Connect the Sentence Correction Dots and Succeed on the GMAT

Studying for GMAT sentence correction questions can seem like a primer on grammatical rules. This is because any given phrase could have a pronoun issue, or a verb agreement issue, or even a logical meaning issue. Most GMAT preparation involves at least some amount of time on the specific issues that are frequently tested on the GMAT. There is, however, one important rule that must always be adhered to and that cannot be easily pigeonholed. This rule should cross your mind on every single sentence correction problem you may see, and is often overlooked when speeding through practice questions. Quite simply: the underlined portion of the phrase must work seamlessly with the rest of the sentence.

You may wonder why such a simple rule is often overlooked. The problem is often one of perspective. When evaluating five different choices, it is easy to concentrate on the differences among the options given and ignore the rest of the world (like watching Game of Thrones). Whichever choice you select must merge effortlessly with the rest of the sentence. If it doesn’t, the answer choice selected cannot possibly be the correct answer.

It’s surprisingly easy to overlook this aspect of sentence correction. However, there’s a simple strategy to combat this inertia: (i.e. There’s an app for that) we must ensure to pay special attention to the first and last words of the underlined portion. These are the connector words that link the sentence fragment back to the rest of the sentence. It’s possible that there is only one such word if the underlined portion is at the beginning or at the end. As long as the whole sentence isn’t underlined (which brings a whole different set of problems to the table), pay attention to the connector word(s) and any syntax that must be respected.

Let’s look at a typical Sentence Correction question to illustrate the point:

To Josephine Baker, Paris was her home long before it was fashionable to be an expatriate, and she remained in France during the Second World War as a performer and an intelligence agent for the Resistance

(A)   To Josephine Baker, Paris was her home long before it was fashionable to be an expatriate

(B)   For Josephine Baker, long before it was fashionable to be an expatriate, Paris was her home

(C)   Josephine Baker made Paris her home long before to be an expatriate was fashionable

(D)   Long before it was fashionable to be an expatriate, Josephine Baker made Paris her home

(E)    Long before it was fashionable being an expatriate, Paris was home to Josephine Baker

Since I’ve spent three paragraphs discussing the perils of ensuring that the underlined portion flows flawlessly with the rest of the sentence, let’s start the discussion there. The underlined portion ends with a comma, and then there’s immediately an “and she” that we cannot modify. This means the subject of the underlined portion must unequivocally be “Josephine Baker”, lest we not have a clear antecedent for the pronoun. Let’s look at the answer choices one by one and eliminate them if they do not make logical and grammatical sense until only one remains.

The original answer choice “To Josephine Baker, Paris was her home long before it was fashionable to be an expatriate“ doesn’t work because the sentence contains a modifier error. The sentence is also set up so that Paris seems to be the subject, making the “she” pronoun unclear (is this referring to Paris Hilton, perhaps?) This sentence is grammatically incorrect, and the transition into the rest of the sentence highlights this discrepancy.

Moving on, answer choice B “For Josephine Baker, long before it was fashionable to be an expatriate, Paris was her home” suffers from the same ambiguity. We can mentally strike out the modifier “long before it was fashionable to be an expatriate” as it adds nothing to the grammatical structure of the sentence. This leaves us with “For Josephine Baker,…, Paris was her home, and she…”. This time the pronoun should refer back to Paris, clearly incorrect. In the best case this sentence is hopelessly unclear, and in the worst case it’s inadequate and unnecessary (Some would argue that’s another Paris Hilton reference).

Answer choice C “Josephine Baker made Paris her home long before to be an expatriate was fashionable” actually works fairly well with the rest of the sentence. However it’s often the first answer choice to be eliminated because of the phrasing “long before to be an expatriate”, which is clearly wrong. The underlined portion must gel with the rest of the sentence, but that is not the only criterion that matters.

Answer choice D “Long before it was fashionable to be an expatriate, Josephine Baker made Paris her home”, seems to work. It puts the modifier at the beginning of the sentence and clearly identifies Josephine Baker as the subject. The rest of the sentence flows naturally from this sentence. D should be the correct answer, but we should still eliminate E for completion’s sake.

Answer choice E “Long before it was fashionable being an expatriate, Paris was home to Josephine Baker” recreates the same problem that’s pervaded this sentence since answer choice A. This sentence clearly has Paris as a subject, and everything after the comma naturally refers to Paris. Answer choice E is incorrect, cementing our decision that answer D is correct (Final answer, Regis).

On sentence correction problems, it’s very easy to get so enthralled by the underlined text that you ignore the rest of the sentence. While the underlined portion is the most important part, focusing exclusively on those words makes you lose perspective and gives you a fishbowl mentality (Orange Is the New Black style). The words that aren’t underlined may be indispensable to selecting the correct answer, especially the connector words that link the underlined text back to the rest of the sentence. To see the big picture, sometimes you have to make sure to connect the dots.

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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.

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