Sentence Correction

The SBC GMAT Files

Sentence Correction: The Subject Of These Sentences That Are Complex, Are Not Always Apparent

Tracking down a subject is one of the key problems facing students trying to crack Sentence Correction questions.  Often coupled with parallelism issues, subject identification can be a great challenge due to a number of potential traps set by the test-makers.

Firstly, several types of parts of speech can be the subject of a sentence and it is difficult to decide what form the following verb should take in order to comply with the Subject Verb Agreement rule. Secondly, the subject does not need to be placed at the beginning of a clause, meaning that the sentence can be built in the reverted order with subject following verb or the sentence can start not from a subject but from an introductory phrase. Thirdly, the subject can be located a long way from the verb so that a confused test-taker will fail to see the direct connection between them. Last but not least, the subject can be a very complex and wordy structure, making it difficult to decide which word is actually the core of the phrase.

Having said that let’s now go through a few examples of different subject types (with the subject in bold and the verb in italics), arranged from the simple to the complex:

1.    Single noun: The robber stole a purse.
2.    Adjective+noun: The dangerous robber stole the woman’s purse.
3.    Verbal phrase: Stealing has always been his favourite activity.
4.    Composite noun phrase: The latest action film The Robber turned out to be a great success.
5.    Noun phrase + relative clause: Theft that had been his favourite activity stopped pleasing him a while ago.
6.    Pronoun + Relative clause: Those who have avoided being robbed can consider themselves lucky.
7.    Composite verbal phrase: To steal or to stop stealing was always his key dilemma.
8.    Subject-clause: That theft was the best way to land in prison was absolutely clear to him.

Now, let us try to outline a few simple steps that can help us locate the subject:
1.    Discover the basic meaning of a sentence (summarize the sentence’s main message in just a few words)
2.    Find the VERB FIRST; with multiple verbs (such as in multiple clause sentences), work one verb at a time. Remember too that it is easier to trick the test taker with a subject than with a verb so finding th subject through the verb is easier than the converse.
3.    Ask the question ‘Who/ What did the action? in order to locate the SUBJECT.

Let’s try to apply this technique to a complex sentence:
Trying to stay up all night with material in front of one’s eyes that was written by others is excruciatingly dull for the average person.
1.    Discover the basic meaning of a sentence.
The sentence says that spending all night looking at a text (written by someone else) is boring (for the average person).
2.    Find the VERB
We have many candidates but actually there are two verbs here.
‘trying’ ”“ V-ing, not a conjugated verb form
‘to stay up’ ”“ base form of V, again not conjugated
”˜was written’ ”“ Bingo! First conjugated verb!
3.    Ask the question ‘Who/ What did the action? in order to locate the SUBJECT.
Who or what WAS written?
Answer: The material WAS written- We see the relative Promoun ”˜that’ referring back to the material. I know I know, relative pronouns are supposed to modeify what immediately precedes them but that is NOT always the case especially when there is something like a prepositional phrase that is describing the main noun-subject. You will not (well perhaps rarely) get that situation- this is just ti illustrate a point. Here we see that subject and verb agree.
Now notice there is ANOTHER verb and we need to do a step 3 check again:
The next verb is ‘is’!It is a also a conjugated verb form, thus it must be the VERB (in this case it is the main verb of the sentence as the previous one belongs to the clause within the longer sentence)
3.   Ask the question ‘Who/ What did the action? in order to locate the SUBJECT.
Who or what IS (boring)? Answer: Trying to stay up all night with material in front of one’s eyes that was written by others Phew, that was a long one.
Lesson to take home:
Try not to be deceived by a great variety of disguises that the subject of a sentence may take. Use the three simple steps to identify it and bear in mind that the subject is one of the favorite elements used by the GMAT test-makers to set traps.

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