Common Wrong Answers on the GMAT: Misplaced Participial Phrases

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Placing modifiers correctly is one of the greatest challenges on the Sentence Correction portion of the GMAT. Different rules apply to different types of modifiers, whether they are participial phrases, adjective clauses, or appositives.

To see when modifiers get tricky, take a look at this GMATPrep® question:

Originally developed for detecting air pollutants, a technique called proton-induced x-ray emission, which can quickly analyze the chemical elements in almost any substance without destroying it, is finding uses in medicine, archaeology, and criminology.

(A) Originally developed for detecting air pollutants, a technique called proton-induced x-ray emission, which can quickly analyze the chemical elements in almost any substance without destroying it,
(B) Originally developed for detecting air pollutants, having the ability to analyze the chemical elements in almost any substance without destroying it, a technique called proton-induced x-ray emission
(C) A technique originally developed for detecting air pollutants, called proton-induced x-ray emission, which can quickly analyze the chemical elements in almost any substance without destroying it,
(D) A technique originally developed for detecting air pollutants, called proton-induced x-ray emission, which has the ability to analyze the chemical elements in almost any substance quickly and without destroying it,
(E) A technique that was originally developed for detecting air pollutants and has the ability to analyze the chemical elements in almost any substance quickly and without destroying the substance, called proton-induced x-ray

When dealing with modifiers, be careful to identify what modifiers the sentence is throwing at you, and make sure they are placed properly. If you're choosing between two options that seem to shuffle modifying clauses or phrases around, think to yourself: What is the clearest and most logical sequence of modifiers?

In the sentence above, the most important point is the placement of the participial phrase "called proton-induced X-ray emission." Normally, participial phrases set off by commas are very flexible modifiers. However, when a participial phrase NAMES the noun it describes, it must directly follow that noun (much like an appositive must directly follow the noun that it renames).

For example:

A boy ran down the street, named John.

This is incorrect, even though participial phrases set off by commas at the end of sentences can usually refer back to the subject of the sentence. Because "named John" NAMES the noun "boy," it must follow directly after "boy," as in:

A boy named John ran down the street.

We have the same situation in this SC problem. "Called proton-induced X-ray emission" is a participial phrase that NAMES the noun "a technique," so it must directly follow "technique." In C, D, and E, it does not follow "a technique," so we can eliminate these answer choices. This leaves choices B and A.

A is preferable to B because it is poor style to stack two modifiers before the noun that they both modify. For example, "Exhausted from the hike, covered in dirt, John couldn't wait to get home and take a shower" should be rewritten as "Exhausted from the hike, John, who was covered in dirt, couldn't wait to get home and take a shower." In the same way, “Originally developed for detecting air pollutants, a technique…” is a clearer option than the one in B. Additionally, the adjective clause beginning with "which” correctly describes the noun idea immediately before it.

Choice A is correct.

Written by Matthew Busick

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