More Modifiers and Meaning: a GMATPrep Sentence Correction Problem

Stacey Koprince —  January 31, 2012 — 12 Comments

We’ve been examining the issues of modifiers and meaning quite a bit lately because these topics are both so important on the GMAT. I’ve got another one for you today.This problem is from GMATPrep. Set your timer for 1 minute 15 seconds and go for it!

* “Recently documented examples of neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells, include the brain growing in mice when placed in a stimulating environment or neurons increasing in canaries that learn new songs.

(A) the brain growing in mice when placed in a stimulating environment or neurons increasing in canaries that

(B) mice whose brains grow when they are placed in a stimulating environment or canaries whose neurons increase when they

(C) mice’s brains that grow when they are placed in a stimulating environment or canaries’ neurons that increase when they

(D) the brain growth in mice when placed in a stimulating environment or the increase in canaries’ neurons when they

(E) brain growth in mice that are placed in a stimulating environment or an increase in neurons in canaries that

I chose this problem in particular because it illustrated something that I really want to discuss. What did you think of the original sentence?

Some percentage of you will say, It didn’t sound great to me. Which part didn’t sound so great? Many people will think the part after the word include sounds funny or awkward.

Why?

It’s really important to figure out why for two reasons. First, if you know why, then you have a pretty good idea of what needs to be changed or fixed in order for the sentence to work. Second, if you know why, then you also know you’re not falling into a trap. It’s quite common, on hard questions, for the right answer to sound not so great. You can’t know that you’re falling into a trap unless and until you can articulate what is actually wrong.

Now, in a real testing situation, we only have a little over a minute to tackle an SC “ we don’t have much time to figure out why something sounds bad. We need to make sure that, while studying, we do take the time to articulate why things sound bad (and how to distinguish between something that sounds bad because it’s wrong and something that sounds bad because it’s a trap “ and it’s actually right).

Back to our problem. Did you think the original sentence sounded not so great? I agree “ and, in this case, we’re not falling into a trap. There really is something wrong with it. What?

What are they trying to say in general? What’s the message? The subject is the word examples and the verb is include. Examples of something include. Okay, they’re going to tell me some examples. How many do they give? 2. Examples of NG include A or B.

What do I know now? The first part, examples of NG include, sounds fine “ and that’s good because it’s not underlined. I can’t change it! There’s something funny about example A though. What are they trying to say there, in your own words?

If you take mice and place them in a stimulating environment, then their brains can grow.

The mice are put into a stimulating environment; the brains of the mice then grow.

The original sentence says the brain growing in mice when placed in a stimulating environment. The word when indicates a modifier. What is happening when placed in a stimulating environment? What is being placed in that stimulating environment?

The problem with A is that this when modifier is logically referring to the mice (when the mice are placed in the stimulating environment), but structurally we’ve got a different story. Structurally, bizarrely enough, it’s referring to the subject of the sentence, examples. Technically, it’s really referring to the main clause to which it’s attached; this clause includes the subject and verb.

I ate mangoes with my sister when hungry.

I ate mangoes on the beach when hungry.

Who was hungry? Not my sister. Not the beach! Me. I ate when I was hungry. The sentence really says:

I ate mangoes on the beach when (I was) hungry.

Try that with our GMAT problem.

Examples include the brain growing in mice when (the examples were) placed

Nope. That doesn’t work. Okay, so we have logic pointing us to the mice while structure points us to the examples. That’s ambiguous. Cross off answer A. Do any others repeat this error?

Let’s see. D repeats the simple when placed structure. Yep, that does the exact same thing. We know logically that we want to place the mice in the environment, but the structure points to examples. Eliminate D as well.

To summarize that rule: when we have when + past participle (and nothing else in between), then we’re talking about some action done by the subject of the main clause touching that when modifier. If it doesn’t make sense for the subject to have done (or have done to it) whatever the action is, then it’s wrong. Answers A and D both have this structure.

B and C switch things up a little. They expand that modifier to read when they are placed. And E changes the structure even more: that are placed. Let’s tackle the structure in B and C first.

Adding the pronoun they, as B and C did, should clear things up, shouldn’t it? Now we just have to find the antecedent for that pronoun and we’re fine. Let’s see, what plural nouns do we have? B says:

Examples include mice whose brains grow when they are placed

The nouns mice and brains are both plural. Which is it? Logically, they should refer to mice. Structurally it could also easily refer to brains. Are we removing the brains from the mice and placing those brains alone in stimulating environments? I hope not! Poor little mice. : ) (Seriously, we’re talking about an action that promotes brain growth can’t do that if you kill the mice and take out their brains!) So the pronoun they is ambiguous in B; eliminate.

What about in C?

Examples include mice’s brains that grow when they are placed

Do we have the same problem “ two possible plural nouns that can both substitute in for they? We do have the plural mice’s and the plural brains but they’re not actually both nouns. Mice’s is a possessive noun; it’s functioning as an adjective. Whose brains? The mice’s brains. The pronoun they is a subject pronoun. It can’t use the possessive noun mice’s as its referent. It doesn’t make sense, though, to say that the brains alone are placed in the stimulating environment. Eliminate D.

That leaves us with E. Answer E changes the introduction of the modifier entirely by substituting the word that for the word when. The word that can function in multiple different ways. In this case, it’s introducing something called an essential noun modifier “ a modifier that is touching the noun it modifies and that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. The examples include brain growth in mice but not just any mice. The mice that are placed in this environment.

We’ve totally been ignoring the later parts of the answer choices, but I want to point out something else. We have two examples, A or B, so we know we need those two examples to be parallel. That’s another path we can use to answer this one; we didn’t simply because I really wanted to address the modifier and meaning stuff on this one. But let’s just check to make sure that A and B are parallel in answer E, okay?

A = brain growth in mice that

B = an increase in neurons in canaries that

Main word in A: growth

Main word in B: an increase

Both are nouns. Both function appropriately as examples of neurogenesis. Both also specify a certain type of animal (in X) with a certain characteristic (that Y). Notice one other thing: brain growth and an increase in neurons might seem as though they are not parallel. That’s one common reason people eliminate E. (Remember my comment at the beginning about figuring out why something sounds bad so that we don’t fall into the trap of eliminating a correct answer just because it doesn’t sound so great?)

How else would you write them to make them more parallel?

A growth in the brains of mice to match an increase in neurons?

Neuronal increases to match brain growth?

No and no. In the first example, a growth in the brains is first of all much wordier than brain growth and second of all possibly misleading (there’s a growth “ like a cyst “ in my brain! Ahh!). In the second example, neuronal increases isn’t even a real term or phrase “ I made it up to try to match brain growth and that was the best I could do. : ) So the structures given in answer E are as close as we’re going to get. They are both nouns that appropriately fit the lead in (Examples of neurogenesis include), so we’re fine.The superficial differences are just there to give people an excuse to (mistakenly) eliminate E.

The correct answer is E.

Key Takeaways for Meaning and Modifiers

(1)When the original sentence either sounds funny / awkward or is outright difficult to understand in the first place, try to figure out why. Which part sounds awkward or is hard to understand? If you aren’t sure, leave answer choice A in. If you can spot the problem, cross off A and use that issue to launch your path through the problem.

(2) 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 (and D) gave us an illogical meaning.

(3) Don’t content yourself with crossing something off just because it sounds terrible or awkward! Ask yourself why first. Make sure to study this in advance. It’s very hard to articulate why; if you practice, you’ll be able to tell the difference between structures that sound bad because they are bad and structures that sound bad because they’re traps.

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

Stacey Koprince

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Stacey Koprince is an Instructor and Trainer as well as the Director of Online Community for Manhattan Prep. She also co-manages the company's GMAT curriculum and product line. She has been teaching various standardized tests for more than fifteen years and her entire teaching philosophy can be summed up in five words: teaching students how to think.

12 responses to More Modifiers and Meaning: a GMATPrep Sentence Correction Problem

  1. Awesome explanation !!! Never thought of tackling a SC question by the process stated above.

  2. Although I appreciate this analysis, I doubt whether choice E is really correct. If you put this answer choice in the original sentence, it reads “Recently documented examples of neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells, include the brain growth in mice that are placed in a stimulating environment or an increase in neurons in canaries that learn new songs.” Since “that” modifies, as you claimed, “growth” or “increase”, it’s the “growth” that “are placed in a stimulating environment” or the “increase” that “learn new songs.” Does it sound weird?

    I think the correct answer should be like that –
    “mice’s brains that grow when mice are placed in a stimulating environment or canaries’ neurons that increase when canaries” or
    “brain growth in mice, which are placed in a stimulating environment, or an increase in neurons in canaries, which”

    However, I cannot find either in the five choices offered.

  3. Stacey Koprince June 13, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Careful, Lily – I didn’t actually say that the “that” modifiers in answer E modify growth or increase. :) They don’t. We tested “brain growth” and “increase” against *each other* because they are the two main words in two parallel structures.

    The “that” modifier of each parallel element does not necessarily need to modify the main noun in that parallel element – such a modifier can modify another noun. In this case, “that are placed” is actually referring to mice and “that learn” is actually referring to canaries.

    The article says:
    “In this case, [the word that is] introducing something called an “essential noun modifier” – a modifier that is touching the noun it modifies and that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. The examples include brain growth in mice… but not just any mice. The mice that are placed in this environment.”

    In other words, the article indicates that the word “that” is referring directly to the mice. (Note: essential noun modifiers almost always have to directly touch the actual noun they modify; there are only very rare exceptions to this. Non-essential noun modifiers can have a little more leeway, although in general, it’s preferred to have a noun modifier touch the noun it modifies.)

    • Great explanation, however, what if i spot the word “or” in the underline portion at first glance and convinced that parallelism is what’s being tested, then elimiate A, D, and E right away (becouse they don’t seen to be paralled)?

      So, do you recommend approaching every question by first identifying its structure (subject, verb…) ?

      • You can deal with whatever you want at first, that’s fine. If you use that reason (“or” stuff isn’t parallel) to eliminate E, though, then you’ve made an error, because they are actually parallel, right? So your question is really – what do I do if I make a mistake. :) Well, during the question, nothing. You just get it wrong. Afterwards, you take your time to learn why this answer really was parallel even though you thought it wasn’t, etc, and you hopefully don’t make the same mistake in future. That might involve breaking the sentence down completely by structure so that you learn what to look for and can do that more efficiently.

        I don’t recommend starting that way on every problem, though, not while the clock is ticking. That takes longer. First, just read the sentence “holistically.” If anything jumps out at you, examine / analyze it and deal with it (if you can). If nothing jumps out at you, you have two choices: break the sentence down by structure or try reading answer B inserted into the sentence to see if something jumps out at you that way instead. (And you’ll also have this thought in the back of your mind: this is a harder one. There isn’t an easy way “in” to the problem. I’m going to try, but I’m also going to be careful not to go way over on time. I might have to guess and move on.)

        • Dear Stacey,

          Doesn’t the word “or” suggest either one of them, how does it justify with the plural “Recently documented examples of”?

          • Sure, if I were writing it, I think I’d prefer to use “and.” And yet… “or” must be right. It’s in the correct answer and, in fact, it’s in all 5 answers! On harder questions, they’re going to give you a reason to think something’s wrong when it’s actually fine (because they’re hoping they can get you to cross off the right answer). So file this away for future: you can start a sentence with “examples” and then use the word “or” between the two examples given (even if you’d prefer to use the word “and” if you were the one writing the sentence). :)

  4. You’re so funny Stacey! But funny things make your articles become more understandable and lively! I feel as if I talk to you in person when reading your explanation.

  5. Hi. Agnes Lee here of Job Map Blog. Can we use some of your arti-cles in our blogsite? We will credit you accordingly.

  6. Comfortably openhearted and not gift up on roe

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