When Concepts Collide: GMAT Verb Tenses and Meaning

Let’s look at an interesting problem from Powerscore that tests two concepts layered into one question: Verb Tenses and Meaning!

Set a timer for 2-min and give this one a go!

Although he had planned on pursuing a law degree, Eli Whitney’s college debt forced him to accept a private tutoring job in South Carolina, a decision that ultimately led to the invention of the cotton gin and a revolution of the cotton industry.

A) had planned on pursuing a law degree, Eli Whitney’s college debt forced him to accept a private tutoring job in South Carolina

B) planned on pursuing a law degree, Eli Whitney’s college debt forced him to accept a private tutoring job in South Carolina

C) had planned on pursuing a law degree, Eli Whitney was forced to accept a private tutoring job in South Carolina to pay his college debt

D) planned on pursuing a law degree, Eli Whitney had college debt so it forced him into accepting a private tutoring job in South Carolina

E) had planned on pursuing a law degree, college debt forced Eli Whitney to accept a private tutoring job in South Carolina

This is a good question to teach “Past Perfect” tense. On the GMAT, we use past perfect tense (“had” + verb) to describe an action that happened in the past BEFORE another past tense action.

The two actions here are: Eli planned on pursuing a law degree. Eli’s debt forced him to accept a job.

Both of these things happened in the past, and they clearly did not happen simultaneously, so logically, which one happened first? Was he FORCED and then he PLANNED, or was he PLANNED and then he was FORCED? The latter is the most logical meaning.

So we want the 1st verb “planned” to be in Past Perfect tense, and the 2nd verb “forced” to be in Simple Past tense. (B) and (D) are out.

Let’s strip back the remaining three options and take a hard look:

(A) Although he had planned on pursuing a law degree, Eli Whitney’s college debt forced him to accept a private tutoring job in South Carolina, a decision….

(C) Although he had planned on pursuing a law degree, Eli Whitney was forced to accept a private tutoring job in South Carolina to pay his college debt, a decision….

(E) Although he had planned on pursuing a law degree, college debt forced Eli Whitney to accept a private tutoring job in South Carolina, a decision….

In (A) and (E), the “college debt” is forcing Eli to do something. Is it logical for something inanimate to do the action of “forcing”?? No! Also, this makes it sound, in (E) especially, that the college debt’s forcefulness was “a decision,” as if the college debt is making active choices FOR Eli Whitney?

(C) has no grammar error and no illogical meaning.

On the GMAT, we want to avoid sentences in which inanimate things are doing “human actions.” I’m reminded of this SC question and these two answer choices:

In an effort to reduce the number of fires started by cigarettes, a major tobacco company is test-marketing a cigarette in which thin layers of extra paper are used to decrease the amount of oxygen entering the cigarette, thereby slowing the rate at which it burns and lowering the heat it generates.

B) in which they use thin layers of extra paper in decreasing the amount of oxygen entering the cigarette, which slows

This choice makes is sound like the “cigarette” is actively doing the “slowing the rate at which is burns.” How can a cigarette slow its own rate??

C) that uses thin layers of extra paper to decrease the amount of oxygen when it enters the cigarette, thereby slowing

This choice makes it sound like the “cigarette” is actively doing the action of “using thin layers.” So…the cigarette is using its own layers??

It’s kind of funny how often inanimate things try to do human-actions on the GMAT. :)

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