GMAT Tip of the Week: Becoming a Sentence Correction Pro Through Pronouns

Many test-takers lament the very presence of Sentence Correction questions, feeling overwhelmed as they study grammar rules and still overwhelmed as they look at practice questions and cannot determine where to start. Sentence Correction can be daunting – the English language is far from binary in its usage (“I before E except after C”…and even that has a bunch of extra caveats), and the questions themselves are specifically designed to make finding your Decision Points difficult.

So how can Sentence Correction amateurs become pros?

By focusing on pronouns. Why? Pronouns have a lot going for them:

  1. They’re binary. “It” is singular; “they” is plural. If you come across a singular pronoun, you need to be able to match it to a singular noun, and plural has to go with plural. Once you’ve identified a pronoun, a good part of your job becomes clear.
  2. Once you know to look for them, they’re easy to spot. They’re small words, so the GMAT likes to hide them in long-winded sentences, but if you know to look for them they’re much cleaner Decision Points than a lot of multi-word Modifiers and Sentence Construction errors.

So when you look at Sentence Correction questions, if you don’t see an obvious-and-actionable difference between answer choices, your next step should be to scan for pronouns both inside and outside the underlined portion. If the pronoun is inside the underlined portion, and therefore in the answer choices, your job is typically to select the correct pronoun to match with the noun, and most people learn early in their study regimen to spot this decision. But if there are pronouns outside the underlined portion, many students fail to realize that this pronoun is quite likely very important, too. The pronoun “it” outside the underlined portion of the sentence means that you have to have a singular reference elsewhere, and often the question will hinge on that. Consider, for example, this question:

The deer, despite having traveled hundreds of miles from their home to reach the Canadian wilderness and therefore being free to roam without fear of highway traffic or other man-made dangers, struggled to acclimate to the habitat that wildlife biologists had predicted would enable it to thrive.

(A) despite having traveled hundreds of miles from their home to reach the Canadian wilderness and therefore being free to roam without fear of highway traffic or other man-made dangers
(B) despite having traveled hundreds of miles from home to the Canadian wilderness where they would now be free to roam without fear of highway traffic or other man-made dangers
(C) despite having traveled hundreds of miles from home to reach the Canadian wilderness that offered freedom to roam without fear of highway traffic or other man-made dangers
(D) even after traveling hundreds of miles from their home to reach the Canadian wilderness where they could freely roam without fear of highway traffic or other man-made dangers
(E) who had traveled hundreds of miles from home to the Canadian wilderness that would offer them freedom to roam without fear of highway traffic or other man-made dangers

What most people fail to consider in this sentence is a pronoun far from the underlined portion and therefore not appearing in the answer choices. But take a look at this sentence again with a keen eye for pronouns:

The deer, despite having traveled hundreds of miles from their home to reach the Canadian wilderness and therefore being free to roam without fear of highway traffic or other man-made dangers, struggled to acclimate to the habitat that wildlife biologists had predicted would enable it to thrive.

Notice that singular “it” there? That absolutely fixes our discussion at exactly one deer, not multiple deer. And with that knowledge, you can root out all the “theys” and “thems” in the answer choices, leaving just answer choice C as the only plausible candidate. What on the surface looks like a pretty involved sentence is actually one in which a keen eye for pronouns turns this into a quick process-of-elimination under the banner of “eliminate the plurals”.

So what should you learn from this? When you don’t see an immediate Decision Point, play “find the pronoun”. Pronouns make for quick binary decisions, so when you can find them you make your job that much clearer and easier. When you start to feel like an amateur on a Sentence Correction problem, look for the pro…

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? We run a free online GMAT prep seminar every couple of weeks. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

Leave a Reply

Spam protection by WP Captcha-Free