GMAT Tip of the Week: What the Academy Awards Can Teach You About Sentence Correction

It’s Oscar weekend here in Los Angeles, and that can only mean one thing:

The winner is…your GMAT verbal score.

How can this year’s Academy Awards improve your performance on GMAT Sentence Correction? Let’s look at the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, Argo. The title alone, Argo, brings up two important points about GMAT Sentence Correction:

1) Are

The very presence of the word “are” in the answer choices should get your mind thinking about subject-verb agreement. Verbs make for great decision points – differences between verbs in the answer choices (are vs. is; are going vs. went; etc.) should lead your eye toward a major decision – is the subject singular or plural, and is there a logical timeline for the verb tenses in this question?

When you’re forced to make a distinction between “are” and “is”, you have some work to do. In order to make this type of question difficult, the GMAT will likely throw a bunch of nouns and modifying phrases in between the subject and the verb to try to get you to incorrectly identify the subject. But knowing that you have to make this decision gives you an advantage – you now know that you have to spend some time focusing on the true subject of the sentence. Consider this example:

A recent research study of worldwide cellular penetration finds that there are now one mobile phone for every two people, more than twice as many than there were in 2005.

(A) there are now one mobile phone for every two people, more than twice as many than there were
(B) there is now one mobile phone for every two people, more than twice as many than there were
(C) there is now one mobile phone for every two people, more than twice as many as there were
(D) every two people now have one mobile phone, more than twice as many than there were
(E) every two people now has one mobile phone, more than twice as many than there were

Note the difference between A, B, and C – “are” vs. “is” – this tells you that it’s time to thin out the modifying phrases to make sure you’re using the correct subject. And if you do so, you can whittle the sentence down to:

A study finds that there are one phone.

In your own words you can make this decision pretty efficiently – you’d certainly say “there is one phone” (phone is subject, and it’s singular), so you can eliminate A and make your way toward the correct answer, C.

Most importantly, being highly attuned to differences like “are vs. is” (or “have vs. has” or “was vs. were”) can immediately direct you to a binary decision – find the subject via eliminating modifying phrases and you can determine whether you need the singular or the plural.

2) Are going

When answer choices feature multiple verb tenses, like “are going” vs. “has been going”, your job again should become clear – you need to look for signals in the sentence that determine the sequence of events. And one of the more-clever ways that the GMAT can reward shrewd examinees is to employ words like “since” or “from”. Consider this example:

The Academy of Motion Pictures has found that, since stadium-style seating became widespread in cinemas in 2002, over 80% moviegoers are going to modern theaters even when the cost is as much as twice that of the old auditorium-style theaters.

(A) are going
(B) have been going
(C) will go

First, recognize that “are going” (remember the Argo theme…) difference from the other verb tenses in the answer choices. You’re being asked to select the proper verb tense here. The key? Check out the word “since” earlier in the sentence. That word tells you that the action “going” started in the past and has yet to finish – so you must use the “have been going” tense. Signal words like “since” (which leads to the present perfect tense “have been”) or “from” (when you get two past-tense dates “from 2002 to 2006″ that requires the past tense) often reside far from the underlined portion, but control the timeline of the sentence and help you to determine which tenses are allowed and which cannot be used. Your clue? The presence of multiple verb tenses in the answer choices should direct you to seek out such signals. If you glossed over the word “since” in your initial pass through the sentence, you’re not alone; but once you knew that you were being asked to determine the correct verb tense as one of the differences between answer choices, you should know to look for time signals and the word “since” should jump off the screen at you.

To summarize, we don’t know whether movies like Argo are going to sweep the Academy Awards, or whether Ben Affleck will finally win another Oscar to pair with his trophy from Good Will Hunting. But we do know this – focusing on words like “are” and phrases like “are going” is a wicked smart idea. The speeches this weekend may be verbose, but if the Oscars help you better direct your attention toward verbs in Sentence Correction answer choices, the next time you hear “the envelope please…” it may well contain that acceptance letter you’ve been hoping for.

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