How Prom Relates to Sentence Correction on the GMAT

Preparing to take the GMAT exam is a journey that requires patience, dedication and the ability to maintain focus over a long period. Taking the exam is the culmination of a long journey that may have lasted months if not years. The approaching test day has caused a few sleepless nights for many as that circled date on the calendar loomed ever closer. This entire experience might remind you of another similar rite of passage that many of us have gone through: The prom. (Unsubstantiated rumor: new American Pie movie will revolve around taking the GMAT)

As prom draws ever closer, an important issue arises for many people: whom to take. Choosing a prom date is very much like choosing an answer choice on the GMAT, in particular on sentence correction questions. Sentence correction has the special property that answer choice A is always the same text rewritten verbatim. Answer choices B-E offer tempting alternatives to the known quantity that is answer choice A, but as we know A is often the correct answer (and John Hughes films have reinforced that tempting alternatives at prom usually lead to a disastrous evening).

At the prom, you have to decide whether to go with your steady partner, the mysterious classmate you’ve had a crush on since forever, or your safety choice (often your sibling’s friend or your friend’s sibling). You can also go stag, which is the equivalent of leaving the question blank, and is not an option since you are not penalized for an incorrect answer on the exam. Just as selecting the wrong prom date will lead to a potentially disastrous evening, selecting the wrong answer will cause grief when you get your score. This is compounded by the fact that you looked over the five answer choices and made the wrong pick. The correct answer was literally right in front of you, except that it’s not always obvious to see it in the heat of the moment. You have to be able to evaluate tempting answer choices without necessarily completely dismissing answer choice A because the phrasing isn’t ideal.

Let’s consider the following sentence correction question:

In the minds of many Europeans, before Canada was Canada, it was a vast wilderness, a cold and inhospitable place that nonetheless was the ancestral home of many Inuit tribes.

(A)     Before Canada was Canada, it was a vast wilderness

(B)      Before there was a Canada, it was a vast wilderness

(C)      It was a vast wilderness that was Canada

(D)     Canada was what was a vast wilderness

(E)      Canada was what had been known as a vast wilderness

The original sentence seems awkward because of the whole “Canada was Canada” part, which seems to be the very definition of redundancy (as advocated by the department of redundancy department). However grammatically it is difficult to exclude this choice so let’s elaborate on the other choices to see if any are preferable.

(B) Before there was a Canada, it was a vast wilderness: The pronoun it here has no clear antecedent. The sentence could just as easily mean “before there was a Canada, the Netherlands was a vast wilderness” and would work grammatically, so the pronoun here is unclear. Eliminate.

(C) It was a vast wilderness that was Canada: The pronoun it here has no clear antecedent here again. In fact the phrasing lends itself to imply that “it” is referring to something in Europe, which is different than the original meaning of the sentence. Eliminate.

(D) Canada was what was a vast wilderness: Answer choice D was what was a confusing and erroneous sentence that doesn’t maintain the original meaning. D was what was eliminated.

(E) Canada was what had been known as a vast wilderness: The verb tense eliminates this from contention, as it no longer works with the non-underlined potion. The timeline becomes “before Canada was what been known as a vast wilderness…” and then never indicates what it was afterwards. Eliminate.

Although you might have preferred it if answer choice A had different wording (before Canada was a country, before Canada produced Justin Bieber, etc), the choice is the only one that does not contain a grammatical error.

The correct answer is (A). 

Just as when choosing a prom date, picking the correct answer choice is paramount to having a successful evening. Just remember that you can take time debating which option to go with, but once you make a choice you have to live with that decision, so make the best one and you’ll have a memorable experience you will look back on fondly. (Just don’t forget to bring a corsage).

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you occasional tips and tricks 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.