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GMAT Sentence Correction: Relative Clauses

As an independent GMAT tutor, I find that many of the students I work with struggle on Sentence Correction because they find it difficult to breach the gap between grammatical intuitions and concrete grammatical rules. In such cases, I find that students benefit most from clearly delineating the grammatical rules that appear on the test and learning how to identify them. In this and subsequent articles, I will discuss some common grammatical concepts that give my students trouble. Today’s topic: Relative Clauses

You can think of relative clauses as long modifiers that include the words “which,” “who,” and “that” (these words are known as relative pronouns). Confusion over relative clauses and relative pronouns is two-fold: You need to know both what role a relative clause plays in a sentence and which relative pronoun is appropriate. In this article, I’ll discuss the first issue: What is the function of a relative clause, and how can you determine whether it’s correct?

First, what are relative clauses?

Relative clauses are types of modifiers. Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that modify or describe other elements in a sentence. For an example, look at the following the sentence: “The angry duck has many timid friends.” In this sentence, we have two modifiers. “Angry” describes “duck” and “timid” describes “friends.”

Relative clauses are tricky because, unlike many of the modifiers to which you might be accustomed, relative clauses consist of verbs and often “look” like sentences.

Let’s take a look at a sentence with a relative clause: “Many people spend countless hours studying for the GMAT, which is the test required for business schools.”

The relative clause here is: “which is the test required for business schools.” Though we have a verb here, this clause functions not in telling us what the GMAT does, but instead in DESCRIBING the GMAT. If you’re unsure, just ask yourself: “Can the relative clause stand on its own?” Intuitively, it can’t.

So now that we know what a relative clause is and what its function is, the next question is: How do we know if the clause is being used correctly?

A general rule for relative clauses is that the clause itself must touch the noun it’s modifying. When you see a relative clause, you want to be sure that it immediately follows whichever noun it logically describes. In the sentence above, the relative clause correctly touches the noun it’s describing (“GMAT”) and is thus used correctly.

But sometimes, a relative clause will touch a noun that, logically, it can’t describe. Look at the following example (adapted from a retired GMAT question):

“Many in the film industry contend that the coloring technique degrades major works of art, which they liken to putting lipstick on a Greek statue.”

The relative clause here is: “which they liken to putting lipstick on a Greek statue.” Since this relative clause touches the noun “art,” it would seem that this clause is modifying the noun “art.” However, though this appears grammatically correct, you should notice that it distorts the author’s meaning! To understand why, ask yourself this question: “WHAT do they liken to putting lipstick on a Greek statue?”

It’s not “art” that they “liken to putting lipstick on a Greek statue,” but instead “the coloring technique.” Since the relative clause isn’t touching the noun it’s modifying (“the coloring technique”), the original sentence is wrong, and we’ll have to choose an answer that correctly addresses this issue in meaning.

In a forthcoming article, I’ll discuss the difference between “that” and “which.”

Until then, keep checking that the relative clause modifies the correct noun!

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