Verb Tense in GMAT Sentence Correction
There are many questions on the GMAT relating to verb tense (though, as we’ve mentioned in the past, only six tenses are tested directly). The use of tenses in English is one of the more complicated areas of English grammar for native speakers and non-native speakers alike. However, by familiarizing yourself with fundamental rules pertaining to the verb tense, you will be able to move through these questions with increased speed and accuracy.
Let’s take an example from the Economist GMAT Tutor’s bank of 5000 practice questions:
Captain Matthew Webb achieved fame in 1875 by being the first man to swim unaided across the English channel; eight years later, as he attempted to garner more acclaim, swimming across Niagara Falls was to cost him his life.
A) swimming across Niagara Falls was to cost him
B) swimming across the Niagara Falls were to cost
C) by swimming across the Niagara Falls he had cost
D) a swim across the Niagara Falls was costing him
E) during a swim across the Niagara Falls, came at a cost to
1. Check for grammar errors
As always, first scan the sentence for grammatical errors. No error is immediately apparent. It is important at this stage not just to select A and move on, as it is very easy to miss some vital issues. Check the differences between A and the other options.
2. What is the subject of the verb?
An important difference between A and B is that A has “was” and B has “were.” Ask yourself: “What is the subject of the verb?” Swimming is the subject. A subject in the form of “verb + ing” (a gerund) or “to + verb” (an infinitive) is always singular. Eliminate B.
3. Compare the original tense against new options
Check C. We now have a change to the Past Perfect “had cost,” rather than the Past Simple “was.” The Past Perfect is used to describe an action that took place before another action in the past. This is not the case here. On the other hand, the Past Simple is used for an action that took place at a particular point in the past. In this case, that particular point is “eight years after 1875.” The Past Simple is correct. Eliminate C.
Check D. Here the past simple in the original sentence is changed to the Past Progressive “was costing.” Because the action took place at a particular point in time and was finished after that particular point in time, the Past Simple is needed. The Past Progressive is used, in part, for actions that took place in a particular point in time but that point in time is in the middle of the action (think of it as taking a photo of that action). Eliminate D.
Check E. This changes the subject “swimming” to a time phrase “during a swim across the Niagara Falls.” The problem with this is that now we have no subject for the verb “came.” Eliminate E.
A is correct. You may think that we should have just selected A after our initial reading of the sentence. However, it pays to check the other options to be sure A is the right answer as there may be another answer that is stylistically superior, that fixes or improves upon the intended meaning, or that may highlight a grammar problem you did not see at first. Learning the rules in relation to the tenses is one step in helping you to feel more comfortable with a more systematic approach to tackling Sentence Correction questions.
This post appeared first on the Economist GMAT Tutor blog.