Why You Shouldn’t Rely on Your Ear for GMAT Sentence Correction Questions

Phone InterviewThe other night, when we were reviewing Sentence Correction strategies in class, a student asked if it was acceptable to rely on his ear to find the correct answer. This was what he’d done when he’d taken his diagnostic test, and he’d performed quite well on this section, so he figured it just made more sense to devote his study time to other areas. It’s a common question. After all, if you’re naturally good at something, does it really make sense to make an investment of time and energy just to tamper with an approach that’s been effective?

Whenever I get this question, I always take pains to give a nuanced response. My goal, when I’m teaching, isn’t to indoctrinate anyone or impose a given philosophical approach to a problem. The last thing any of us should be doing when we take the GMAT is wringing our hands over whether our instinct for how to tackle the problem is the “right” one. However, some approaches have potential shortcomings that we need to be mindful of, and using your ear alone to solve Sentence Correction questions is no exception.

The first problem with using your ear alone is that while a good instinct for syntax and grammar is immensely helpful for writers, on the GMAT, this instinct will often cause us to reject sentences that are technically correct but are specifically engineered to sound a little off. If you were a question-writer for the GMAT, and your goal was to make a given question as challenging as possible, wouldn’t you make some correct answers sound a little strange to amplify the difficulty of the question?

In these cases, we simply have to use a blend of logic and grammar rules to rule out the four definitively wrong answer choices. The remaining answer, which sounds strange, but has no glaring errors, will have to be correct. Take this official question, for example:

For many revisionist historians, Christopher Columbus has come to personify devastation and enslavement in the name of progress that has decimated native people of the Western Hemisphere.

A) devastation and enslavement in the name of progress that has decimated native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
B) devastation and enslavement in the name of progress by which native peoples of the Western Hemisphere have been decimated.
C) devastating and enslaving in the name of progress those native peoples of the Western Hemisphere that have been decimated.
D) devastating and enslaving those native peoples of the Western hemisphere which in the name of progress are decimated.
E) the devastation and enslavement in the name of progress that have decimated the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

I like to pride myself on having a good ear when it comes to Sentence Correction, but none of these options strike me as terribly appealing. Let’s evaluate them one by one:

A, in its entirety, reads as follows: Christopher Columbus has come to personify devastation and enslavement in the name of progress that has decimated native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

Notice, the relative clause beginning with “that.” “That” has a singular verb “has,” meaning that the antecedent for “that” should be the closest singular noun. Here, the closest singular noun is “progress.” Read literally, the sentence is saying that progress has decimated native peoples! That makes no sense. Eliminate A.

B: Christopher Columbus has come to personify devastation and enslavement in the name of progress by which native peoples of the Western Hemisphere have been decimated.

Again, it sounds like “progress” is responsible for the decimation of native peoples. No good.

C: Christopher Columbus has come to personify devastating and enslaving in the name of progress those native peoples of the Western Hemisphere that have been decimated. 

Here “that” seems to refer to “native peoples.” The GMAT prefers “who” when referring to people. Moreover, the phrase “those native peoples that have been decimated” makes it sound as though there were some native peoples who were devastated and others who weren’t. This is not the intended meaning of the sentence. Eliminate C.

D: Christopher Columbus has come to personify devastating and enslaving those native peoples of the Western hemisphere which in the name of progress are decimated. 

This one is riddled with problems. Again the phrase “those native peoples” is problematic. “Which” appears to refer to people, when the GMAT would prefer “who.” And last the verb “are” implies that the action is happening in the present tense. Clearly incorrect.

That leaves us with E: Christopher Columbus has come to personify the devastation and enslavement in the name of progress that have decimated the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. 

It still sounds off to my ear, but if we read the sentence without the prepositional phrase “in the name of progress,” we get: Christopher Columbus has come to personify the devastation and enslavement that have decimated the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. This makes perfect sense. Notice that because “that” has the plural verb “have,” it must have a plural antecedent, so “that” refers to “devastation and enslavement.” Not the world’s prettiest sentence, but far superior to the other four options, each of which have glaring mistakes.

Takeaway: No single strategy will allow you to answer every question within a given category correctly. Because some correct Sentence Correction answers are engineered to sound strange, it’s important to keep logic and grammar in mind as we’re justifying our decisions to eliminate the incorrect answers.

*GMAT Prep question courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

Plan on taking the GMAT soon? We have GMAT prep courses starting all the time. And, be sure to find us on Facebook, YouTube and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles by him here