Modifiers and Meaning: a GMATPrep Sentence Correction Problem

by , Jan 12, 2012

Modifiers have always been commonly tested on the GMAT and emphasis on meaning has increased recently. In addition, these two areas can often be quite tricky its hard to articulate exactly what the issues are sometimes.

So lets try talking one through. This problem is from GMATPrep. Set your timer for 1 minute 15 seconds and go for it!

* Initiated five centuries after Europeans arrived in the New World on Columbus Day 1992, Project SETI pledged a $100 million investment in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

(A) Initiated five centuries after Europeans arrived in the New World on Columbus Day 1992, Project SETI pledged a $100 million investment in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

(B) Initiated on Columbus Day 1992, five centuries after Europeans arrived in the New World, a $100 million investment in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence was pledged by Project SETI.

(C) Initiated on Columbus Day 1992, five centuries after Europeans arrived in the New World, Project SETI pledged a $100 million investment in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

(D) Pledging a $100 million investment in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the initiation of Project SETI five centuries after Europeans arrived in the New World on Columbus Day 1992.

(E) Pledging a $100 million investment in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence five centuries after Europeans arrived in the New World, on Columbus Day 1992, the initiation of Project SETI took place.

As we discuss this problem, I really want you to think about how to articulate why something is incorrect (or correct). Pretend youre the teacher and you have to explain it to your students. Also, Im going to give us a bit of a handicap. You arent allowed to use this reason: It changes the original meaning of the sentence.

[Why am I giving us that handicap? Officially, the GMAT rules dont say anything about maintaining the original meaning of the sentence. Unofficially, weve had lots of conversations with GMAC folks who discuss the intent of the sentence and making sure that the intent is maintained or not distorted. But those GMAC folks werent literally the people writing the SC questions, and so were having a bit of an internal debate at MGMAT. Were going back to lots of questions and realizing that, while its true that correct answers do maintain the original meaning or intent of a sentence (assuming that the original meaning was not illogical or ambiguous in some way), there are also other ways to make that call on meaning and Im going to illustrate what I mean using this example. Why are we bothering, when its easier to say just maintain the original meaning! and thats all? Because right now were using an unofficial rule, and theres nothing to prevent them from changing an unofficial rule.]

Okay, back to the problem. What did you think about the original sentence? Did you think it was fine or did you notice anything that might be wrong?

One thing I noticed right away is that the entire sentence is underlined, which gives them a lot of flexibility to move stuff around in the different answers. For that reason, I really want to make sure I have a solid understanding of the sentence structure to start.

I suspect from the opening word, initiated, that were starting the sentence with a modifier. How do I know? Because that ed word is a past participle; if a clause starts with a past participle, then chances are very good that its a modifier and not the main clause. As I continue to read up to the comma, I decide Im right: it is an opening modifier, because I cant find a standard subject or verb here.

What does that mean? Well, whatevers after the comma should be what was initiated at some time. Is it? Sure, a project could be initiated at a certain time, so that looks fine so far. The project then pledged something, so Ive got my subject and verb this stuff after the comma is the main clause. If I strip the sentence down to a more basic structure, I have:

Initiated <at a certain time>, Project SETI pledged <a bunch of money for something>.

But I have to be prepared for them to move things around, to change the main clause, to change the subject and verb, and so on. Because the whole thing is underlined, anything can happen!

Okay, now, back to my original question: did you notice anything that you didnt like about the original sentence?

I thought that the opening modifier sounded awkward. Now I have to figure out whether there really is something wrong with it or whether my ear is fooling me which can happen easily on hard questions.

Lets see. Something was initiated five centuries after something else. The project was initiated five centuries after the Europeans arrived. Also, something happened on Columbus Day 1992. What happened then?

Ah, here we go. This is why it sounded awkward to me. It sounds like the Europeans arrived in the New World on Columbus Day 1992. That sounds funny because I know that happened centuries earlier! But wait were not supposed to have to know history and outside knowledge in order to answer these questions, so they cant expect me to know that, can they?

No, they dont actually expect me to know that. Another part of the sentence tells me that the Europeans cant have arrived on Columbus Day 1992. Earlier, the modifier says that something happened, past tense, five centuries after those Europeans arrived. So, what happened in the past but also five centuries after 1992? Nothing! That would be in the future. :)

So that doesnt make any sense. Of course, they must mean that the Project was initiated on Columbus Day 1992. The actual sentence, however, is ambiguous because it could be read as the Europeans arrived on Columbus Day 1992, even though we know that cant make any sense. Okay, so answer A cant be right; cross it off.

Do any of the other answers make the same error?

As I suspected, the other answers move things around. In B and C, Columbus Day 1992 is very clearly associated with the initiated action, not the arrival of the Europeans.

But look at D! It puts Columbus Day with the European arrival again. Answer E also seems to do the same thing this time, theres a comma separating the European arrival from Columbus Day, but we could still ask ourselves, wait, does Columbus Day go with the European arrival action (before) or the initiation action (after)? Thats ambiguous, so answer E is no good.

Note that the original answer has a meaning that is ambiguous, so we actually do have to change that in the correct answer. Actually, though, we shouldnt think of it as changing something; were simply correcting a problem that exists in the original sentence, just like any grammar error.

Now weve narrowed things down to B and C. Both have the same two opening modifiers:

Initiated on Columbus Day 1992, five centuries after Europeans arrived in the New World,

Something was initiated (we dont know what yet), this initiation happened on Columbus Day 1992, that that date was five centuries after Europeans arrived in the New World. That all makes sense.

Now, what follows the second comma? Here, we have a difference in the two answers: answer B uses $100 million investment as the subject and answer C uses Project SETI. Is there any problem with either one of those?

Technically, its possible that either one of those things could have been initiated on Columbus Day 1992. Hmm. Oh, but we should pick answer C over answer B because the original sentence said that Project SETI was initiated then. Right?

Except I said that we werent allowed to use the it changes the original meaning reason. So how else are we going to decide between B and C? We could look for other differences, but we dont have to. There is a reason to prefer Project SETI as the subject vs. investment, even without thinking about the original meaning of the sentence. What is that reason?

See if you can figure it out. Whats the different between these two sentences?

I donated $100 to the animal shelter.

I pledged $100 to the animal shelter.

In the first sentence, Ive already given the animal shelter the $100. What about in the second sentence? Maybe the shelter has my money and maybe it doesnt. So far, Ive only told you that I pledged the money, meaning I promised to give it; I havent necessarily given the money yet.

Why am I bringing this up? How does this apply to answers B and C?

Answer B says, in short:

"Initiated on Columbus Day 1992, a $100 million investment was pledged.

Wait a second now. Initiated means something was started or done or given. The investment was given but the end of the sentence says that it was only pledged! Which is it?

This is why I said at the beginning that we can conclude that B has a bad meaning without having to resort to the changes the original meaning reason. You cant pledge to do something and have already done it at the same time they either pledged the money on Columbus Day 1992 or they actually made the donation that day. Its illogical to say that they did both.

By process of elimination, C is the correct answer. (Note that there are other reasons to get rid of some of the other answers; for instance, answer D is a sentence fragment.)

Key Takeaways for Meaning, Long Underlines, and Modifiers

(1) Long underlines are an indication that the problem is more likely to be testing meaning and / or modifiers, because both of those issues are easier to test when we can move around or change significant portions of the sentence.

(2) While we have gotten used to using the dont change the original meaning unless something is wrong with it standard, Id be a bit wary about that going forward. Instead, focus on two things related to meaning: ambiguity and illogic. Anything illogical is definitely wrong. Ambiguity can be more of a judgment call; when I see something ambiguous, I will often mark it but leave it in until Ive looked at the rest of the answers, just to make sure.

(3) 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 gave us an ambiguous meaning and bad modifier placement in B gave us an illogical meaning.

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