GMAT Sentence Correction: Getting Cozy with Modifiers

June 2, 2012
Serina Isch

GMAT BlogModifier errors occupy a firm spot in the big 7 error types seen in GMAT sentence correction and can be one of the tougher error types to spot because errors in modification are common in colloquial English. However, once you know the common patterns behind the errors, you can spot them quickly on test day. Learning the patterns in modification errors on the GMAT does not mean that you have to blow the dust and cobwebs off the grammar textbook. A few specifics are all that you need to cover the lion’s share of the modification questions that you will see on test day. So, let’s get cozy with GMAT modifiers.

Modifiers come in many forms; they can be single words or phrases, adjectives or adverbs. Remember, adjectives are those words or phrases that modify or describe nouns and pronouns; adverbs are those words and phrases that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. However, no matter what the form, the first rule to remember about modifiers is that, just like the baby birds getting warm in winter in the picture, modifiers need to be as close as possible to the thing that they are describing. Consider the following (In these examples, the modifier is in bold and the thing being modified, given the sentence construction, is in italics):

Incorrect: Sally enjoyed a hot cup of coffee.

Correct: Sally enjoyed a cup of hot coffee.

Unless she specifically enjoys her “cup” hot, the adjective “hot” needs to be next to the noun “coffee” for the purposes of the GMAT. Because we commonly use the incorrect sentence construction in everyday speech, that type of error can be hard to spot at first glance.

One of the GMAT’s favorite single word modifiers is the word “only.” Anytime that you see it appear in an underlined portion of a GMAT sentence correction question, you will want to deliberately test to see that it’s next to what it modifies. Let’s take a look at what an error utilizing “only” could look like.

Incorrect: Because he was on a diet, Tom only ate one cupcake.

Correct: Because he was on a diet, Tom ate only one cupcake. The correct version limits the number of cupcakes, while the incorrect version limits what he did with the cupcake. The incorrect version states that he definitely “ate” the cupcake instead of smashing it or hiding it. Because of the diet clause, we need to limit the number of cupcakes not the action. The rule of proximity with modifiers applies to modifying clauses as well.

This next rule will make a world of difference in the way that you tackle modification questions on the GMAT! The most commonly tested issue with modifiers on the GMAT is in sentences with introductory modifying phrases.  When you have an introductory clause, it needs to modify the noun or pronoun that comes directly after this comma. Consider the following:

Incorrect: In an unusual move for a Republican, the president’s directive established price controls.

Correct: In an unusual move for a Republican, the president established price controls.

In the incorrect sentence, the introductory clause modifies the directive instead of the president. When you ask who or what made the unusual move, the modified noun must be the president. With a quick realignment, we’ve corrected the modification issue. Notice, as in the above example, the GMAT will commonly use a possessive adjective to throw you off the scent of the error. The word “president’s” in the first sentence is being used as an adjective and cannot work as the noun being modified. Let’s take a look at one more.

Incorrect: Unwilling to admit that the hotel had overbooked its rooms, it was decided by the manager to tell the arriving customer that the room’s toilet had flooded.

Correct: Unwilling to admit that the hotel had overbooked its rooms, the manager decided to tell the arriving customer that the room’s toilet had flooded.

When you ask yourself who or what was “unwilling to admit,” you find that it was the manager who was unwilling to admit, not the decision itself. So, next time you run into an introductory phrase in your GMAT preparation, make sure that it is next to what it modifies! I’ll leave you with an in-format question to ponder. Addressing the modification error in the question below will quickly get you down to only 2 choices. Please comment with the answer that you select and why you choose the answer that you do. Also, let me know what questions you run into about modifiers as prepare for test day. In the meantime, this will get you started as you deal with modification questions on the GMAT.


After its refinancing attempts failed, high interest rates on the loan the business procured consumed so much of their revenue that they were forced to liquidate some of their holdings.

A) the high interest rates on the loan the business procured consumed so much of their revenue that they were forced to liquidate some of their holdings
B) the business was forced to liquidate some of its holdings in order to pay off the high interest loan that had been consuming its revenue
C) the high interest rate on the loan it had procured forced the business to liquidate some of its holdings and consume its revenue
D) the business was forced to liquidate some of their holdings in order to pay off the high interest loan they had procured
E) the business’s high interest loan consumed so much of its revenue that it was forced to liquidate some of its holdings


The original version of the sentence has a modification problem. As a general rule, whatever is being modified must be placed as close as possible to the introductory modifying phrase.

In choices (A), (C) and (E), it appears that the loan attempted to refinance, because of the proximity of “loan” to the introductory phrase. These choices are therefore incorrect.

Answer choices (B) and (D) correct this error, but (D) uses the incorrect pronoun “they” to refer to the singular noun “company.”

(B) is the correct answer, since it corrects the modification issue and does not create any additional problems.

Serina Isch Serina Isch has taught for Kaplan since 2009. As a former high school English teacher, she started with the pre-college tests ACT, SAT, and PSAT but soon transitioned to grad with the addition of the GRE to her repertoire. Since that time, she also has added the GMAT and LSAT and has scored at the 95th percentile or higher in each test that she teaches. She is a full-time Kaplan instructor who teaches and tutors both on-site and in the anywhere classroom. Serina was named the Kaplan’s Oklahoma Teacher of the year in 2009, 2010, and 2011 and was named Kaplan’s Grad South Region Teacher of the Year in 2010. She holds a BA, summa cum laude, in English from Oklahoma State University and is currently finishing an MA in Technology in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. When she isn’t helping students get into the grad program of their dreams with Kaplan or working on her own degree, Serina loves to hang out with her two kiddos and her husband Chris, volunteer at her kids’ elementary school, and read anything she can get her hands on.

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