Possessive Case on GMAT Sentence Correction
Sentence Correction questions often involve multiple issues. Stick to the ones you are sure of when solving them. However, if you can add new tools to your toolbox by learning rules you were unaware of, you are on the right track.
We’ll be exploring grammar rules surrounding possessive apostrophes in this article. But first, let’s look at this Sentence Correction question from Economist GMAT Tutor’s question bank:
Introduced into the College of Engineering only five years ago, ergonomics have by now become an extremely popular specialization; this trend can be partially understood as reflecting safety’s importance in the workplace.
A) have by now become an extremely popular specialization; this trend can be partially understood as reflecting safety’s importance in the workplace
B) has by now becoming an extremely popular specialization; this trend can be partially understood as a reflection of safety’s importance in the workplace
C) have by now becoming an extremely popular specialization; this can be partially understood as a reflection of the importance of workplace safety
D) having now become an extremely popular specialization; this can be partially understood as a reflection of the importance of workplace safety
E) has now become an extremely popular specialization; this trend can be partially understood as reflecting the importance of workplace safety
As always, first check for grammatical errors. Notice the singular subject “ergonomics” next to the plural verb “have.” It’s an old trick of the test makers to make a subject appear to be plural by using a word that ends in “s.” However, “ergonomics” is singular. When the subject noun has an ‘s’ at the end, either it is plural in most cases, or it is a pseudo-plural noun- it look plural but is not. Other words in this category are: news, politics, economics, among others. Since ergonomics is singular, eliminate A and C.
“Has by now becoming” in B is also ungrammatical because what follows the ‘has’ should be the past participle of the verb become (the V3) because it is a perfect tense, not the present participle (Ving). Eliminate B.
Notice the presence of the semi-colon in the sentence. The GMAT is never a test of punctuation.For example, you never have to decide whether there should be a comma in a sentence. However, you can use the rules of punctuation to help you. The parts of a sentence on either side of a semi-colon must be able to stand alone as full sentences. The first part of answer choice D, before the semi-colon, is not a full sentence. Eliminate D. E is therefore the correct answer.
That may be the way to quickly solve this Sentence Correction question, but the most interesting feature of this sentence for me was the use of possessive apostrophes. Compare answer choice A, which has “safety’s importance in the workplace”, and answer choice E, which has “the importance of workplace safety.” If this were the only difference between these two answer choices, which would you choose? At first, there does not appear to be much difference between the two. However, an important rule with possessives is that expressing possession using ‘s (or s’ for plural possession) is only allowed with concrete (that is, tangible, not abstract) nouns. Safety is an abstract noun. Therefore you cannot use an ‘s with it. Side note: There will be some exceptions here for nouns that may appear abstract but are not (e.g. time periods such as minute hour, day, year, century etc) can all take the possessive, bit in general, the rule is that only nouns that are concrete can possess something. This makes sense as it would not be logical to say, for instance, knowledge’s problem. You would need to say: the problem of knowledge.
This question highlights the value of learning as much as you can from each question during your GMAT preparation. That way you will stand on firmer ground on test day.
This post appeared first on the Economist GMAT Tutor blog.