I recently received the following question from a student. “I often get into trouble with ambiguous pronouns. If it is not clear what “they” or “it” refers to I eliminate the answer choice. I like to do this because it seems easy, but I keep getting burned using this technique. So my question is, if it is not clear what a pronoun refers to is that answer choice wrong?”
I replied to the student by discussing the Process Pyramid for Sentence Correction. Here is what the pyramid looks like.
Logic and Grammar Come First
You can see that the bottom level – the foundation of sentence correction – is logic and grammar, (including proper comparisons and parallelism). This is where your analysis should begin. If the answer choice has a flaw in grammar, such as subject-verb agreement or an error in logic, such as an illogical modifier then that answer choice should be eliminated.
This type of error is less subjective than something like an ambiguous modifier. That is why you should begin with logic and grammar, these errors are not a matter of judgment and the rules are easier to master. In particular students get a tremendous return on investment from mastering the rules of the common modifiers, including participial phrases, prepositions, appositives, and relative clauses.
Next Clarity and Specificity
The initial level of analysis should eliminate most answer choices based on flaws in grammar and logic. However, sometimes there will be more than one answer choice that has (or seems to have) no errors in grammar or logic. At this point you can move to clarity and specificity as a way to distinguish between answers. This is when it is appropriate to eliminate answer choices that have pronouns that are not clearly matched to antecedents.
The Official Guide for GMAT Review, 13th Edition (written by the people who make the GMAT exam) states that a correct answer should avoid being “awkward, wordy, redundant, imprecise, or unclear” and that an answer that is any of these things can be eliminated even if it is “free of grammatical errors.” This group of secondary errors is referred to as problems with “rhetorical construction.”
The following answer choice is from question #44 of the sentence correction portion of the Official Guide 13th Edition:
“The plot of the Bostonians centers on the active feminist, Olive Chancellor, and the rivalry with the charming and cynical cousin Basil Ransom, when they find themselves drawn to the same radiant young woman whose talent for public speaking has won her an ardent following.”
This answer choice is eliminated not for a grammatical flaw, but because it is lacks clarity and specificity. It is unclear in this particular answer choice that “Olive Chancellor is a party to the rivalry” with Basil Ransom.
At the top of the Process Pyramid is Brevity. Most sentence correction questions do not require you to climb so high on the pyramid. It is only when two or more answers are logically and grammatically acceptable AND are each clear and specific that you need to bring brevity into the equation. However, the Official Guide describes many answer choices as “unnecessarily wordy.” So if you do find that you have two or more answer choices that satisfy the first two levels of the process pyramid only then do you eliminate the one that is “wordy.”
Looking for an error such as an ambiguous pronoun is fine; just make sure that you do so at the proper time. Use the process pyramid to organize errors and address those errors in the proper order: Grammar and logic, clarity and specificity, and finally, brevity.
David Newland has been teaching for Veritas Prep since 2006, and he won the Veritas Prep Instructor of the Year award in 2008. Students’ friends often call in asking when he will be teaching next because he really is a Veritas Prep and a GMAT rock star! Read more of his articles here.