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GMAT Sentence Correction — Beyond Grammar to "Effective Expression"

In this GMAT tutorial you'll learn how the test makers design GMAT Sentence Correction questions to test not just your grammar but also your ability to distinguish between more-effective and less-effective expression in GMAT sentences.

Q: What do GMAT Sentence Correction questions look like, and what verbal abilities are they designed to measure?

A: In each Sentence Correction question, part or all of a sentence is underlined. Your task is to determine which of five phrases, the underlined phrase or four alternatives to it, is the "best" one — in terms of three criteria (listed below). The format is pretty straightforward, and doesn't require much reading. Most test takers require less time to respond to a typical Sentence Correction question than to a typical Reading Comprehension or Critical Reasoning question.

GMAT Sentence Correction questions are designed to gauge three general skills:

  1. Recognizing and correcting grammatical errors
  2. Recognizing and remedying ineffective expression: awkwardness, wordiness, and sentence-structure problems that obscure or confuse the intended meaning of a sentence
  3. Recognizing and correcting errors in idiom

Conspicuously absent from this list are spelling and punctuation, which are not covered in GMAT Sentence Correction.

Q: Let's focus on the first area you listed: grammar. How can a test taker possibly prepare thoroughly for GMAT Sentence Correction, given the myriad English-grammar rules and exceptions to those rules?

A: All areas of English grammar are fair game for GMAT Sentence Correction. This might seem overwhelming to a test taker for whom English is not a first language. This is not to suggest that any GMAT test taker read a comprehensive grammar book from cover to cover just to prepare for the test. Instead, look for GMAT-prep books that cover the testing service's favorite grammar issues, and that illustrate how those issues are presented in GMAT Sentence Correction questions.

In GMAT Sentence Correction, the testing service tends to cover certain basic grammar issues far more than others, as well as avoiding so-called "gray areas" — where the rules are not hard-and-fast or are outnumbered by their exceptions. Here's a good list of the areas of English grammar most frequently covered in GMAT Sentence Correction. This list accounts for perhaps 90% of the grammar issues covered on the test:

  • Personal pronouns
  • Relative pronouns
  • Pronoun-antecedent agreement
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Verb tense
  • Pronoun reference
  • Parallelism

Q: You mentioned that Sentence Correction also covers "effective expression." What sort of problems would be considered "ineffective expression," and can you provide a GMAT-style example — and how to remedy it?

A: A GMAT sentence, even one that is grammatically correct, might not convey its intended meaning as effectively as it could. The sentence might be ineffective due to:

  • An awkward phrase
  • An unnecessarily wordy phrase
  • An overall structure (sequence of phrases) that confuses or distorts the sentence's meaning, or leaves its meaning ambiguous

Consider the following GMAT-style sentence, which actually contains all three of these problems. Notice that the entire sentence is underlined. This is a clue that it might be necessary to rearrange the sentence's phrases to clarify the sentence's meaning and/or eliminate awkwardness:

There was civil unrest, which contributed to the instability of the nation's economy, along with no clear monetary policy.

Although this sentence is grammatically correct, it suffers from three problems having to do with effective expression:

  1. The phrase "There was civil unrest" is awkward and wordy; "There was" can simply be omitted.

  2. The sentence's overall structure leaves it unclear whether civil unrest contributed to the lack of clear monetary policy or whether the lack of a clear monetary policy contributed to the instability of the nation's economy. The sentence should be restructured to clear up this confusion.

  3. The phrase "along with no clear monetary policy" is awkward. One way to remedy this problem is to replace the word "no" with "the lack of" or "the absence of."

Here's a version that remedies all the problems, and thus would be a viable best response to a GMAT Sentence Correction question:

Civil unrest, together with the absence of a clear monetary policy, contributed to the instability of the nation's economy.

Q: Since "effective expression" doesn't involve rules of grammar, doesn't this allow for too much subjectivity in determining which version of a sentence is the "best" one?

A: You might think so. But the test makers draft the answer choices to avoid unfair judgment calls between two or more "effective" sentences. Rest assured: You won't need to split hairs when it comes to distinguishing between a best response and a runner-up.

Consider again the underlined sentence about the nation's economy (above). In a Sentence Correction question you wouldn't encounter both of the following versions of that sentence, because each one is clear and unambiguous in meaning, without awkwardness and undue wordiness:

One choice:
Civil unrest and the absence of a clear monetary policy both contributed to the instability of the nation's economy.

Another choice:
Contributing to the instability of the nation's economy were civil unrest and the absence of a clear monetary policy.

Here's a more realistic array of answer choices for a GMAT Sentence Correction question (the first choice is the original version):

  1. There was civil unrest, which contributed to the instability of the nation's economy, along with no clear monetary policy.

  2. Contributing to the instability of the nation's economy were civil unrest and no clear monetary policy.

  3. The absence of a clear monetary policy and civil unrest contributed to the instability of the nation's economy.

  4. Civil unrest contributed to the nation's economic instability, and so did the absence of a clear monetary policy.

  5. Civil unrest, along with the absence of a clear monetary policy, contributed to the instability of the nation's economy.

The last version is the best one — the most "effective" one. And the deficiencies in the other versions are not difficult to identify. The original version already discussed. The second version fails to remedy the awkward use of the phrase "no clear monetary policy." The third version leaves it unclear whether it was civil unrest or the absence of civil unrest that contributed to economic instability. The fourth version is the second-best response; but it's a bit awkward, isn't it? Its second phrase seems an afterthought — tacked onto the end of the sentence rather than incorporated into it.

Q: Can you automatically rule out as the best response any choice that contains a grammatical error? What about a choice that contains no grammatical errors but that is not expressed as effectively as it could be?

A: The answer to your first question is, unequivocally, "yes." Any answer choice that contains a grammatical error will not be the best response — ever! As for your second question, just because you see room for improvement in an answer choice, do not assume that it cannot be the best among the five choices. It can! Granted, the best choice will be clear and unambiguous, without redundancy or undue wordiness. You can count on it. But it won't necessarily be perfect — in terms of its succinctness or structure. Besides, what constitutes a perfect sentence is too subjective.

The most common GMAT scenario in which the best response might contain what normally would be considered "ineffective expression" involves the so-called "passive voice." The active voice is generally preferred, because the passive voice can be a bit awkward, as in the following simple example:

Tom read the book.
[Active voice — the subject (Tom) is acting upon the object (book).]

The book was read by Tom.
[Passive voice — the subject (book) is being acting upon by the object (Tom).]

But in some contexts the passive voice is appropriate for rhetorical emphasis — to get the sentence's point across. Here's a sentence that employs the passive voice, yet might be considered the best response to a Sentence Correction question because its use of the passive voice is effective in placing rhetorical emphasis on the true cause of economic instability:

The nation's economic instability was caused not by civil unrest but rather by the absence of a clear monetary policy.

In fact, recasting this sentence using the active voice might actually yield a more awkward sentence, or one that is less effective in conveying the sentence's point. Consider, for example, this active-voice version of the same sentence:

It was not civil unrest but rather the absence of a clear monetary policy that caused the nation's economic instability.

Hardly an improvement, is it? Don't worry: You wouldn't see both versions among the answer choices in a Sentence Correction question; they're too close in quality to each other. The lesson here is: Don't look for the ideal sentence; instead, focus on comparing the quality of the five versions.

Q: You mentioned that GMAT Sentence Correction questions also cover errors in idiom. What do mean by this term, and what can test takers do before exam day in order to recognize idiom errors when they encounter them during the test?

A: An idiom is a word or phrase — especially a prepositional phrase — that is grammatically acceptable as a result of its widespread use over time. Here are a few related examples:

The ship will arrive in due time.

Before long the ship will arrive.

Without question the ship will arrive on time.

If you're unfamiliar with a certain idiom you might be tempted to eliminate a response that contains that idiom. Conversely, you might overlook an improper idiom that you've never encountered, or that you've used improperly before — believing it to be proper. For instance:

Idiomatically proper: The airplane flights differed as to their arrival times.

Idiomatically improper: The airplane flights differed as regards their arrival times.

Many GMAT-prep books contain long lists of idioms that purportedly appear with high frequency on the GMAT. Although there's no harm in reviewing such lists, doing so should not be a high-priority task for GMAT prep. Idiom is not tested as heavily as grammar and effective expression. Besides, there are many thousands of idiomatic phrases in the English language, and despite what the GMAT-prep books might claim, it's impossible to predict which few will appear on the 14-15 Sentence Correction questions on your particular GMAT.

Q: Is process of elimination an effective method of tackling Sentence Correction questions?

A: Absolutely. In fact, this method works better for Sentence Correction questions than for any other type of GMAT question. Use a four-step process to zero in on the best response:

  1. Determine if the original, underlined version contains any clear grammatical errors. If it does, you've immediately improved your statistical chances of choosing the best response from 20% to 25%, without any further analysis.

  2. If you've identified a clear grammatical error in the underlined version, scan the answer choices and eliminate all that fail to correct the error. For instance, if the underlined version contains the plural "have," but the rules for subject-verb agreement require the singular "has," you're bound to see at least one or two other answer choices that also contain "have."

  3. Repeat step 2 for every additional grammatical error you find in the original version.

  4. If the problem with the original sentence lies in its overall sentence structure, rather than discrete words and phrases, scan the answer choices for those that retain the same basic structure, and eliminate them. Just reading the first few words of each answer choice will tell you whether the syntax is rearranged. This step is most helpful for sentences in which the entire original version is underlined.

Q: Okay, let's assume that you've eliminated all but two responses using the steps you just indicated. If it comes down to a coin toss between the remaining two, are there any rules of thumb for making your final choice?

A: The conventional rule-of-thumb is to choose the shorter version, which presumably is the one that is less wordy and less likely to contain redundancies or superfluous words. But don't follow that advice mechanically. Though the lengthiest of the five choices is incorrect more often than any other choice, the converse is not the case. In other words, the briefest choice is not the best choice any more often than the others — except for the longest one.

The bottom line: avoid coin tosses if you can. Instead, try to resolve close judgment calls by comparing clarity and by looking for ambiguity and awkwardness.

Q: What are the two most important points of advice regarding Sentence Correction you would give someone who is just about to take the GMAT Verbal section?

A: First, before you confirm your response, read your choice in the context of the entire sentence, even if the underlined portion is very brief. Listen to the sentence as you read it to yourself. If it sounds correct to your ear — if it reads like a college-level text book — then confirm your response and move on.

Secondly, avoid over-analysis. Don't get bogged down analyzing why an answer choice is incorrect — in terms of rules of grammar. Read the explanations to the Sentence Correction practice questions at this website, and you'll understand this advice. The analysis can get quite involved, especially considering that wrong answer choices are typically incorrect not just for one reason but for two or sometimes three reasons. As you prepare for the test, strive to develop a sense, or an instinct, for spotting particular grammatical problems without the need to articulate why the sentence is wrong. When you think about, we do this all the time in everyday speech. We correct ourselves not because we're reminded of a particular rule of grammar we leaned in sixth grade, but because what we just said simply sounds wrong.

Q: That advice may be little solace to test takers for whom English is a new language. For these test takers — the ones who have not had enough experience hearing, reading, and speaking English — what is your single most important piece of advice as they prepare for GMAT Sentence Correction?

A: That's a tough question. These test takers are going to have a difficult time with Sentence Correction, unless they postpone the test for a lengthy period in order to immerse themselves in an English-speaking culture. Of course, that's a real possibility for many MBA candidates, and it might be worth waiting a few years to take the GMAT in order to gain this kind of exposure.

Otherwise, use process of elimination, make reasoned guesses, and make sure you limit your time on Sentence Correction so you have enough time for the other Verbal Questions. Remember, you shouldn't spend nearly as long on the average Sentence Correction question as on the average Critical Reasoning or Reading Comprehension question.