GMAT Tip of the Week: Meaning Matters (But Maybe Not The Kind of Meaning You Think)

If you have not yet encountered the term “intended meaning” in your GMAT study, you are free -and encouraged – to skip this post! But if you have, this point is worth learning. While many GMAT books and websites – including the Official Guide for GMAT Review in some of its solutions – provide as rationale for eliminating answer choices that they “distort the intended meaning” of the sentence, beware that the concept of “intended meaning” is dangerous if you use it to solve problems. Consider, as evidence, the following answer choices from an official GMAT problem:

(A) Using a Doppler ultrasound device, fetal heartbeats can be detected by the twelfth week of pregnancy.
(E) Using a Doppler ultrasound device, a physician can detect fetal heartbeats by the twelfth week of pregnancy. (CORRECT)

Using the concept of “intended meaning”, one might argue that, while grammatically preferable, choice E distorts the meaning by adding “a physician” to the sentence. But that argument misses the point of this exercise; choice A is incorrect because the modifier “Using a Doppler ultrasound device” needs to describe an actor who can use such a device. And the sentence as written does not supply a logical actor, whereas the corrected choice E does. E changes – or at least “adds to” – the meaning of choice A, but that is perfectly acceptable. Do not ascribe any “incumbency” to choice A – if A is illogical then the correct answer must change the meaning.

The problem with the concept of “intended meaning” is that it seems to suggest that a sentence can mean something other than what it explicitly says. In fact, the dominant strategy for Sentence Correction is to recognize that each sentence means exactly what it says, and so if that meaning is illogical the sentence must be changed. Your job on the GMAT is not to play mind reader and try to interpret what a sentence might mean; your job is to judge each sentence on what it says, and to eliminate illogical meanings.

In contrast, Illogical Meanings are incredibly problematic. Consider the difference between:

A) Needing a transfusion after this morning’s accident, John informed the nurses that his blood type was O-positive
B) Needing a transfusion after this morning’s accident, John informed the nurses that his blood type is O-positive

What’s the difference? Meaning – and the fact that A is illogical. John’s blood type has not changed – there’s no justification for saying “was” O-positive. It is, and will continue to be, O-positive.

Remember that meaning is critical in Sentence Correction – and that while there is no “intended” or incumbent meaning, illogical meanings are to be eliminated!