The SBC GMAT Files

GMAT Sentence Corrections: Idioms Update
Karen van Hoek, PhD, Head Verbal Specialist, Test Prep New York

You may have heard that there have been a few changes to the Sentence Correction questions (SCs) on the GMAT. One of the most perplexing changes for students has been the change in the relative importance of idioms. At one point many people thought that idioms were no longer being tested; the GMAC later clarified that some idioms are still on the test, but there is still a great lack of clarity as to which kinds of idioms are still being tested. We’re still gathering information ourselves, but having taken the GMAT since the changes came in, and having carefully examined the latest (13th) edition of the Official Guide, we see some patterns that we can report.

At the biennial GMAT summit last year, Larry Rudner, GMAC vice president of research and development, shared this with Test Prep New York and other test prep companies present.  He said that only American-centric” idioms were being removed, so that students would not be penalized for knowing non-American English. Presumably, this means that an expression such as “different from” would not be tested, since “different to” is common in British English. Our perusal of the official sources suggests that some of the hair-splitting distinctions in idiom usage that the GMAT used to make and which students once avidly memorized — such as the expressions “different from,” “consider X Y” or “identical with” — may not appear on the test.

However, it appears that there are several types of idiomatic phrases that are still considered fair game. Here are the categories we have noted:

Paired expressions:  You still need to learn paired expressions such as “not only X but also Y,” “neither X nor Y,” “between X and Y,” and so forth. You need to make sure that both halves of the expression are present and that the X and Y components are grammatically parallel. There is some reason to believe that these phrases may come up less frequently than they used to, but we don’t think they’ve been removed.

Correct formulations for comparisons: Comparisons are an entire GMAT SC category unto themselves, but part of the picture is that you must learn the standard phrases for making comparisons, such as “more X than Y,” “as X as Y” and “as many X as Y.”

Illogical or redundant phrases: The GMAT may very well still test commonly-used phrases that are considered incorrect in Formal Written English and that are arguably illogical with respect to meaning, such as  “try and do something” (the correct ”“ and more logical ”“ formulation is “try to do something”). Awkward and redundant phrases such as “the reason why” or “the capability to be able” may also still be tested, as the GMAT has an increased focus on meaning and clarity, and they may — though we don’t know for certain — still consider “whether or not” to be so hideously redundant that it merits inclusion on the test.

Correct usage of verbs: The GMAT still tests the phrases or grammatical patterns to be used with verbs, but now the range of items it may ask about seems to be open-ended, not a clearly defined list that you can memorize. If you get a question that requires you to decide whether “demand that he abdicate” or “demand him to abdicate” is right, or to decide whether it’s “dissent from the majority” or “dissent with the majority,” the best thing to do is mentally step back from the question and ask yourself which phrase would sound right to you in a more everyday context, outside of the complicated context of the question. As of this writing, it isn’t clear whether this kind of usage point will still make or break the question the way “consider X Y” used to. It may be that these details, though still present in some questions, play a subordinate role relative to the other points the SCs text.

Diction: Diction means choosing the right word rather than one that looks very similar, and this is also still tested. For example, the distinction between lay and lie still appears in the Official Guide. If the GMAT is trying to be less American-centric, it may no longer test the distinction between economic and economical (British speakers don’t make that distinction), but other frequently-confused word pairs such as affect/effect, accept/except, and all together/altogether should probably still be studied.

Our overall impression is that simply memorizing phrases to look for definitely won’t help as much as it once might have, but you do still need to look at details of wording that may fall under the heading of “idioms”. We have always advised our students that mastering idioms was not the fast track to a perfect score, and that at the higher levels — when the test-taker is pulling 700-800 level questions — it is definitely not the case that the GMAT turns into a big idiom hunt. With the recent changes to the test, it seems that our observations are even more true: grammar, meaning, and clarity are much more important than idioms. However, we still advise students to pay some attention to the categories we have listed here, and we continue to watch for more clues to the precise role of idioms on the revised GMAT.


(c) 2012, Test Prep New York

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