Sentence Correction in Real Life: Death By Pronoun?

GMAT prepIt may well be fair to say that GMAT students, on average, dislike studying for Sentence Correction questions than for any other question type. Grammar in itself is less than enjoyable, and to many the correct answers seem awkward and the incorrect answers seem to fit the “yeah, but I still understood what they were saying” protest.

Where Sentence Correction can become a bit more relevant and enjoyable is in the fact that, more than any other area of grammatical relevance, the GMAT tests logic. When it comes to Modifiers, Pronouns, Subject-Verb Agreement, Verb Tense, etc., the correct answer is just as likely to be found by asking “does this even make sense?” than by consulting Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (you know… that book of which you received multiple copies for your high school graduation). And if you embrace the logical absurdity of incorrect answers, studying Sentence Correction can be fun (or at least less un-fun). As you notice these grammatically-induced absurdities, you can bring extra enjoyment to day-to-day reading and radio-listening. For example, consider this segment from today’s Morning Edition on NPR.

Throughout the segment you feel a kinship with the Baltimore Orioles’ octogenarian bal boy and his yeoman streak – the man in question performed his clubhouse duties of prepping baseballs for in-game use and other game day tasks for over 3,000 straight home games, even surpassing fellow Oriole Cal Ripken, Jr.’s Ironman streak of consecutive games played, if one can consider the two streaks comparable. As you grow to care about the man, you should find yourself shocked and saddened at the ambiguous pronoun in the segment’s last sentence:

“…he would even have extended his record streak later into his life had he not chosen to end it, voluntarily…”

Wait… What? At the end of this heartwarming story are we now dealing with a suicide victim? End it voluntarily? How could this happy-go-lucky sounding man from the interview footage, who seemed to so love his family, his ballpark job, and his life in general take his own life? And how could NPR so casually slip in this shocking news at the end of the segment?

Well, he didn’t and NPR didn’t. The placement of “it” in that sentence is ambiguous at best — does “it” refer to his life, or his streak? — and more-likely misleading to the listener, especially when the narrator hung on that word “voluntarily” to set up the final statement:

“…to attend Cal Ripken Jr.’s Hall of Fame induction.”

Well, that settles it… thankfully not a suicide! NPR is not guilty of a callous rebranding of a man’s legacy; it is only guilty of a GMAT Sentence Correction error. Pronouns like “it” must be used carefully – it can be a matter of life and death on the radio, and can have similarly dire consequences for your GMAT score if you’re not careful.

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Photo courtesy of Malingering, used under a Creative Commons license.