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I was at a dinner party the other night and we started discussing the four uses of the word “that”. Apparently, I hang out with a lot of nerds at dinner. Not only did I impress these nerds with my grammar skills, but I also came up with a great idea for a blog post! So, from time to time, I’m going to write about some of the important GMAT grammar rules that I like to cover in my classes.
I always tell my students to look out for the small words—the words that we barely even read because we’re so used to them. “And” or “of”, or in this case, the word “that”. These small words are actually indicators of what the GMAT is testing. We just need to pay attention to them!
“That” can be used in four distinct ways, and we need to know which way it is being used in order to figure out if it’s being used correctly.
As a MODIFIER:
The GMAT most frequently tests the word “that” as an introduction to modification. For example, check out this sentence:
The house that is red belongs to me.
When the word “that” follows a noun, it must be functioning as a noun modifier. Here, we get a little extra description of the house: it is red. Clearly, we could not write, “The house belongs to me that is red.” This would be an example of a misplaced modifier. I am not red. Obviously, this sentence is short and easy. But the GMAT will test you in the exact same way, just with longer sentences and more garbage to sift through.
As a RESET:
We are used to sentences with a subject and verb. But what about sentences that have TWO subject-verb pairs? One way the GMAT likes to dazzle with this set-up is by using the word “that” to separate the independent and dependent clauses. In this scenario, “that” will come after a reporting verb. Check it out:
Moira proclaimed that she would not attend the party.
So did you figure out what a reporting verb is? It’s something that doesn’t sound quite done on its own. We wouldn’t say “Moira proclaimed.” If we did, someone is bound to ask, “WHAT did Moira proclaim?” We need more information. (Examples of other reporting verbs are said, believed, responded, asserted, etc.)
Notice in this configuration, “Moira” (the first subject) is paired with “proclaimed” (the first verb). Then we get the word “that”, and we reset for “she” (the second subject) and “would not attend” (the second verb). You can visualize it as S – V – reset – S – V. The GMAT likes to see if you’re paying attention to all the subjects and verbs.
As a NEW COPY:
You’ll see “that” functioning as a new copy most frequently in questions that are testing parallelism. For example:
My wealth is greater than that of my parents.
First of all, I hope this is true for you. But secondly, and more importantly, you’ll notice that the meaning of the sentence is that “My wealth is greater than the wealth of my parents.” But why would we want to say “wealth” twice? It’s clunky and it’s way too straightforward for the GMAT. Instead, they’ll put in a word that copies the meaning of wealth—in this case, “that”!
The GMAT will test you to see if you’re paying attention by giving you something like “My wealth is greater than those of my parents.” Clearly, this doesn’t make sense. “Those” is plural! I’m sure you caught that easily. But again, the GMAT will complicate matters by making this sentence long and full of junk, so you might not notice what “those” is referring to.
As a DEMONSTRATIVE PRONOUN:
Give me that book.
Oh, THAT book.
You just learned what demonstrative pronouns are from that little exchange. Congratulations! Unfortunately, the GMAT will not test you on this use. But your nerd friends will LOVE you.
So, in summary, pay attention to those little words that we often just skip over in our everyday lives. And let me know how your friends respond when you school them on the four uses of the word “that”. I think they’ll be stoked. 📝
Elaine Loh is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Los Angeles, California. She graduated from Brown University with a degree in psychology and a desire to teach others. She can’t get enough of standardized tests and has been a test prep tutor and teacher for over half her life. Check out Elaine’s upcoming GMAT courses here.