GMAT Gurus Speak Out: Read Grammar Questions Like Sherlock Holmes

Succeeding in GMAT grammar requires you to emulate Sherlock Holmes. The clues are right in front of you!

The first item to be aware of is that too many of the sentences presented in the grammar portion of the GMAT are not clearly written, which can be frustrating if you are looking for an answer that is clean and concise.   However, analyzing the sentences based on the rules that govern language rather than looking for answer choices that have polished readability is the key to being successful on this section.

A basic and most important rule of grammar is subject/verb agreement.   Every verb in a sentence needs to have a subject.   Singular subjects require singular verbs; plural subjects require plural verbs.    Do not get distracted by the descriptive clauses and phrases that sometimes come between the subject and the verb.   Another grammatical rule deals with pronouns.   It has to be apparent what word the pronoun is referring to.  Singular pronouns refer to singular nouns and plural pronouns refer to plural nouns.

Look at the following sentence from one of GMAC’s practice tests.

Thomas Eakin’s powerful style and his choices of subjects – the advances in modern surgery, the discipline of sport, the strains of individuals in tension with society or even themselves – was as disturbing to his own time as it is compelling for ours. 

Get rid of the clutter between the dashes and now read the sentence.

Thomas Eakin’s powerful style and his choices of subjects… was as disturbing to his own time as it is compelling for ours. 

The verb was is singular, but its subject is style and choices, which is plural.   Thus the verb needs to be were.  Also, the pronoun it is singular, but refers to style and choices, which is a compound subject.  Therefore, it needs to be changed to the plural pronoun they, which requires the plural verb are.

The corrected version is the following:

Thomas Eakin’s powerful style and his choices of subjects – the advances in modern surgery, the discipline of sport, the strains of individuals in tension with society or even themselves – were as disturbing to his own time as they are compelling for ours. 

However, it is not necessary and often not time-efficient to initially uncover all the errors.   The exam does provide you five answer choices.   Be like Sherlock Holmes, who recognized that the clues were in front of him.

For this particular question, the options were:

  • was as disturbing to his own time as it is
  • were as disturbing to his own time as they are
  • has been disturbing in his own time as they are
  • had been as disturbing in his own time as it was
  • have been as disturbing in his own time as

Scan the opening and closing words of all five selections.

  • was as disturbing to his own time as it is
  • were as disturbing to his own time as they are
  • has been disturbing in his own time as they are
  • had been as disturbing in his own time as it was
  • have been as disturbing in his own time as

Doing so makes it evident that this particular question is testing correct singularity and plurality usage.   Recognizing this can certainly streamline the evaluation process. The second choice is the correct response.

Another grammatical item that is not tested in this sentence but worth clarifying is the comparison that is occurring.   When you compare items or qualities that are on the same level, the expression used is as….as.   For instance:  He is as irritating as a mosquito.   When you compare items or characteristics that are not are on an equal level, the expression used is more/less….than.  Example:  He is more annoying than a mosquito.

To summarize, dissect sentences structurally, initially paying attention to subject/verb agreement, as well as proper pronoun usage.   Be a “super sleuth” and peruse the answer choices, scanning opening and closing words and using variations in answers as clues to help focus you.  Of course there are additional rules that you need to be cognizant of: proper modification, correct comparisons, accurate verb tense usage and parallel construction.    These categories, along with illustrations, will be discussed in later submissions.

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John Chismody is a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Pittsburgh, PA. After receiving his BS in Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, he went onto Duquesne University to receive his Masters. He moved to the Big Apple for a while, then down to South Beach, but has returned to his native home of Pittsburgh and continues to teach for Veritas Prep. 

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