GMAT Tip: Making Sense of Modifiers

Photograph by Michael Sugrue

The GMAT Tip of the Week is a weekly column that includes advice on taking the Graduate Management Admission Test, which is required for admission to most business schools. Every week an instructor from a top test-prep company will share suggestions for improving your GMAT score. This week’s tip comes from Mike McGarry, lead GMAT content creator at Magoosh.

All noun modifiers, by definition, give additional information about the noun they modify. The importance of that additional information can vary significantly.

Last year, I visited the Chartres Cathedral, which is considered the principal exemplar of Gothic architecture.

The man who lives next door to me has three large dogs.

Now, consider these sentences with those modifiers (italicized) removed. The first sentence is still perfectly clear, because there is only one Chartres Cathedral in the entire world. By contrast, the second sentence leaves us in the dark. The natural question evoked by that sentence is, “What man? About whom are we talking?” There is something essential now missing from this second sentence.

These two exemplify the difference between an ordinary and a “vital modifier.” A vital modifier is essential to establish the identity of the noun in question, and omitting it leaves a huge question unanswered. It “restricts” the noun, and is sometimes called a restrictive clause. A non-vital, ordinary modifier may add interesting information, but it is not necessary to establish the identity of the noun.

There are implications for punctuation. The astute reader will notice: Sentence No. 1 has a comma, but sentence No. 2 has no commas. In general, non-vital modifiers should be set off with commas from the rest of the sentence, but vital modifiers never should have commas.

In general, a modifier should touch the noun it modifies. However:

The workers at the envelope factory, having been on strike for seven weeks, were finally close to a settlement with management.

The participial phrase “having been on strike for seven weeks” is a modifier. It can’t modify “envelope factory” (the building itself can’t go on strike). It must modify “workers,” so naively one might assume this construction also violates the Modifier Touch Rule. Nevertheless, this sentence is 100 percent grammatically correct.

The prepositional phrase “at the envelope factory” is also a modifier, and it is a vital noun modifier. Without that phrase, we would have no idea which “workers” were being discussed. A vital noun modifier can come between a noun and another non-vital modifier. This is the big exception to the Modifier Touch Rule. Also, notice the vital modifier “at the envelope factory” has no commas separating it from “the workers,” but the non-vital modifier “having been on strike for seven weeks” is set off by commas from the rest of the sentence.

Mike McGarry scored in the 99th percentile on the GMAT. He is an expert in standardized test preparation, and has been a teacher for over 20 years. McGarry earned both a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in comparative religion from Harvard University.

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