No Relatives, No Problems On Sentence Correction

by on May 17th, 2012

Today’s article comes courtesy of Veritas Prep GMAT instructor and Beat the GMAT expert, David Newland.

We love our relatives… most of the time. What would holidays be without relatives? Sometimes we even need them (“Dad can I borrow some money?”). But chances are that you have had a relative who has stayed too long on a visit…or perhaps you are that relative! One thing is clear: in certain circumstances, when the relatives are gone so are the problems.

Moving out the relatives on sentence correction

A relative clause is a type of modifier that is used to modify a noun. The most common relative pronouns are “who, whose, whom, which, that, and where.” An example is “The man who mows our lawn recently won the lottery.” The relative clause “who mows our lawn” modifies the noun “man” and makes it clear which man we are talking about.

The clause can be set off by commas if the information is not necessary for a clear identification. For example,” My car, which has recently been repaired, is a sedan.” You can see that the relative clause “which has recently been repaired” is not necessary for identification since most of us only have one car.

Relative clauses are the source of many errors on the GMAT

The rules for relative clauses are very restrictive. They must modify a noun; they cannot modify action. And they must modify the nearest noun preceding the clause.

Here is an example from the Veritas Prep Sentence Correction 2 book:

“It rained yesterday, which forced the organizers to cancel the event.”

This example has an error – the relative clause is modifying the action. It was the fact that it was raining that forced the organizers to cancel the event.  Since “yesterday” is the nearest preceding noun the relative clause it is supposed to be modifying “yesterday,” but that would simply be illogical.

It is, of course, possible to fix a problem with a relative clause by modifying the sentence in order to keep the clause.

“Yesterday’s rain, which forced the organizers to cancel the event, was unexpected.”

However, as you can see we have really manipulated the sentence to make this work. Perhaps this is why official GMAT questions seem to rarely do this. By far the most commonly correct way to eliminate a relative clause error on sentence correction is simply to eliminate the relative clause altogether!

“It rained yesterday and as a result the organizers cancelled the event.”

As you can see it is actually much easier to eliminate the relative clause altogether. No relatives, no problems!

Here is another example:

“ The deposit that I put on the house, which is nonrefundable, is in jeopardy if I cannot close this month.”

The error here is that the second relative clause “which is nonrefundable” logically modifies the word “deposit” not the nearest preceding noun, “house.” Note that the other relative clause “that I put on the house” is not misplaced since it properly modifies the adjacent noun “deposit.”

“The nonrefundable deposit that I put on the house”

Again, the corrected versions simply eliminate the misplaced relative clause.

Now let’s look at a problem from the Official Guide 13th Edition:

Unlike the original National Museum of Science and Technology in Italy, where the models are encased in glass or operated only by staff members, the Virtual Leonardo Project, an online version of the museum, encourages visitors to “touch” each exhibit, which thereby activates the animated functions of the piece.

A. exhibit, which thereby activates
B. exhibit, in turn an activation of
C. exhibit, and it will activate
D. exhibit and thereby activate
E. exhibit which, as a result, activates

As you can see the original sentence has a relative clause error. The relative clause “which thereby activates” does not logically modify “exhibit”, and yet, according to the rules of grammar that is the noun that it must modify. In informal English modifying phrases are often misplaced, but on the GMAT this is just the sort of error that is tested!

So answer choice A is eliminated due to the misplaced relative clause. Answer choice B is extremely awkward; this is a signal from the test writers that we should eliminate it. It also appears to be a new clause without a verb. Answer choice C has the pronoun “it” but “it” has no antecedent so that there is nothing to do the activating. Finally, like choice A, answer choice E features the misplaced relative pronoun “which.”

Answer Choice D is the correct answer. In this choice the relative clause is simply eliminated. The new sentence clearly indicates who it is that is activating the animated functions…the answer choice reads: “encourages visitors to “touch” each exhibit and thereby activate the animated functions of the piece.” The infinitive verb form “touch” is used and the parallel infinitive “activate” is also used.

As you can see from these examples, when it comes to misplaced relative clauses the easiest remedy is to remove the clause all together. No relatives…no problems!  (and no, Mom, I didn’t mean you!)

Question courtesy of GMAC, Official Guide for GMAT Review, 13th Edition.


  • I always have a doubt whether 'when' is a relative pronoun or not.

    •  "When" can function as a relative pronoun in the right circumstances. It needs to modify the nearest preceding noun and place that noun in a particular time. It would be used in the same way that "where" is used. Example:

      "From late 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, to 2012, when he began his reelection campaign, the American economy was steady even in the midst of long-term turmoil in the European markets."

    • Thank you David

  • Nicely explained.

  • No relatives…no problems!  (and no, Teacher, I didn’t mean you!) :-)

    • I really like your user name. Does it mean, "get this GMAT done and I can get my life back?"

    • Yes, teacher. my name means the same! 

  • I got the right answer. However, I am curious, you mention parallelism and the infinitive verbs, touch and activate, in your explanation, but the question uses 'to touch'. How is that parallel with activate? I thought activate is required because the subject is visitors?

    • "Activate" is required instead of "activates" -- that is singular versus plural and that is indeed determined by "visitors."

      However, another aspect is verb form, "touching" versus "to touch" for example. In this case the word "and" lets you know that touch AND activate need to be parallel and that "to touch and activating" would not be acceptable. 

      It may seem like it needs to be "encourage visitors to touch...and thereby TO activate" however the "to" in front of "activate" is implied.

    • Great explanation. It makes perfect sense now! Appreciate it.

  • Thank u,  David!!!! Very nicely explained.

  • No Relative, No Problems on SC is a lovely piece; filled with great insights into that part of grammar tested on the GMAT. Thanks... Please, do give-in other like tips...

  • Thanks Kctony, rajcools, Marvyn, and Charu! I am glad you liked it...

  • Hi David, referring to Sylvester' doubt addressing a plural 'activate' instead of singular 'activates', would it also be right to consider the post underlined text where it says "the animated functions of the piece." here the functions is plural and so it could only adapt to plural 'activate' and not activates(which is the singular for 'function' )

    • No that would not be correct. It is the "visitors" that controls the singular versus plural.

      Here are my examples that show that "the animated functions" does not control.

      He activates the animated functions of the piece.
      He activates the animated function of the piece. 
      The visitors activate the functions.
      The visitors activate the function.

      It does not matter whether the part that follows the underlined is singular or plural. 

  • Nicely explained.

  • i think this can also be resolved as a cause and effect structure

    It rained yesterday, forcing the organizers to cancel the event

    let me know if i'm wrong pls. tx.

    • certainly that would be correct. The -ing word is a very powerful modifier. And since "forcing" modifies action and is as adverbial modifier it is hard to misplace. It is adjective modifiers you are really focusing on for the GMAT. 

Ask a Question or Leave a Reply

The author Veritas Prep gets email notifications for all questions or replies to this post.

Some HTML allowed. Keep your comments above the belt or risk having them deleted. Signup for a Gravatar to have your pictures show up by your comment.