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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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February 18, 2011



I'm glad to say I spotted the error immediately, but then I am a professional!

I recently helped a friend prepare for her GMAT - a US qualification she needed to get into business school - and I noticed a similar thing.

I found the grammar questions really annoying as they involved having to choose between overlong, badly written grammatically incorrect sentences and overlong, badly written but grammatically correct ones.

I just hope her essays at business school aren't written in such a style!

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Clare. Congratulations on spotting the error! Take the rest of the day off.

I agree with your hope for your friend. When I see my daughter composing essays of 300 words or more (a teacher's requirement), I worry that she will load her business writing with extra words later in life. I try to coach her to add ideas rather than words, which I believe is the teacher's goal.



I missed. I got hung-up on the “previously undesirable” part and couldn’t let go. I’m not defending this—now that the answer is so obvious—but my reasoning was: At the introduction of elevators, there was no previously. They were simply undesirable.

But then I am just a layman. Which is why I read and heed your blog.

Thanks for your posts, Lynn.


But would any reader actually be confused into thinking that the rooms were being compared to the floors? Not likely--and 66% of test takers thought so, too, apparently.


The test sentence is a train wreck, which must have been designed by someone who desperately wanted to confuse the hell out of everyone.

Nice revision.


I got it, but the sentence is so badly structured that even before I read it through, I felt the urge to edit it out of existence...not a good sentence for a test in my opinion.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Thanks for testing yourselves, Pete, Karla, Hao, and Yoav, and for sharing your views.

No, it is not a sentence we would be proud to have written, is it?

If you think the writing and English sections of the SAT are trying, you should see the math problems. Those make me glad the SAT is behind me.



In your two-sentence version, the antecedent of "they" is not completely unambiguous; the nearest noun is "floors" rather than the intended antecedent, "rooms." Not likely to be misread, I suppose, but I prefer the original (with revisions to make the comparison logical). However, I don't disagree with your point that shorter sentences are easier to understand!

Peter Baruffati

Yes, I spotted it but then it’s always easier to pick up on these things when asked to pore over them to such a degree. It is much more difficult to exercise the same control in everything you write and we are all capable of making mistakes.
Even me!
“…practice writing shorter sentences.”, for example, should be “…practise writing shorter sentences.”
Sorry about that!
I’m also unimpressed by elevators that were ‘introduced’ to the hotel. I hope they get on very well together! Maybe ‘installed’ would be preferable.
Finally - and I think this is more pertinent than the last point – in both the test sentence and your alternative, ‘top floor rooms’ and ‘lower floor rooms’ would be less clumsy. Even hyphenated.
But, like a lot of these points, that is entirely subjective.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Carlotta. Good point! I don't think "they" could be taken to stand for "floors," the object of a preposition. But that pesky plural "elevators," as part of the complete subject, is another plural to consider.

Still, I prefer the two-sentence version.

Thanks for pointing out the antecedent issue.


Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Peter. Thank you for your thorough raking over of the sentence! I have to say I prefer "introduction," which points out the newness of elevators. But I appreciate your close copyediting.



Lynn, you're right that "floors" is unlikely to be misread as the antecedent of "they," but why can't the object of a preposition be the antecedent of a pronoun? Consider the following, admittedly lame, sentence:

I am aware of the problems with the car. They became clear the first time I drove it.

"Problems" is the object of the preposition "of" and the antecedent of "they."

Carlotta (avoiding work by debating grammar)

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Carlotta. Your pronouns work because there is only one plural noun that "they" could represent. And "it" could only stand for "car."

It isn't that objects of prepositions can't be antecedents. But in a complex sentence, the reader normally looks back to a more prominent word for the antecedent. If the phrase is "rooms on the top floors," "they" is not likely to refer to "floors."

Thanks for pursuing this interesting question.

Now get to work!


Jason Mashak

I spotted it, but might not've if I'd been reading it as part of a longer article and there hadn't been the underline as a clue.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Jason, I believe your comment is true of most people.

Thanks for dropping by.


Danny DeMichele Entrepreneur

I recently helped a friend prepare for her GMAT - a US qualification she needed to get into business school - and I noticed a similar thing.


Thanks for sharing this.

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