GMAT Tip: Precarious Prepositions
When offering up strategy for sentence correction questions, we often talk about “decision points” – understanding what type of error is being tested and what subtle changes exist between multiple-choice selections.
One of the most common questions we see from students is “shouldn’t the answer be ______, because the subject is ______, and therefore (singular/plural)?
Nine times out of ten, inquiring test taker has simply not correctly identified the subject of the sentence because of his/her failure to eliminate the prepositional phrase.
GMAT questions are not straightforward – when you are being asked to identify a correct verb, there can be a ton of “junk” between the correct subject and verb. These descriptive phrases are often prepositions and also often look like subjects.
First, what is a preposition, really? In vague, unhelpful words, a preposition can be defined as a word that indicates the relationship of one word to another. There are actually around 70 prepositional words, but common ones we find in GMAT Sentence Corrections that disguise the real subject include:
So, what exactly do we mean by disguise? Let’s take a look at a couple examples.
Some of the homes that were destroyed and structurally compromised in the fire last year had been built by the community’s earliest settlers.
(A) Some of the homes that were destroyed and structurally compromised in the fire last year had been
(B) Some of the homes that were destroyed or structurally compromised in the fire last year had been
(C) Some of the homes that the fire destroyed and structurally compromised last year have been
(D) Last year the fire destroyed or structurally compromised some of the homes that have been
(E) Last year some of the homes that were destroyed or structurally compromised in the fire had been
Many students immediately identify that one of the decision points must be the verb – should it be “had been” or “have been” ? Many students will fixate on “homes” as being the subject, when in actuality, “of the homes” is a prepositional phrase and could not possibly be the subject. The subject is “some,” which is an indefinite pronoun and is conditionally singular or plural, depending on what it is referring to. Here, “some” is referring to “homes,” so it happens to be plural.
But, what we should remember is this is the GMAT, and it is not as simple as pairing subjects and verbs together. Rather, this question is more about proper timeline – the correct answer should properly convey the timeline of how and when the homes were destroyed. Answer choice (B) is the only one that adequately accomplishes this task –
Some of the homes that were destroyed or structurally compromised in the fire last year had been built by the community’s earliest settlers.
A hint on correct verb choice is “were, focused on timeline is a better way to tackle this questions. Can homes be both destroyed and structurally compromised? Nope. Homes can be destroyed OR structurally compromised.
Can we move “last year” to the beginning of the sentence? Nope again, because once it is rearranged, then it appears the homes were built by earliest settlers… last year.
Is understanding subject verb / agreement necessary to get this question correct? Of course. But it doesn’t get us as far as we need to get to the right answer. The prepositional phrase here is a distractor, designed to get us to fixate on the wrong thing.
Over the next few posts, we will keep honing on distractors, like prepositional phrases.
The above GMAT Tip comes from Veritas Prep. Since its founding in 2002, Veritas Prep has helped more than 100,000 students prepare for the GMAT and offers the most highly rated GMAT Prep course in the industry.
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