GMAT Grammar: Gerunds and Gerund Phrases

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On the GMAT Sentence Correction, the –ing form of a verb will sometimes act as part of the main verb: in this case, it is part of one of the Progressive Tenses of a verb.  Sometimes the –ing form of a verb will modify a noun: in this case, it is a participle.  Sometimes, though, the –ing form of a verb will act as a noun itself in a sentence.  In this case, it is a gerund.

 

Gerunds

A gerund is the –ing form of a verb acting as a noun, in any of the "noun roles" possible in a sentence.  A gerund can be the subject, the direct object, or the object of a prepositional phrase.

1.  Walking is an underappreciated form of exercise.

2.  Right after a big meal, one should avoid swimming.

3.  To appreciate the art of pitching is to understand the essential aspect of baseball.

In #1, the gerund "walking" is the subject of the sentence.  In #2, the gerund "swimming" is the direct object of the verb "avoid."  In #3, the gerund "pitching" is the object of the preposition "of".  Notice that this gerund inside a prepositional phrase is packaged inside an infinitive phrase.  A gerund can also start a phrase, and have other forms packed inside of it.  On Sentence Correction, the GMAT loves to pack one grammatical form inside another, just like Russian dolls.  The more layers, the better!  All verb-form phrases (participial phrases, infinitive phrases, gerund phrase) allow for this Russian-doll layering --- any one of those could go "inside" any of the others, and they can stack in multiple layers --- unlimited fun for the nerds who write GMAT Sentence Correction questions!

 

Gerund phrases

Because the gerund is a verb form, it can take a direct object, a prepositional phrase, an adverb or an adverbial phrase.   In other words, it can be followed by all the grammatical pieces that can follow an ordinary bonafide verb.  When a gerund is followed by these pieces, it becomes a gerund phrase.  Here are some examples, with the gerund phrases underlined.

4. Listening to all nine of Beethoven's symphonies in a row is his idea of a day well spent.

5. Why don't more people find hiking in a forest in a rainstorm a magical experience?

6.  A manual for re-booting the photocopy machine after it shuts down due to a power surge would be helpful.

7. I prefer reading a scintillating book to watching an hour of mind-numbing television.

In #4, the gerund phrase is the main subject of the sentence; a gerund could also be the subject of any subordinate clause.  In #5, the gerund phrase is the direct object of the verb "find"; incidentally, this is the idiomatic form "to find A B", where "A" is the object and "B" is the quality or characteristic one ascribes to A.  In #6, the gerund phase is the object of the preposition "for"; notice that packed within the gerund phrase is a subordinate clause beginning with the word "after" – again, the Russian-dolls thing that the GMAT loves.  In #7, the first gerund phrase ("reading …") is the direct object of the verb "prefer" and the second gerund phrase ("watching …") is the object of the preposition "to".  This final sentence demonstrates the idiomatic form "to prefer A to B."

Gerunds are a frequently tested form on GMAT Sentence Correction.  Here are a couple of GMAT SC practice questions involving gerunds.

 

Practice Questions

1) The income categories of Senator Crocker’s proposed tax code are as broad as to fail to distinguish the sale of an old chair at a pawnshop from collecting profits in a sophisticated stock option move.

    1. as broad as to fail to distinguish the sale of an old chair at a pawnshop from collecting profits in
    2. as broad as to fail in distinguishing between the sale of an old chair at a pawnshop and collecting profits from
    3. so broad as to fail to distinguish selling an old chair at a pawnshop and collecting profits from
    4. so broad as to fail to distinguish selling an old chair at a pawnshop from collecting profits in
    5. so broad that he fails in distinguishing between selling chair at a pawnshop from the profits in
      1. 2) Getting adequate sleep, a full eight hours every night, the depth of which will be enhanced by a regular regimen of physical exercise, with significant consequences for not only one's immediate short term health, but also for the immune system's ability in fighting major illness over the long term.

A. which will be enhanced by a regular regimen of physical exercise, with significant consequences for not only one's immediate short term health, but also for the immune system's ability in fighting

B. which will be enhanced by a regular regimen of physical exercise, has significant consequences not only for one's immediate short term health, but also for the immune system's ability to fight

C. which will be enhanced by a regular regimen of physical exercise, having significant consequences for not only one's immediate short term health, and for the immune system's ability to fight

D. which will be enhanced by a regular regimen of physical exercise, has significant consequences not only for one's immediate short term health, and also for the immune system's ability in fighting

E. that will be enhanced by a regular regimen of physical exercise, which has significant consequences not only for one's immediate short term health, and the immune system can fight

 

Practice question explanations

For both of these, we will analyze them in terms of splits.

1) There are a number of splits in this one: it does not matter at all which split we analyze first.

Split #1: the idiom "so [adjective] as to" is correct, and the construction "as [adjective] as to" is idiomatically incorrect.  Choices (A) & (B) are incorrect on this split, and choices (C) & (D) & (E) are correct.

Split #2: the idiom "fail to" is correct, and the construction "fail in" is incorrect.  Choices (B) & (E) are incorrect on this split, and choices (A) & (C) & (D) are correct.

Split #3: there are two acceptable idioms involving the verb "distinguish" --- one is "to distinguish P from Q" (choices (A) & (D) have this correct); the other is "to distinguish between P and Q" (no choice has this correct).  It is incorrect to use "distinguish between" with "from" (choice (B) & (E) make this mistake) and to use "distinguish" + "and" without the word "between" (choice (C) makes this mistake).

Split #4: Parallel structure!  In either of the forms of the "distinguish" idiom, the P and Q must be parallel in structure.  Both can be gerunds, "selling" and "collecting" (choice (C) (D) have this correct).  Both can be nouns, "sale" and "profits" --- no answer choice has that construction.  It violates parallelism to have one gerund and one noun --- choices (A) (B) & (E) make that mistake.

It's not really a split, because only one choice has this issue, but notice the mystery pronoun in (E) --- who is the "he" mentioned in this choice??

I explored all four splits so folks would see all the issues at play in this sentence, but any two or three would be sufficient to eliminate the other four answers and leave the only possible correct answer, (D).

2) Here, the gerund begins the sentence and is (or should be) the main verb of the entire sentence.  Again, there are multiple splits, and it does not matter which one we analyze first.

Split #1: on the Sentence Correction, the GMAT adores the "not only P, but also Q" construction: only choices (A) & (B) have this correct idiom.  Incorrect variants include "not only … and" (choices (C) & (E) make this mistake) and "not only … and also" (choice (D) makes this mistake).

Split #2: one mistake involves the placement of the common word "for" in parallel structure.  The word "for" can either appear once before and outside of the parallel structure --- "for not only P but also Q" (no answer choice has this) --- or it can be repeated in each term of the parallel structure ---- "not only for P but also for Q" (choices (B) & (D) have this correct).  It is a classic GMAT Sentence Correction mistake to have the common word once outside and once inside, as in "for not only P, but also for Q" (choices (A) & (C) have this incorrect construction).  Choice (E) blatantly violates the parallelism, so that's an even bigger problem!

Split #3: The "ability" idiomatically is followed by an infinitive --- the "ability to do something" (choices (B) & (C) get this correct).  A common idiomatically incorrect construction involves the word "ability" + "in" + [gerund] --- "ability in doing something" (choices (A) & (D) make this idiom mistake).  Choice (E) avoids this particular issue by blatantly violating the parallel structure, again, a much larger problem.

Those three splits are already enough to isolate choice (B) as the only possible correct answer.

Another more sophisticated split I'll point out involves the missing verb mistake.  If you notice, choices (A) & (C) are not complete sentences --- the noun "getting" does not have its own verb anywhere in these sentences.  Choices (B) & (D) provide the main verb "has" for the main subject "getting."  Sentence (E), with it substitution of "that" for "which" has a particular bizarre structure --- technically, in version (E), everything from "the depth of that" to the end would be a complete sentence, but then the whole first part is odd gerund phrase that sticks out awkwardly like a sore thumb and doesn't fit with the rest.  If we fixed the other mistakes in choice (E), we could rectify this problem by constructing two separate sentences following this layout: "Getting adequate sleep, a full eight hours every night, is important.  The depth of this sleep will be …."  That would be a possibility in real-life editing.  In the GMAT Sentence Correction, though, you have to stick to one sentence, so (E) is out.

The best answer is (B).

This post was written by Mike McGarry, GMAT expert at Magoosh, and originally posted here.

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