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Why Sentence Correction Is Crucial And How To Improve Your Skills Efficiently

Sentence Correction (SC) is often the key to the verbal section of the GMAT. Improvements in SC act as a double-edged sword: not only will you get better results on SC problems, but you will also quite likely answer these problems more quickly, thereby freeing up time that you can spend on difficult Critical Reasoning (CR) and Reading Comprehension (RC) problems. In many cases, having just a bit more time on difficult CR and RC problems will allow you to consider them more carefully and get them right. The GMAT is designed to test your reasoning skills, and while challenging SC problems (especially those focused on meaning issues) may require some degree of reasoning, mastering SC will give you more opportunities to demonstrate your high-level reasoning skills in CR and RC.

If you find SC the most challenging part of the verbal section, you are in luck. SC is the part of verbal that is most like the quant section of the exam. Both require that you master a number of rules and recognize patterns quickly. As a result, SC is the most eminently improvable part of the verbal section, even if you learned English as a second language. In fact, those who learned English as a second language sometimes excel at SC because they treat SC as a science and because they are relentless. Conversely, capable native English speakers frequently underperform on SC because they rely on their “ear” ”“ that is, what “sounds good” ”“ and refuse to master the necessary rules of GMAT grammar. Again, because of the double-edged sword effect, these relative strengths or weaknesses in SC are magnified through correspondingly better or worse performance in CR and RC.

So how can you improve your SC skills efficiently? There are three essential components: learning the rules of GMAT grammar, mastering SC strategies, and practicing to build speed.

To begin, review the introduction to SC in the Official Guide (pp.665-669 in OG13 or pp.651-655 in OG12). Next, choose a high-quality course, tutor, and/or set of books. Some of best SC books are published by Manhattan GMAT, Veritas Prep, and PowerScore. While you’ll want to do some practice problems that illustrate specific concepts as you learn the rules of GMAT grammar, in general, the most effective approach is to do the bulk of your practice problems after you learn the rules. This way, you will reinforce your ability to apply the rules and recognize errors quickly.

As you dive into SC, you might feel overwhelmed at first, and you might be tempted to bury your nose in a fat grammar reference book. While a reference book might be somewhat useful, be sure to focus your time on GMAT-specific material because the range of grammar issues tested on the GMAT is limited. Also, if you find that you do need a reference resource, you can typically use Google searches to find the answers to many common grammar questions.

To mix up your study regimen and cross-train your brain, try some “speed sets” in which you limit yourself to 2 minutes or even just 90 seconds per problem. Use a timer with a buzzer that goes off when the time is up ”“ most smartphones have a timer app that works well. In part, these speed sets are designed to give you an intuitive sense of when you’ve spent the time allotted for each problem. Finally, don’t forget to practice integrating all of your skills and refining your pacing by taking several practice exams. If possible, space these out about a week apart, leaving enough time to review the results of each one thoroughly before attempting the next one.

Sentence Correction Strategies & Tips

Sentence Correction (SC) is a process of elimination game, and the goal is to eliminate incorrect answers as rapidly as possible. Some SC problems lend themselves to “scanning vertically” to spot variations in the answer choices. If you see that one variation is clearly incorrect, then rule out every answer choice that uses that variation and don’t bother considering any other aspect of the answers you rule out. Of course, all you need is one fatal flaw to eliminate an answer choice.

Perhaps the most common way people eliminate answer choices is by identifying answers that just “sound” bad when you read them. Because relying exclusively on your “ear” for what sounds right often results in poor choices, some GMAT resources advise that you completely disregard what your ear tells you. I disagree because your ear can alert you to some answer choices that are hopelessly awkward, and it’s not worth the time to dissect them grammatically in order to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong. I do, however, caution against relying on your ear too much. The grammar rules you need to know for the GMAT are finite, and the best approach is to assimilate these rules so that you have a diverse set of tools to draw upon in order to eliminate incorrect answers. Mastering the rules will actually serve to hone your instincts and improve your ear for proper English usage.

In some SC problems, if you find it difficult to find “fatal flaws” ”“ i.e. technical errors that allow you to eliminate answers ”“ then it may help to know something about the GMAT’s sense of style. GMAT SC problems adhere to the most formal rules of standard written English. In other words, the GMAT takes a very traditional, sometimes even old-fashioned view, of what’s proper. So think of it as “the Queen’s English,” and ask yourself, “How would the Queen write this?” Since our “ear” for what sounds right has become acclimated to poorly written material ranging from emails and texts to pop music lyrics and TV/film scripts, correct English usage (at least according to the GMAT and the Queen) might seem overly stiff and stilted. For example, the expressions “in which,” “to which,” “for which,” “at which,” etc. are virtually absent from our spoken language but are definitely standard fare on the GMAT.

Another example from the Official Guide (OG13 p.682 #60 / OG12 p.668 #59) reads, “The Olympic Games helped to keep peace among the pugnacious states of the Greek world, for a sacred truce was proclaimed during the month of the festival.” For many people, using the word “for” to mean “because” is something Abraham Lincoln would have done but not something they would do today. (BTW, I love getting the question, “Why is this correct?” for SC problems. Many times, there’s just no logical reason, so it gives me a chance to say, “It’s because the Queen said so!” ”¦ or maybe it was the court jester.)

Next, a tip that may save you hours of frustration concerns grammatical terminology. Although mastering terminology is not the end goal for GMAT SC (you will never need to properly identify grammatical structures on the GMAT), biting the bullet and learning some terminology will make it easier to acquire the SC skills you need. So as you delve into GMAT grammar, it’s important to realize up-front that you will likely find inconsistencies in the terminology used in various books and web sites. Understand that there are often two terms that mean the same thing: progressive=continuous, perfect=complete, subordinate=dependent, etc. Another example ”“ what the Official Guide labels a “logical predication” error, the rest of the world calls a modifier error. There are so many of these cases of dual terminology that you might conclude that the Queen and the court jester are having an ongoing row (disagreement) over terminology.

Finally, here’s one SC tip that applies in the real world. You might find that your new-found knowledge of proper English usage tempts you to correct your friends, family, and colleagues. Usually, this is not such a good idea!

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