Some of our best students have their grammar rules down pat. They can talk for hours about adjective clauses, dangling modifiers, gerunds, and the subjunctive, but they’re so busy checking to make sure that all the sentence parts fit into place that they forget to read the sentence for meaning. Consider this example:
Most studies approximate that 70 percent of individuals with an amputation experience phantom sensations in the amputated limb, often in the form of pain that is identical to the pain that they typically experienced when the limb was still attached to the body but contorted in an unnatural position.
(A) that is identical to the pain that they typically experienced when the limb was still attached to the body but
(B) that is identical to the pain that they typically experienced when that limb was still attached to the body but that was
(C) that was identical to the pain that they typically experienced when the limb was still attached to the body but was
(D) identical to the pain that they typically experienced when that limb had still been attached to the body but that had been
(E) identical to the pain that they would be experiencing when the missing limb was still attached to the body but when
Sometimes an answer choice will be wordy and awkward, and students will be tempted to dismiss it because they’ve been taught to look for clarity and conciseness. The trouble is that the other choices, though perhaps more elegant, distort the meaning of the sentence and make it illogical. The wordy and awkward choice is actually correct. This trick makes sentences like the one in the question above especially difficult to navigate.
Got your answer? Let’s see how you did.
The original sentence, though slightly awkward, is grammatically correct. The sentence compares the pain caused by phantom sensations to a previous pain caused by a limb placed in a contorted position; the pain is identical to the pain experienced when the limb was attached but contorted… At first glance, the sentence might not appear to be in parallel form, but the different elements in the comparison accurately describe what they are supposed to describe. All the other choices introduce errors.
Choice B adds the word that and the verb was in an attempt to parallel the previous that with pain. However, this makes two parallel clauses about pain, and the pain…that was contorted makes no sense.
Choice C changes the first verb to was. Since the verb experience in the non-underlined portion of the sentence is in the present tense, the verb describing the pain must be in the present tense as well. The first part of the comparison is about the pain that is currently experienced; the second part of the comparison is about a past feeling of pain.
Choice D, like B, illogically describes the pain as pain…that had been contorted and incorrectly uses the past perfect had been, which must describe an event that took place before other past tense events in the sentence. However, the pain that they typically experienced was pain that took place at the same time that the limb was attached; the limb was not attached before they experienced the second type of pain compared.
Choice E uses would be experiencing to describe the pain that people actually experienced when a limb was attached to their bodies. Would be describes a hypothetical event, one that would be taking place if some other condition allowed for this event to occur.
Choice A is correct.
Takeaway: Instead of relying on conciseness alone, always keep in mind what the sentence is about. Intelligible sentences won’t always be grammatically correct, but be careful that you don’t veer too far in the opposite direction and discard wordy answer choices whose meaning is clear. Trap answers will often on the surface appear to be more “grammatical” than the correct answer. In many cases, though, they sneakily alter the correct meaning by masking it with awkwardness.
Written by Matthew Busick.