8

The answer to this GMAT question was not what I expected it to be. enter image description here

Link to the forum page here. Up until now, I was certain about two fundamental truths about grammar.

  1. It is always possible to connect an independent clause to another independent clause by using an appropriate coordinating conjunction and adding a comma.
  2. A list of two items should not have a comma between the two items unless absolutely necessary to avoid confusion.

Now that I have seen this question, I am stumped. I thought the correct answer was A, but it turns out that the official answer was E. I believe A is correct and E is incorrect. The reasons cited for A being incorrect and E being correct are the same: parallelism. A does not maintain parallelism between "listening" and "he prayed", while E maintains parallelism between "listening" and "praying". Given that this question and the official answer were supplied by an official GMAT test organization, I am inclined to believe this. But I do not find this explanation satisfactory.

It is to my understanding that you can always combine two independent clauses by using an appropriate coordinating conjunction and adding a comma.

She waved goodbye. He waved back.

We are free to combine the sentences like this.

She waved goodbye, and he waved back.

Back to the original question.

The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples recite sermons he wrote years earlier. He prayed for salvation.

Here we have two independent clauses. The first independent clause ("The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples recite sermons he wrote years earlier") uses a sentence structure that I have seen many times before where a present tense verb is used even while the main verb is in past tense to indicate that the two are happening at the same time. (For example, "He walked to the park, whistling all along the way.") For this reason, I do not doubt that it is a grammatically correct independent clause. I know the second sentence is a grammatically correct independent clause for obvious reasons. Given that the two are independent clauses, and that the conjunction "and" is appropriate, we can combine them using the conjunction and a comma. Right?

The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples recite sermons he wrote years earlier, and he prayed for salvation.

This gives us option A, which is apparently incorrect. But I do not understand why. The explanation cited for why answer A is incorrect is because of parallelism, but to my knowledge, parallelism does not apply here. We are only combining sentences using the most fundamental method of combining sentences: a coordinating conjunction and a comma. Parallelism is (again, to my knowledge) only applicable when you are creating a list. We would only be creating a list if there was not a comma before the "and".

The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples recite sermons he wrote years earlier and he prayed for salvation.

If we remove the comma, we are creating a list and thus have to maintain parallelism.

The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples recite sermons he wrote years earlier and praying for salvation.

This ALMOST gives us answer E, but in answer E there is an extra comma.

The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples recite sermons he wrote years earlier, and praying for salvation.

Not only do I believe this sentence is incorrect because "Praying for salvation" is not an independent clause (and thus cannot be combined to another independent clause by using a conjunction and a comma), I also believe it is incorrect because you should not put a comma between the items in a list that only contains two items.

I believe this sentence is already obviously incorrect, but it will be more clear if we shorten it a little (but still keep the list of two items).

The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples, and praying for salvation.

This appears to be incorrect for the same reason that we would never say

The girls were skipping, and hopping.

or

I went to the store and got milk, and eggs.

So I have multiple questions arising from this dilemma:

1) Does parallelism need to be followed if you are not creating a list and are only combining two independent clauses with a conjunction and a comma?

2) Is my assumption that the creation of a list depends on the presence of commas? (If there is no comma in "The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples recite sermons he wrote years earlier and he prayed for salvation," we create a list and thus have to maintain parallelism. If there is a comma, we are not creating a list and can ignore parallelism.)

3) Is my fundamental truth of "It is always possible to connect an independent clause to another independent clause by using an appropriate coordinating conjunction and adding a comma" correct?

4) Is my fundamental truth of "A list of two items should not have a comma between the two items unless absolutely necessary to avoid confusion" correct?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – MetaEd Sep 24 '18 at 15:14
  • It’s not unusual for test questions to be poorly written or for the official answers to be wrong. In this particular case, the original construction was poorly phrased, with sermons he wrote instead of sermons he had written. If the purpose of the question was to ask which alternative best matched the underlined text in the original, then (A) is the correct answer, because it best preserves the sense of the original. For example, if the original sentence had appeared in a contemporaneous account by a non-native English speaker, the “faulty” grammar would be part of the overall narrative. – Global Charm Sep 24 '18 at 15:17
  • I don't have enough time to write you an answer unfortunately, but this is a dumb GMAT question where the author has decided what the meaning is first and then discounted other answers because they don't mean the same thing. A, B, D, and E are all potentially correct -although D is unlikely. – Araucaria Sep 25 '18 at 21:11
3

This is a classic "best answer" dilemma. I agree with you that A is the best answer (and that "parallelism" is not relevant to whether A is correct).

But you are dealing with the GMAT here and, as I learned from my favorite law professor, you need "to make a test of it." In other words, you need to consider not only which answer you prefer, but also what the question is designed to test. Parallel structure is one of the basic ideas that you should be looking for on the GMAT. They just want you to match up "listening" and "praying." Simple as that.

Your "fundamental truths" are related to style and clarity. Good rules, but way too sophisticated for the GMAT. Look for the answer that addresses very basic stuff; think pronoun antecedents, shifting verb tenses within a sentence, wacky misplaced modifiers. Don't make yourself crazy. See, e.g., https://thecriticalreader.com/complete-gmat-sentence-correction-rules/

With respect to the comma in answer E, I also agree that the two parallel subordinate clauses are clearer without the comma. However, given the length of the clauses, a "rhetorical comma"--a comma used to denote a pause--is not out of the question.

  • And the answer the test says is correct (E) is the only one that introduces an ambiguity as to who it is who's doing the praying, the priest or the disciples. It's a bit hard to read the test writer's mind and think that they want to prioritise parallelism over the sentence actually being comprehensible. – Zebrafish Sep 30 '18 at 20:30
1

“A” is not ungrammatical, but presumably the test authors don’t like it because it uses “wrote” instead of “had written”. From a descriptive standpoint, it’s hard to say that the past perfect is obligatory in this kind of context, but a common prescriptivist idea is that the past perfect “should” be used in sentences like this.

  • I can’t believe it took eight days for somebody to point this out. – Scott Oct 1 '18 at 3:33
0

E is definitely the write answer.

1) I know little about parallelism, but as I understand it, it means that the verb tenses have to accord. The "independent" clauses you want to connect still have to be matching verb tenses.

2) I believe this assumption is incorrect, the absence of the comma actually makes the lack of parallelism strike me more than it did with the comma present.

3) & 4) I don't understand how these questions are related to the prompt, and even if I could understand that, I wouldn't be able to answer them.

("The dying old priest lay in his bed, listening to his disciples recite sermons he wrote years earlier") uses a sentence structure that I have seen many times before where a present tense verb is used even while the main verb is in past tense to indicate that the two are happening at the same time. (For example, "He walked to the park, whistling all along the way.")

You might be right about someone who walked to the park whistling, but those two things happened simultaneously. The writing of the sermons happened long ago, so it is incorrect.

The present participle for two actions at the same time

When two actions occur at the same time, and are done by the same person or thing, we can use a present participle to describe one of them. When one action follows very quickly after another done by the same person or thing, we can express the first action with a present participle. source

Because the priest's actions are in the present, but there is also the past action of having written the sermons, there needs to be the "had written" portion, to preserve the parallelism.

-2

Well you are obviously very educated, but I would have answered E on this exam and here is why. I was taught that you should always be able remove everything between two commas and the sentence should still be grammatically correct. So if we do this with A through E, E renders out, "The dying old priest lay in his bed and praying for salvation. A - D are clearly incorrect. Hope this helps.

  • 3
    As far as I know, the "stuff between the commas should be removable without affecting the sentence" rule is only applicable to appositives, asides, or other non-restrictive clauses set off by commas. There are none of these here, so this rule is not applicable. I can create a sentence that uses two commas and is still clearly grammatically correct but breaks the "rule" of removing the stuff between the commas. How about "Walking down the street, John spotted a dog, but he decided to ignore it"? Or "I hate dogs, but I'll make an exception for your Border Collie, who hasn't barked at me at all"? – Tommy Tran Sep 22 '18 at 5:11
  • @TommyTran Quite right. You can't just pick two arbitrary commas. You have to pay attention to the context in which they are used. – Jason Bassford Sep 22 '18 at 5:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.