The SBC GMAT Files

A GMAT Sentence Correction Primer
Karen van Hoek, PhD, Head Verbal Specialist, Test Prep New York

If you’re just beginning to study for the GMAT — or even if you’ve been at it for a little while — you may find yourself asking one question about the Sentence Correction questions: What on earth do they want? For many learners, the differences between the credited answers and the incorrect answers are anything but obvious. You may have dealt with test prep books or courses that simply tell you that certain things are wrong — with no explanation — even though to you they sound perfectly fine. You may even feel that in many cases, the credited answer choice sounds worse than the other four. So what is going on, and how are you supposed to deal with it?

First, what’s going on: The GMAT tests Formal Written English, which follows different grammatical rules than everyday conversational English. The GMAT writers focus on areas in which the two styles of English are very different, and deliberately include uncredited (wrong) answer choices that sound perfectly normal in terms of everyday conversational usage, but that are considered wrong by the standards of Formal Written English. They also write credited answers that are correct from the point of view of Formal Written English, but that sound odd to people who aren’t familiar with that style. For this reason, you need to learn those standards, and get used to the differences. You need to get comfortable with the idea that something may sound fine to you because it is fine in everyday conversation, yet may not be accepted in Formal Written English — or on the GMAT. As soon as you recognize that we are essentially dealing with two different styles or “versions” of English, a lot of the cognitive dissonance will begin to abate. You realize that “what sounds right” isn’t always the same as “what is accepted in this kind of English” and you can get down to the business of mastering the patterns.

The best way to proceed is first to study the rules that are most commonly tested on the GMAT, then study those that come up on the GMAT with somewhat less frequency, and then look at other factors that play a role in determining the credited answer choice: meaning, clarity and concision. You should learn the commonly-tested rules until they are firmly engrained in your mind. You’ll know you’ve studied them enough when you find that seeing a GMAT sentence that breaks one of these rules instantly sets off warning lights and sirens in your mind. If you can look at a GMAT sentence that breaks one of these “core” rules and still feel hesitant, confused, or uncertain as to whether the sentence is acceptable on the GMAT — keep studying.

The benefits to developing a heightened awareness of “the basics” go beyond merely raising your score on the SCs, as important as that is. When you are fluent in the commonly-tested rules and patterns, you can solve SC questions in much less time than 1 minute and 50 seconds (the average time you have, per question, on this section of the GMAT). Some questions can be solved in 30 seconds or less. The time you save can be applied to pondering more time-consuming Critical Reasoning or Reading Comprehension questions.

In addition to learning the rules the GMAT tests and becoming more familiar with the style of English you are likely to encounter, there are a few specific techniques you must know to maximize your score.

Read the entire sentence, but don’t get bogged down. Your attention should be directed more to the underlined portion. GMAT sentences often have long lists of examples and descriptive phrases that serve only to bulk up the sentence and slow you down. Read the whole sentence, but don’t spend a lot of time on portions that can’t have any relevance to the question. For example:

Alvin Jennings, the molybdenum magnate, microcephaly researcher and world-renowned expert in Egyptian hieratic script, had written several highly influential books by the age of 5.

The unfamiliar phrases between Alvin Jennings and the underlined portion have nothing to do with whether the underlined section is correct. You should run your eyes over them quickly, just to make sure they’re nothing but filler, but don’t get thrown off by the exotic vocabulary (and whatever you do, don’t slow down to ”˜sound out’ unfamiliar words or names ”“ this is a common habit among students, but the GMAT doesn’t award points for pronunciation).

Always read all five answer choices
Never simply grab the first choice that looks good. Even for highly experienced GMAT experts, it often happens that one of the answer choices will look quite reasonable at first glance, until we look further and discover that there are two choices that look plausible. When you find the second one that looks good, that’s your clue that something more is going on: either you’ve misread one of the choices (easy for anyone to do in the high-pressure environment of the testing center) or the GMAT writers are making a subtle distinction and you need to compare the choices carefully. With the GMAT’s new emphasis on clarity and meaning, it’s even more likely that one of the choices will look perfectly good from a grammar standpoint, and yet not express the intended meaning quite as clearly as the correct, credited choice.

Prioritize: Deal with grammar errors first, then meaning
You should eliminate any answer choice that has an outright grammatical error ”“ cross it off and don’t consider it again. There are specific grammar rules that are tested again and again on the GMAT; learn them thoroughly and rely on them. When you review practice questions, ask yourself why you chose the wrong answer. Students sometimes give explanations like, “Well, I had heard that the GMAT never allows a dangling modifier, but I picked the answer with the dangling modifier anyway because the other choices sounded funny.” If that is how you’re reasoning, stop. Review the priority list. The GMAT will never make an exception to any of the grammar rules that it tests — rules such as subject-verb agreement, the proper use of ‘it’ and ‘they’, or the correct placement of modifiers. Never choose an answer if it has an outright grammatical error.

Think about what the sentence means: Of the choices that are grammatically correct, you should choose the one that makes the most sense. You may have heard that in the last year, the GMAT SCs have shown an increased focus on meaning. Often, two versions of the sentence will be grammatically correct, but one makes more sense than the other. You need to think about what the sentence is saying. Look at these two versions of the same sentence:

(a) A mother cat encourages her young kittens to feed a few minutes after birth by licking and nuzzling them and guiding them toward the “milk source.”
(b) A mother cat encourages her young kittens to feed a few minutes after birth while licking and nuzzling them before guiding them toward the “milk     source.”

(a) makes sense, but (b) sounds as if the kittens are supposed to feed before the mother has helped them find the milk. Both sentences are grammatical, but (a) is preferable.

There are a couple of other essential skills you should begin to practice from the beginning of your study.

Practice connecting distant phrases: The SC sentences on the GMAT tend to be somewhat longer than they used to be, and there is an increased focus on determining whether the sentence has a complete, independent clause and whether subjects make sense with their verbs (what the Official Guide terms “logical predication”). To do well on these kinds of sentences, you need to practice assessing the sentence as a whole, listening in your mind for anything that sounds incomplete. You also need to practice a particular kind of close focus: mentally connecting phrases to see if they sound all right together, even if the GMAT writers inserted a lot of padding to separate the phrases and hide any possible problems. For example, you might see something like this:

The recent flurry of sell orders placed by disgruntled shareholders, shareholders who may rightly complain that they were misled about the company’s profitability in both the long and the short terms, have obscured the fact that from a certain point of view, the company’s IPO  was at least a partial success.

You need to overlook all the verbiage placed in the middle of the sentence and connect the phrase “flurry of sell orders” with “have obscured.”  The subject is “flurry,” so the verb should be “has.” This was a simple example, but the principle applies in much more complex cases: you need to proactively search out the connections between sentence elements that the GMAT writers have separated, not just passively take the sentence a chunk at a time in the order in which the writers gave it to you. If you have any difficulty with this task, it’s important that you practice it until it becomes second nature.

Know when to step back: The other crucial skill is the opposite of focusing in. This is stepping back: mentally setting aside the confusion of the whole sentence and constructing a test phrase to check your intuitions about one small piece. The GMAT writers may try to overwhelm your instincts about sentence structure by adding in a great deal of complexity and a lot of exotic vocabulary. If the question comes down to an issue such as the correct way to use a verb, don’t be distracted by all the whistles and bells in the original sentence. Mentally detach and construct a simple test phrase. For example, suppose you have to choose between these two items:

a. The cynical pundit was known for her ability to impute self-serving motives to even the most widely respected politicians.
b. The cynical pundit was known for her ability for imputing self-serving motives to even the most widely respected politicians.

If it isn’t immediately obvious which one is right, ask yourself “Is it ”˜ability to play the guitar’ or ”˜ability for playing the guitar’?” It’s “ability to play,” so (a) is right.

The good news about GMAT SCs is that they test learnable skills. The key is to recognize what they’re looking for, learn the patterns, and practice the skills that make it possible to assess sentences quickly for grammatical correctness and meaning. The more comfortable you become with Formal Written English and the specific rules that are frequently tested on the GMAT, the better you will do, and the time you save by solving SCs quickly yet accurately can be put to use improving your performance on CRs and RCs. It’s fair to say that unless you are already a Jedi Master of SC questions, improving your performance on SCs is the most fundamental and significant thing you can do to improve your performance on the Verbal section overall.


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