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GMAT Tips: Modifiers and Meaning

Today’s GMAT tip comes from test prep firm ManhattanGMAT. In this article, they provide helpful tips for answering Sentence Correction questions involving modifiers.  Read on to see what they have to say! 

We’ve been examining the issues of modifiers and meaning quite a bit lately because these topics are both so important on the GMAT. I’ve got another one for you today. This problem is from GMATPrep. Set your timer for 1 minute 15 seconds and go for it!

* “Recently documented examples of neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells, include the brain growing in mice when placed in a stimulating environment or neurons increasing in canaries that learn new songs.

“(A) the brain growing in mice when placed in a stimulating environment or neurons increasing in canaries that

“(B) mice whose brains grow when they are placed in a stimulating environment or canaries whose neurons increase when they

“(C) mice’s brains that grow when they are placed in a stimulating environment or canaries’ neurons that increase when they

“(D) the brain growth in mice when placed in a stimulating environment or the increase in canaries’ neurons when they

“(E) brain growth in mice that are placed in a stimulating environment or an increase in neurons in canaries that”

I chose this problem in particular because it illustrated something that I really want to discuss. What did you think of the original sentence?

Some percentage of you will say, “It didn’t sound great to me.” Which part didn’t sound so great? Many people will think the part after the word “include” sounds funny or awkward.


It’s really important to figure out why for two reasons. First, if you know why, then you have a pretty good idea of what needs to be changed or fixed in order for the sentence to work. Second, if you know why, then you also know you’re not falling into a trap. It’s quite common, on hard questions, for the right answer to sound not so great. You can’t know that you’re falling into a trap unless and until you can articulate what is actually wrong.

Now, in a real testing situation, we only have a little over a minute to tackle an SC – we don’t have much time to figure out why something sounds bad. We need to make sure that, while studying, we do take the time to articulate why things sound bad (and how to distinguish between something that sounds bad because it’s wrong and something that sounds bad because it’s a trap – and it’s actually right).

Back to our problem. Did you think the original sentence sounded not so great? I agree – and, in this case, we’re not falling into a trap. There really is something wrong with it. What?

What are they trying to say in general? What’s the message? The subject is the word “examples” and the verb is “include.” Examples of something include. Okay, they’re going to tell me some examples. How many do they give? 2. Examples of NG include A or B.

What do I know now? The first part, examples of NG include, sounds fine – and that’s good because it’s not underlined. I can’t change it! There’s something funny about example A though. What are they trying to say there, in your own words?

If you take mice and place them in a stimulating environment, then their brains can grow.

The mice are put into a stimulating environment; the brains of the mice then grow.

The original sentence says “the brain growing in mice when placed in a stimulating environment.” The word “when” indicates a modifier. What is happening “when placed in a stimulating environment?” What is being placed in that stimulating environment?

The problem with A is that this “when” modifier is logically referring to the mice (when the mice are placed in the stimulating environment), but structurally we’ve got a different story. Structurally, bizarrely enough, it’s referring to the subject of the sentence, “examples.” Technically, it’s really referring to the main clause to which it’s attached; this clause includes the subject and verb.

I ate mangoes with my sister when hungry.

I ate mangoes on the beach when hungry.

Who was hungry? Not my sister. Not the beach! Me. I ate when I was hungry. The sentence really says:

I ate mangoes on the beach when (I was) hungry.

Try that with our GMAT problem.

“Examples include the brain growing in mice when (the examples were) placed…”

Nope. That doesn’t work. Okay, so we have logic pointing us to the “mice” while structure points us to the “examples.” That’s ambiguous. Cross off answer A. Do any others repeat this error?

Let’s see. D repeats the simple “when placed” structure. Yep, that does the exact same thing. We know logically that we want to place the mice in the environment, but the structure points to examples. Eliminate D as well.

To summarize that rule: when we have “when + past participle” (and nothing else in between), then we’re talking about some action done by the subject of the main clause touching that “when” modifier. If it doesn’t make sense for the subject to have done (or have done to it) whatever the action is, then it’s wrong. Answers A and D both have this structure.

B and C switch things up a little. They expand that modifier to read “when they are placed.” And E changes the structure even more: “that are placed.” Let’s tackle the structure in B and C first.

Adding the pronoun “they,” as B and C did, should clear things up, shouldn’t it? Now we just have to find the antecedent for that pronoun and we’re fine. Let’s see, what plural nouns do we have? B says:

“Examples include mice whose brains grow when they are placed…”

The nouns “mice” and “brains” are both plural. Which is it? Logically, “they” should refer to “mice.” Structurally… it could also easily refer to brains. Are we removing the brains from the mice and placing those brains alone in stimulating environments? I hope not! Poor little mice. J (Seriously, we’re talking about an action that promotes brain growth… can’t do that if you kill the mice and take out their brains!) So the pronoun “they” is ambiguous in B; eliminate.

What about in C?

“Examples include mice’s brains that grow when they are placed…”

Do we have the same problem – two possible plural nouns that can both substitute in for “they?” We do have the plural “mice’s” and the plural “brains” but they’re not actually both nouns. “Mice’s” is a possessive noun; it’s functioning as an adjective. Whose brains? The mice’s brains. The pronoun “they” is a subject pronoun. It can’t use the possessive noun “mice’s” as its referent. It doesn’t make sense, though, to say that the brains alone are placed in the stimulating environment. Eliminate D.

That leaves us with E. Answer E changes the introduction of the modifier entirely by substituting the word “that” for the word “when.” The word “that” can function in multiple different ways. In this case, it’s introducing something called an “essential noun modifier” – a modifier that is touching the noun it modifies and that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. The examples include brain growth in mice… but not just any mice. The mice that are placed in this environment.

We’ve totally been ignoring the later parts of the answer choices, but I want to point out something else. We have two examples, A or B, so we know we need those two examples to be parallel. That’s another path we can use to answer this one; we didn’t simply because I really wanted to address the modifier and meaning stuff on this one. But let’s just check to make sure that A and B are parallel in answer E, okay?

A = brain growth in mice that <have a certain characteristic>

B = an increase in neurons in canaries that <have a certain characteristic>

Main word in A: growth

Main word in B: an increase

Both are nouns. Both function appropriately as examples of neurogenesis. Both also specify a certain type of animal (in X) with a  certain characteristic (that Y). Notice one other thing: “brain growth” and “an increase in neurons” might seem as though they are not parallel. That’s one common reason people eliminate E. (Remember my comment at the beginning about figuring out why something sounds bad so that we don’t fall into the trap of eliminating a correct answer just because it doesn’t sound so great?)

How else would you write them to make them “more” parallel?

A growth in the brains of mice… to match an increase in neurons?

Neuronal increases… to match brain growth?

No and no. In the first example, “a growth in the brains” is first of all much wordier than “brain growth” and second of all possibly misleading (there’s a growth – like a cyst – in my brain! Ahh!). In the second example, “neuronal increases” isn’t even a real term or phrase – I made it up to try to match brain growth and that was the best I could do. So the structures given in answer E are as close as we’re going to get. They are both nouns that appropriately fit the lead in (Examples of neurogenesis include…), so we’re fine. The superficial differences are just there to give people an excuse to (mistakenly) eliminate E.

The correct answer is E.

Key Takeaways for Meaning and Modifiers

(1) When the original sentence either sounds funny / awkward or is outright difficult to understand in the first place, try to figure out why. Which part sounds awkward or is hard to understand? If you aren’t sure, leave answer choice A in. If you can spot the problem, cross off A and use that issue to launch your path through the problem.

(2) Modifiers often end up being about meaning in the end, as the incorrect placement of a modifier can make a sentence ambiguous or illogical. In this problem, bad modifier placement in A (and D) gave us an illogical meaning.

(3) Don’t content yourself with crossing something off just because it sounds terrible or awkward! Ask yourself why first. Make sure to study this in advance. It’s very hard to articulate why; if you practice, you’ll be able to tell the difference between structures that sound bad because they are bad and structures that sound bad because they’re traps.

* GMATPrep questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.

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Posted in: GMAT - Verbal, GMAT Tips

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