GMAT Tip of the Week: Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Read that sentence from the title again (please…in honor of Mothers Day we should certainly mind our Ps and Qs!): Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Does that make any sense?

Not at all, but grammarians have to admit that *grammatically* it’s not a flawed sentence, in that it proceeds with Adjective, Adjective, Plural Noun, Plural Verb, Adverb. This sentence, coined by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures, shows the necessity in language of not merely grammatical correctness, but logical meaning as well. And as you’ll note, this concept of “logical meaning” is one that has become increasingly common in these GMAT-themed blog circles of late, and one that has traditionally appeared on this blog in years past. Consider another, more GMAT-relevant sentence:

The presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency, Newt Gingrich finally conceded victory to his rival, Mitt Romney.

What’s wrong with that sentence? It’s not grammar — but you know that it’s wrong. Why? Because despite what he gleefully stated in his January interviews, Newt Gingrich is not the presumptive Republican nominee. This sentence is factually incorrect even though grammatically it could stand. After all, you could simply change the proper nouns and you’d have a correct, meaningful sentence:

The presumptive winner of the presidency, Thomas Dewey finally conceded victory to his rival, Harry Truman.

What does this mean for your GMAT preparation? It’s just as important — if not more so — for you to think about meaning when you look at Sentence Correction questions as it is for you to think about grammar. For one, meaning is something you can figure out on the fly even if you blank on a rule, so it’s a more lasting strategy. Also, meaning tends to take a backseat to grammatical memorization for most students, so meaning can be your competitive advantage on the GMAT. Suppose, for example, you were faced with two choices:

(A) The company believes that the dip in consumer confidence is a short-term snag in a long-term positive trend.

(B) The directors of the company believe that the dip in consumer confidence is a short-term snag in a long-term positive trend.

Your only true decision point here is meaning, and if you’re presented with this decision you should recognize that, logically, the company cannot believe, but the people within it can. Grammatically, the only decision point you really have is “believes” (which is used correctly with the singular “company”) and “believe” (which is used correctly with the plural “directors”). Grammar won’t always get the job done!

Now, this post is not to say that you do not need to know grammar, but like Chomsky suggested with his famously-illogical sentence this post does mean to say that grammar is only part of the puzzle. And most GMAT examinees focus so heavily on the grammar part of the puzzle that they miss the opportunity to do what they truly can do well – reason and use logic. So as you study Sentence Correction, be certain to consider the meaning of answer choices, particularly when you answer incorrectly. You will likely find that you can make meaning a more steady part of your strategy, and that your score will improve as a result. And with that added confidence, you can sleep much less furiously than those colorless green ideas.

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