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The problem sentence:

I have always liked thinking through complicated problems to find creative solutions, be they in a mathematics class or while helping a friend.

I wrote this sentence for a personal statement; however, someone pointed out that the portion after the comma (bold) was incorrect. He said that the phrases on each side of the 'or' should be parallel in structure. So, if I was using 'in a mathematics class' (a prepositional phrase) before the 'or', I should use a prepositional phrase after the 'or' as well. He recommended that I drop the 'while' altogether (because it's not a preposition) or replace it with a preposition. Is he correct or should I leave the sentence as is?

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    Many contemporary grammarians, including the widely followed Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), regard most of what traditional grammar treated as 'subordinating conjunctions' as prepositions. Many of these prepositions, however, are not used as predicatives or attributives, and that's the case with while: we don't say He is while helping a friend. In any case, the while is superfluous: its sense is inherent in the participial form. – StoneyB Oct 10 '18 at 15:16
  • @StoneyB has put his finger on the problem with the sentence. It's not lack of parallelism, but the construction be they ... while helping a friend. You can fix it by saying whether in a mathematics class or while helping a friend, which may still not have perfect parallelism, but doesn't have a glaring grammatical flaw. – Peter Shor Oct 10 '18 at 15:54
  • @StoneyB I agree. However, you might be able to get off the hook but substituting ‘it’ for ‘they’. ‘it’ can be treated as referring to the activity of the verbal noun phrase. I could be doing it either in a lesson or while helping a pal. – Tuffy Oct 10 '18 at 17:02
  • I'd put some serious muscle into rewriting it. I've read a ton of resumes, and this isn't helping your cause. "I like finding creative solutions to complex problems, whether in math class, or when helping a friend [some actual thing someone does that isn't drama, like, 'pick a major' or 'think through which college to attend']." – jimm101 Oct 10 '18 at 17:10
  • @StoneyB Thanks! You are right: 'while' is superfluous. Taking it out. – Umer Oct 10 '18 at 17:53
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My main problem is that what follows the comma seems to be a misplaced modifier.

Although I believe they is referring to complicated problems, the closest noun to the pronoun is creative solutions. This causes some confusion.


If they refers to complicated problems, then I would reverse the sentence structure:

Be they encountered in a mathematics class or while helping a friend, I have always liked thinking through complicated problems in order to find creative solutions to them.

Or you can leave the structure as it is but change the pronoun:

I have always liked thinking through complicated problems to find creative solutions, be it in a mathematics class or while helping a friend.

Now, the pronoun is referring to the act of thinking (the only thing in the singular) rather than to either complicated problems or creative solutions.


In the unlikely event (to my mind) that they is actually referring to creative solutions, then I would make the following change:

I have always liked thinking through complicated problems to find creative solutions, be those solutions found in a mathematics class or while helping a friend.


Of course, the specific wording to all of these can be easily changed. I am just pointing out the main ways of clarifying what's meant.

  • Interesting point. I actually didn't think what 'they' was referring to - till now, that is. And it's the 'unlikely event'. lol. But I now see your point. Thank you for your updated version. – Umer Oct 11 '18 at 5:59

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