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SAT grammar question:

(It appears) that natural rubber was first processed (by) the ancient Mayan people, (using) it to make sandals, figurines, and even some rundimentary sports equipment. (No error)

The parentheses designate areas where the grammar of the sentence may be incorrect. You have to select the area which is in error (or select "No error" if there is no error in the sentence).

(using) is the error in the sentence.

Can someone explain why (using) is incorrect?

  • 4
    It should be "who used it". The problem with "using it" is that "the ancient Mayan people" is not the subject of the sentence. – Peter Shor Apr 27 '15 at 3:49
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    @PeterShor You should at that as an answer. – Dog Lover Apr 27 '15 at 5:01
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    The word is 'rudimentary' not 'rundimentary' so there is another error. – chasly from UK Oct 2 '15 at 21:52
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This is a really tricky question. To my native (AmE) ear, you should definitely say "who used it":

It appears that natural rubber was first processed by the ancient Mayan people, who used it to make sandals ...

But why? It's not that the verb needs to be in the past tense. If you switch the sentence around to make it active, you get a sentence that sounds fine:

It appears that the ancient Mayan people processed natural rubber first, using it to make sandals ...

And it's not that continuous-verb subordinate clauses always have to have the same subject as the rest of the sentence. Consider the sentence:

Yesterday I met Sally, walking her dog.

This has the same grammatical structure as the incorrect SAT sentence, but it sounds fine to me.

I think the rule is that if the continuous-verb subordinate clause does not have the same subject as the rest of the sentence, you need to be able to add the elided who and the elided verb. Trying this in the two cases, we get

*It appears that natural rubber was first processed by the ancient Mayan people, who were using it to make sandals ...

Yesterday I met Sally, who was walking her dog.

In the first sentence (indicated by *), the continuous tense is incorrect. In the second, it's fine.

  • "Yesterday I met Sally, walking her dog." Who was walking her dog? Sally? Or was I walking the dog? Also, why "were using" in the fourth example? "Used" sounds more likely in that context. – Steven Littman Apr 27 '15 at 21:08
  • @Steven: were using is incorrect in the fourth example. Did I not make that clear? – Peter Shor Apr 27 '15 at 21:18
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Your sentence with 'using' is technically incorrect because of the comma that precedes 'using'.

(It appears) that natural rubber was first processed (by) the ancient Mayan people**,** (using) it to make sandals, figurines, and even some rundimentary sports equipment. (No error)

has the meaning of

It appears that natural rubber was, using it to make sandals, figurines and even some rudimentary sports equipment, first processed by the ancient Mayan people.

This clealy does not make any sense.

However, omitting the comma changes the meaning of the sentence

It appears that natural rubber was first processed (by) the ancient Mayan people [using it to make sandals, figurines, and even some rundimentary sports equipment].

Here, the rest of the sentence following 'using' is an integral part of the noun 'The ancient Mayan people' This additional information specifies exactly which Mayan people you are referring to.

It appears that natural rubber was first processed by the ancient Mayan people using it to make sandals, figurines, and even some rudimentary sports equipment. (And not the ancient Mayan people using it to make jet fighter planes, Ak-47s and even rudimentary aircraft carriers).

Of course, this is a ridiculous distinction to make, which is why the variation provided by Peter Shor, 'who used it to make...' sounds far better to a native English speaker.

But again, just to be clear, technically the original sentence was incorrect because of a tiny little comma between 'Mayan people' and 'using', which removed the 'using...' part of the sentence from defining the Mayans, and instead made it function adverbially with the verb 'was'. Of course in spoken English, it is virtually impossible to hear this comma and the 'correct' meaning of the sentence based on context is usually heard.

This interpretation of the sentence is based largely on Michael Halliday's 'Systemic Functional Grammar', which may or may not have any bearing on what the SAT exam uses. An overview of SFG's 'embedded clauses' (using it to make...) can be found On the last video on this page. Google Books has preview pages of Halliday's full work here.

  • Could you correct the two misspellings of 'rudimentary'? Thanks. – chasly from UK Oct 2 '15 at 21:54
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Natural rubber was first processed by the ancient Mayan people using it to make sandals.

That sentence means that the act of making sandals caused the rubber to be processed. That is possible but it is not what was meant.

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You couldn't say

** The Mayan people using rubber to make sandals..." **

You have to say

** The Mayan people used rubber to make sandals... **

The form of the verb remains the same, no matter which clause of the sentence is worded first.

Also the error can't be the misuse of the comma before using, as someone suggested, since the comma is not within the parenthesis which indicate where the possible errors in the sentence exist.

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Nothing wrong with 'using', the main problem here is that the pronoun it referring is ambgious. The correct way here would be using the noun instead of pronoun to clear the confusion.

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