Sentence correction questions are among the least understood questions on the GMAT. Many native English speakers feel they can get by using their ears on sentence correction. However, the questions chosen on the GMAT generally have specific logical elements that must be evaluated in order to get to the right answer. Simply put, the grammar matters, but it’s more about the meaning than about the grammar.
The golden rule in sentence correction is that you should eliminate incorrect answer choices until you’re left with only one option. This process of elimination approach is helpful in an environment when there are many (or several) ways of expressing (or phrasing) the same ideas (or data). One easy way to eliminate an answer choice is if it creates an illogical meaning. The intent of the sentence must be clear, which means if a choice changes the original intent or produces something that just doesn’t make sense, it cannot be the correct answer.
By that same token, an answer choice that creates an unclear or uncertain meaning must also be an incorrect answer. If the correct answer must be clear and devoid of ambiguity, then any statement that is unclear or ambiguous cannot be the right choice. This distinction extends to all facets of the sentence, from nouns to verbs to pronouns and even to the syntax. If the syntax is ambiguous, or could mean two different things, then it’s not the correct answer.
Syntax errors are not the most common issues in sentence correction, but they do appear, and so it’s worth ensuring that the syntax works with the other key elements of the sentence. In honor of mother’s day last week, let’s examine a question that everyone deals with on day one:
As a baby emerges from the darkness of the womb with a rudimentary sense of vision, it would be rated about 20/500, or legally blind if it were an adult with such vision.
A) As a baby emerges from the darkness of the womb with a rudimentary sense of vision,
it would be rated about 20/500, or legally blind if it were an adult with such vision.
B) A baby emerges from the darkness of the womb with a rudimentary sense of vision that
would be rated about 20/500, or legally blind as an adult.
C) As a baby emerges from the darkness of the womb, its rudimentary sense of vision would
be rated about 20/500; qualifying it to be legally blind if an adult.
D) A baby emerges from the darkness of the womb with a rudimentary sense of vision that
would be rated about 20/500; an adult with such vision would be deemed legally blind.
E) As a baby emerges from the darkness of the womb, its rudimentary sense of vision,
which would deemed legally blind for an adult, would be rated about 20/500.
The first thing we can note is that the entire sentence is underlined, so we don’t have to worry about connectors or how the underlined portion relates to the rest of the sentence. Apart from that, we can see that children probably don’t have very good vision (which is why I don’t support infant drivers), but all the sentences seem to say roughly the same thing. The most logical place to start would be to look for low hanging fruit (i.e. easy to spot errors) in the original sentence.
Looking at the sentence, it describes the baby’s momentous escape from the womb, and then discusses the dreadful eyesight all babies possess. After a comma, the sentence continues with the pronoun “it”. This pronoun could refer back to the baby, the vision, or potentially even the womb, as any singular noun in the sentence could potentially be the correct antecedent. The context kind of guides you into understanding that the vision must be what’s considered, because babies are not rated 20/500 (except on Toddlers & Tiaras). The presence of another “it” later on, ostensibly referring to the child this time, cements the notion that the pronouns are unclear and the answer cannot be A.
Looking through the other choices, answers C and E commit the same pronoun error, and can be eliminated for the same reason. It’s interesting to note that commas can be used to elaborate on the previous word (womb, vision) or the subject of the sentence (baby), and either would be grammatically acceptable. Therein lies the strength of the English language, its versatility and flexibility apparent (I’d give it a 9 on the parallel bars). However, this same strength is also a weakness to be exploited: on the GMAT, the sentence must be crystal clear or it is incorrect.
We can also eliminate option C because the semi-colon should link two sentences that could stand on their own, whereas the second portion is clearly dependent on the first section. Similarly answer choice E is missing a crucial “be” between the words “would” and “deemed”. We’ve already eliminated these choices, but it’s noteworthy that there are often multiple errors and it’s just a question of which one you notice first. No matter how you eliminate the answer choices, you should be left with two options: B and D.
Examining answer choice B: A baby emerges from the darkness of the womb with a rudimentary sense of vision that would be rated about 20/500, or legally blind as an adult. Until the comma, the sentence is a bit of a run-on, but it makes logical sense; everything after the comma changes the meaning of the sentence. The portion: “…rated about 20/500, or legally blind, …” would have been acceptable had the sentence ended with something about the baby. However the way the sentence is written does not convey the meaning that the baby’s eyesight is just dreadful. Instead it implies that the vision would be an adult, which is completely nonsensical. This answer choice cannot be correct.
By process of elimination, it must be answer choice D: As a baby emerges from the darkness of the womb, its rudimentary sense of vision, which would deemed legally blind for an adult, would be rated about 20/500. This sentence uses syntax correctly and avoids ambiguous pronoun usage. The pronoun which is used properly (it always refers to the term right before the comma), and the meaning is clear and unambiguous. Not only are the four other answer choices incorrect, this choice is grammatically flawless and aesthetically pleasing. On sentence correction, always make sure to eliminate answer choices that contain grammatical errors, and keep going until there is only one clear choice (vote Ron in 2016: The Clear Choice).
Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam. After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.