Tales From the Question Bank: Pros Before Idio-es

GMAT Tip of the WeekThe Veritas Prep Question Bank offers unique insights in to the habits of GMAT test-takers; while students from around the world answer free GMAT practice questions, the Question Bank tracks patterns in the answers that the world selects, and in this series we’ll highlight valuable lessons that you can learn from the statistical analysis of how people choose their answers.

For this post, we’ll tackle the Sentence Correction question below. Try your hand at this question, and below we’ll reveal the user statistics and break down what we can learn from them.

The data being collected in the current geological survey are providing a strong warning for engineers as they consider the new dam project, but their greatest importance might lie in how they influence the upcoming decision by those same engineers on whether to retrofit 75 bridges in the survey zone.

(A) The data being collected in the current geological survey are providing a strong warning for engineers as they consider the new dam project, but their greatest importance

(B) The data being collected in the current geological survey provide a strong warning for engineers as they consider the new dam project, but its greatest importance

(C) The data collected in the current geological survey is providing a strong warning for engineers as they consider the new dam project, but their greatest importance

(D) The data collected in the current geological survey provides a strong warning for engineers in consideration of the new dam project, but its greatest importance

(E) The data collected in the current geological survey provide a strong warning for engineers in consideration for the new dam project, but the greatest importance

Savvy test-takers will note a couple major differences between the answer choices:

-Two answer choices use the word “being” in “being collected”, and three do not (they simply omit that)
-Two answer choices use the pronoun “its” toward the end, and two use “their” (one omits the pronoun completely)

How did people tackle these decision points? Let’s take a look at the data:

A few noteworthy stats:

-Over 75% of users avoided the word “being”, which is *usually* incorrect on the GMAT (but then again it is an actual word, so it has to be used correctly in some function of speech, right?)
-About half of users went for “its” and a little more than a quarter for “their”

And the correct answer? It uses “being” and “their”, the two most unpopular decisions. So what can you learn from this?

It appears that most users made their first decision to eliminate “being”, which has a reputation in the GMATsphere for *being* (intentional) wrong. But here’s the thing – “being” can be correctly used as a present-tense verb, a noun (as in “human being”), and other contexts. Ain’t ain’t a word, but being is. There are a handful of these pieces of GMAT wisdom (that often start with the phrase “the GMAT prefers” or “the GMAT doesn’t like”) that actually aren’t terrible advice, they’re just awful first decisions. If you’re down between two answers and the only striking difference you see is that one of them uses “being”, odds are you should eliminate that one. But as a primary decision you can do better.

For the next decision, it appears that people attempt the “data…its” vs. “data…their” distinction by trying to determine whether data is singular or plural. Which isn’t a bad strategy – but when singular/plural decisions are to be made and appear tricky (words like “data”, “deer”, “fish”, etc. can be both), the GMAT very often cleverly hides a controlling word away from the underline. And here they do that – look at “…how they influence” a few words after the underline. That “they” can only apply to “data” (“engineers” are referred to separately in that same thought). So there is a binary decision point here – data is set by that outside-the-underline pronoun to be “their”, which eliminates B and D (the most popular answer). Then with choice C mixing singular/plural (“their” but “is providing”), you’re left with a tougher decision between A and E.

Here’s where “being” is perfectly okay and consistent – if the data are “being collected” and “are providing” valuable information about an “upcoming decision”, that present-tense “being” completely works. And it’s actually more specific and clear than the wording in choice E – in E “the greatest importance” is ambiguous…what’s important? In A, we know the data have one primary significance, and we also get a clear sense of the timeline – they are currently being collected and continuing to provide value.

So A is correct, but more important is what you can learn from the stats taken from your peers:

1) Pronoun decisions are much more binary and concrete than “idiomatic” decisions like “being” and others. In this question, many users missed it because they made that “being” decision first and eliminated the right answer immediately.

2) When making singular/plural decisions that seem more difficult than they should be, look past the underlined portion to see if there’s a smoking gun elsewhere – a fixed pronoun or verb that removes all doubt.

Remember, also, that the official GMAT complies this type of data and much, much more, so the authors of GMAT questions know that test-takers have certain exploitable tendencies. You can be certain that the GMAT is paying attention to data like this; make sure that you learn from your mistakes (and those of others) to gameplan for the test.

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By Brian Galvin

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