Sentence Corrections: Down to 2


For many GMAT Test-takers, Sentence Correction questions are both welcome and frustrating. Sentence Corrections are the shortest verbal questions, and often consume, on average, the least time per question. Moreover, Sentence Corrections are designed to test a relatively clear and finite set of grammar rules that make it similar to Quantitative questions in some respects. Given this, test-takers often have a greater affinity for Sentence Correction questions.

Yet, there is also a fair amount of frustration lurking behind those Sentence Corrections. Many students I see lament results on Sentence Corrections that they feel belie their ability on them. These students feel prepared, they know the rules, and feel comfortable as they work the questions during practice sets. Then, when they review the results they find they didn’t do as well as they’d hoped or expected.

One circumstance that frustrates more than anything is knowing that you went through a process of elimination, got rid of three erroneous answer choices and were left with the right answer and one last wrong answer…only to choose the wrong answer! Seemingly “every time.” I cannot recount how many students have said this to me: “Every time I get it down to two answer choices I choose the wrong one.”

We should probably clear that up: you do not choose incorrectly every time. While it may seem that way, when reviewing problems people generally return to those they got wrong or those that didn’t go as swimmingly as possible. All those instances wherein you got it down to two and choose correctly are never reviewed. Nevertheless, it is frustrating to find that we’ve missed out on so many points when we’d done the majority of the work necessary to get the question correct.

To start with, let’s try to understand why we often select the incorrect answer when we’ve gotten it down to two answer choices. In my experience people tend to select the incorrect choice of the two remaining because they cannot identify or apply the grammatical rule that would distinguish between the correct and incorrect choices. Here’s an example (the 3 most commonly eliminated answer choices are marked as such with strike-through text):

In 2004, resulting from the destruction caused by the largest tsunami of the modern era in the Indian Ocean, the entire world rallied in support of the devastated region and helped recovery efforts in the area.

(A) resulting from the destruction caused by the largest tsunami of the modern era in the Indian Ocean
(B) the destruction caused by the largest tsunami of the modern era in the Indian Ocean resulted and
(C) because of the result of the destruction caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the largest of the modern era
(D) as a result of the destruction caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the largest of the modern era
(E) as a result of the destruction caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which was the largest tsunami of the modern era

In this case, choosing the correct answer from the two remaining choices (D and E), depends on being able to identify modifier issues and determine which modifier (“the largest…” or “which was the largest…”) is correct.

Making this determination solely on the common rule for modifiers (to ensure clarity a modifier must be as close as possible to that which it modifies), could prove difficult as both modifying phrases are in the same location.

Looking to a less commonly tested rule for modifiers (those that begin with relative pronouns beginning with “which”) also presents difficulty. Generally, modifying phrases that begin with a relative pronoun are used to describe the closest preceding noun. In the case above, both modifiers are closest to “Indian Ocean,” so making a determination based on the presence or absence of the relative pronoun “which” is difficult.

In instances such as this, it may be helpful to recall the principle aim of grammar (basically to provide a set of rules that allows people to understand one another when communicating), and the broader grammatical skills GMAT Sentence Correction questions are designed to test, namely: clear and concise written expression.

Here’s an abbreviated version of what GMAC has to say on what Sentence Correction questions test (from mba.com, emphasis mine):

  • Correct expression: A correct sentence is grammatically and structurally sound. It conforms to all the rules of standard written English, e.g., noun-verb agreement, pronoun consistency, pronoun case, and verb tense sequence.
  • Effective expression: An effective sentence expresses an idea or relationship clearly and concisely, as well as grammatically.

Essentially, correct expression speaks to the grammatical rules one needs to know and properly apply on GMAT SC. Our discussion of modifier rules above speaks to this concept. Often, however, people fail to appreciate the second skill being tested, the ability to assess “effective expression.”

Far too often when test-takers get down to two answer choices, they continue to rely on the rules tested by “correct expression.” Unfortunately, in many instances, the skill being tested is “effective expression.”

Effective expression is often difficult to see, particularly if you’re still trying to wrench the answer-choices into a set of rules you’ve learned. So, getting back to our discussion of how to discern the correct answer from the incorrect when you’ve gotten it down to two, let’s provide some guiding strategies:

  1. Take a step back – don’t mistake the forest for the trees when comparing your final two answer choices. If you know the rules, and have identified a grammatical structure that is different between the two yet cannot determine a correct version based on those rules, consider what differences in clarity and conciseness the two choices have.
  2. Avoid an “I know what they mean” mentality – often times the ability to correctly assess whether a sentence is as clear and concise as it should be comes down to being able to accurately judge what the sentence literally says. Compare what the sentence “actually says” to what it “should say”. Be sure you’re not ascribing additional clarity to a sentence that is lacking it.
  3. Go beyond the underlined portion – sometimes you can assess the clarity or conciseness of the underlined portion by putting it back into the sentence to see if it makes sense.
  4. Compare remaining choices – comparing the remaining choices allows you to see distinctions in both grammar (correct expression) and clarity/conciseness (effective expression). Again, pay as much attention to the different meanings the respective structures in each answer choice creates as to the specific rules they appear to be testing.

With these suggestions in mind, let’s return to our example to see how we might use effective expression skills to choose a correct answer.

In 2004, resulting from the destruction caused by the largest tsunami of the modern era in the Indian Ocean, the entire world rallied in support of the devastated region and helped recovery efforts in the area.

(D) as a result of the destruction caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the largest of the modern era

Here, the modifier “the largest of the modern era” leaves room for ambiguity as to what exactly (“the tsunami”, “the destruction”, the “Indian Ocean”) was “the largest of the modern era.” Of course, we know what is meant (“the tsunami”), but as written the underlined portion does not establish that.

(E) as a result of the destruction caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which was the largest tsunami of the modern era

By comparison, the expression used in (E), while less concise given the repetition of “tsunami”, is much clearer in terms of what is being described or modified. Above all else, clarity of expression is preferred.

Essentially, unless there is a clear violation of a specific rule, you’ll want to use other means to distinguish correct answer choices from incorrect answer choices when you’ve gotten it down to two.

Until next time, good luck with your GMAT preparations…

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