Some sentence structures seemingly stupefy scholarly students. One of the main reasons the GMAT chooses to test logic through sentence correction is that the rules of grammar are much more flexible than most students realize. We (hopefully) remember some of the basic rules of sentences. Sentences should have a subject and a predicate, but you can often shorten sentences in specific contexts. Like this. The rules we’ve learned in high school are relevant, but (to paraphrase Pirates of the Caribbean) they’re more like guidelines.
The one “rule” I’d like to discuss in particular today is the notion that a sentence must always be in the same tense from beginning to end. This parameter is helpful and applicable in most situations, but it is in no way a restriction that can never be circumvented. In the absence of other incentives, it makes sense as a de facto plan, but it doesn’t have to be followed blindly. It’s like taking the subway to work and getting off at the station closest to your work. By default, you should get off at that station, but that doesn’t mean you can’t detour to a different station to pick up your boss’ favorite breakfast once in a while.
In a typical sentence, randomly shifting tenses doesn’t make any sense. Consider a sentence like “Ron watches Frozen on repeat and liked it when Elsa sings” (#Frozen). This sentence doesn’t make sense because it jumps from the present tense of watching the movie to the past tense for liking and then back to the presence for the singing. This sentence would have to be “Ron watches Frozen on repeat and likes it when Elsa sings” or “Ron watched Frozen on repeat and liked it when Elsa sang”. Either alternative provides a cohesive sentence that illustrates Ron’s adulation for animated movies.
However not all sentences are tied to the default structure of always maintaining the same verb tense. The meaning of the sentence will dictate the verb tense, so meaning must always be considered when considering possible answer choices in sentence correction. A sentence could read: “Ron beams with pride when he recalls how Frozen won best animated song at the Oscars”. The sentence discusses Ron’s present pride when thinking back to an event that happened in the past, so the fact that the third verb is in the past makes sense with the meaning of the sentence. The pride actively comes whenever he recalls the one specific moment in the past (performed memorably by Adele Dazeem).
Let’s look at an example of how varying verb tenses shouldn’t slow us down on an actual GMAT problem:
Attempts to standardize healthcare, an important issue to both state and national officials, has not eliminated the difference in the quality of care existing between upper and lower income families.
(A) Has not eliminated the difference in the quality of care existing
(B) Has not been making a difference eliminating the quality of care that exists
(C) Has not made an elimination in the quality of care that exists
(D) Have not eliminated the difference in the quality of care that exists
(E) Have not been making a difference eliminating the quality of care existing
This sentence has more issues than simply verb tense, as we can quickly identify a 3-2 split between has and have in the first word. Simply being able to determine which of these elements is correct will eliminate at least two choices, so it’s the first decision point we should tackle.
The modifier “…an important issue…” can be ignored for the purposes of identifying the subject in this sentence. Thus the sentence essentially reads “Attempts to standardize healthcare has not eliminated…” which highlights the fact that “Attempts” is the subject, and thus the verb should be plural instead of singular. This means that answer choices A, B and C can all be eliminated. The correct answer must be either choice D or choice E.
Looking at answer choice D: “Attempts to standardize healthcare… have not eliminated the difference in the quality of care that exists…”we may notice the verb tense discrepancy I mentioned earlier. The sentence describes issues in the past, but then mentions their ramifications in the present. This is acceptable because the meaning of the sentence is preserved. Attempts to make changes in the past have not yet had the desired effect in the present. Many students eliminate answer choice D because of the verb tense issue, but this is not a valid reason as the sentence structure is logical. Let’s look at answer choice E and see if we can eliminate it and leave D as the last answer standing (coming to NBC this fall).
Answer choice E: “Attempts to standardize healthcare… have not been making a difference eliminating the quality of care existing” is perhaps more tempting because the verb is a participle (existing). However the meaning of this sentence changes from the original meaning, as the attempts now do not make a difference in eliminating the quality of care. This is much worse than the original intent, and can be eliminated because of the meaning alteration alone. Answer choice E is incorrect, and thus the answer must be answer choice D.
When choosing between two (or more) answer choices, it’s important to always consider the meaning of the sentence. If the meaning of the sentence is logical, then the grammar may have been purposely chosen to make you doubt the answer choice. Remember that sentences do not always need to have the same verb tense, and that the logic of the sentence will play a big role in determining whether an answer choice is acceptable. If you keep these elements in mind, you’ll start finding sentence correction much less tense.
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.