Don’t Judge a GMAT Sentence by the Way it Sounds

When answering sentence correction problems on the GMAT, it’s very common to use your ear as a barometer of how the answer choice sounds. Particularly for native English speakers, this is often the number one way they approach any given sentence. The problem with this strategy is that sentence correction is often much more about the meaning than about the grammar. By extension, the test makers of the GMAT know they can fool many students by simply making the correct answer choice unappealing to the students’ ears (Won’t get fooled again!).

Anything that makes a sentence sound more awkward than it should is fair game to try and get test takers to pick the wrong answers. Some strategies come back more often than others, and today I want to discuss these types of errors as it pertains to the timeline of a sentence. Students often have preconceived notions hammered in during high school that a sentence must always be in the same tense, no matter what. While this is a nifty rule of thumb, it doesn’t have to be the case in every sentence.

As an example, consider a student studying for the GMAT. The student could say “I have studied for the GMAT” or “I will study for the GMAT”. Both of these options make sense. What about “I will be ready for my GMAT next week because I have been studying for months”? This sentence is also fine, even though one verb tense is in the future and the other is in the present perfect continuous. As long as the phrase makes logical sense and what is being described in the past took place in the past, the sentence is valid.

The trick on the GMAT that gets students confused is that you have to pick one sentence out of the five answer choices. However, none of them might be exactly what you’re expecting. In other words, if given “carte blanche”, I could rewrite this sentence in a much clearer way than any of these five middling choices. That’s half the difficulty, though, because you have to pick the sentence from among the choices that contains no grammatical mistake, even though you don’t necessarily like everything in the answer choice.

Let me highlight this with a sentence correction question that regularly gives students fits:

A 1999 tax bill changed what many wealthy taxpayers and large corporations are allowed to deduct on their tax returns.

(A)   changed what many what many wealthy taxpayers and large corporations are allowed to deduct on their tax returns

(B)   changed wealthy taxpayers’ and large corporations’ amounts that they have been allowed to deduct on their tax returns

(C)   is changing wealthy taxpayers’ and large corporations’ amounts that they have been allowed to deduct on their tax returns

(D)   changed what many wealthy taxpayers and large corporations had been allowed to deduct on their tax returns

(E)    changes what many wealthy taxpayers and large corporations have been allowed to deduct on their tax returns

Going through the answer choices, it seems fairly clear that 1999 is in the past. Whether it’s 2014 or 2015 or whenever, you would not reference 1999 in the future (unless you’re Prince). As such, we can eliminate answer choices C and E because both use the present tense and make it sound like this bill is happening right now and not 15+ years ago.

Similarly, answer choice B changes the meaning of the sentence. The sentence is saying the bill will change what people are allowed to deduct, whereas answer choice B modifies the meaning to just the amount they are allowed to remove. There is a significant difference between deducting 500$ for school expenses or 700$ for school expenses versus deducting school expenses or capital gains expenses. There is a niche corner case where the two may have exactly the same meaning, but the original sentence has a much broader definition and thus can’t be pigeonholed into answer choice B.

This leaves the two most common answer choices: A and D. If you’re going by sound, you likely think that answer choice D is the correct answer. However, even though answer choice D sounds like what you’d expect to hear, it creates an illogical timeline. Let’s look at a sample timeline and determine when the changes were made:



1999 tax bill                                                                                    present


Answer choice D uses the past perfect continuous (had been allowed) which can only be used if the event described happened before another event in the past. Example: By the time I took the GMAT in 2007, I had been studying for over two months. You cannot have a tax code change in 1999 that affects the years prior to 1999. Otherwise everyone would have to resubmit their taxes for the past 6 years to reflect the change. Any tax code change can only come change future tax years.

Answer choice D meaning, with the period having been changed in red.



1999 tax bill                                                                                    present


Answer choice A meaning, with the period having been changed in red.



1999 tax bill                                                                                    present

Answer choice A, even though it uses the present tense (are) can be considered grammatically correct here as long as the law wasn’t repealed. Since there is no indication of the law having been changed, answer choice A is a valid (although awkward sounding) way of rewriting this sentence.

I would like to further illustrate this point using the Stampy example of the seminal Simpsons episode where Bart gets an elephant. In the episode (titled Bart gets an elephant), Homer realizes that he can make money off the elephant, and decides to charge people 1$ to see the elephant and 2 $ to ride the elephant. Upon realizing that he’s still losing money, he updates his prices to 100$ and 500$ respectively. Since this drives away all of his business, Homer visits the homes of his friends and tells them:

Homer: “Millhouse saw the elephant twice and rode him once, correct?

Millhouse’s dad: “Yes, but we already paid you the 4$”

Homer: “That was under our old price structure. Under our new price structure, you owe me 700$”

Millhouse’s dad: “Get out of my house”

Hopefully this little skit helped drive home the point I’m trying to make. You cannot retroactively change what people can deduct. You can only change things going forward. Answer choice A may not be the preferred way to rewrite this sentence (Example:  “changed what people would be allowed to deduct” would have been clearer), but there is no grammatical error contained within it. When it comes to sentence correction, make sure you understand the logic of the sentence and don’t depend on your ear as your only line of defense.

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

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.