in Harlem, the owner and editor of The Messenger were two young journalists, Chandler Owen and A Philip Randolph, who would later make his reputations as a labor leader.

b) The owner and editor being two young journalists, Chandler Owen and A Philip Randolph, who would later make his reputation as a labor leader, The Messenger was published in Harlem.

Neither one of these sentences is correct, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is to see how the internal components of the sentence have been shuffled around. Notice that the modifier that began sentence (a) – “Published in Harlem” – was pushed to the end of sentence (b) and became a clause “was published in Harlem.”

Without looking at all the answer choices (those of you with copies of the O.G. can do that for yourselves), we can extract a general principle. The answer choices are shuffling around segments of the sentence in ways that affect the meaning and logic.

In sentence (a) “Published in Harlem” is out of place: we call this a misplaced or a dangling modifier.  Why so? Because it is not “the owner and editor” of the The Messenger who was “published in Harlem” but The Messenger itself. We need to look for a sentence that arranges these elements in a logical fashion, but that is also correct in terms of grammar.

Sometimes there is more than one element in a sentence that can be shifted around. Develop an awareness of where things should be (logically) and how this affects the overall clarity and comprehensibility, and you will be on your way to overcoming your fear of the mile-long underline.



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