In life, you are often given binary choices. This is true even if the word binary isn’t something you recognize right away. Binary comes from the Latin “bini”, which means two together, and is used to regroup decisions in which you have exactly two choices. On forms, you might see categories such as “smoker” or “non-smoker”, and you are prompted to answer exactly one of the options. At a restaurant, you might get asked “Soup or salad?” (super salad??), and you are expected to make a decision as to which appetizer you want. Very frequently, these two choices cover the entirety of your options. There is no third option to select.
Now, at a restaurant, you may be particularly hungry and decide to order both the soup and the salad (and the frog legs while we’re at it). Similarly, on forms, someone who selects both options is being confusing. Perhaps you’ve smoked once and didn’t like it. Perhaps you smoke only on long weekends when the Philadelphia Eagles have a winning record. Sometimes people decide they don’t want to pick between the two choices given. However, if the question were changed to “have you ever smoked a cigarette?” and then given yes or no options, the decision becomes much easier. You have to be in one camp or the other, there is no sitting on the fence (like Humpty Dumpty).
For questions that set up this kind of duality, the entire spectrum of possibilities is essentially covered in these two options. There is no third option; there is no “It’s Complicated” selection. There isn’t even a section for you to explain yourself in the comments below. On these questions, you have to either be on one side or the other, you cannot be in both. Equally, you cannot be in the “neither” camp either. Necessarily, to this point in your life, you have either smoked a cigarette or you have not. Since one of them must be true, this certainty offers some insight on inference questions in critical reasoning.
As you probably recall, inference questions require that an answer choice must be true at all times. This isn’t always easy to see as many answer choices seem likely, but simply are not guaranteed. Sometimes, on inference questions, you get two answer choices that are compliments of one another. You get two choices that say something to the effect of “Ron is always awesome” and “Ron is not always awesome”. Even I would go for the latter here, but clearly one of these must be correct. They cannot both be correct, but they also cannot both be false. Having two answer choices like this guarantees that one of them must be the correct answer, and makes your task considerably easier.
Let’s look at an example:
A few people who are bad writers simply cannot improve their writing, whether or not they receive instruction. Still, most bad writers can at least be taught to improve their writing enough so that they are no longer bad writers. However, no one can become a great writer simply by being taught how to be a better writer, since great writers must have not only skill but also talent.
Which one of the following can be properly inferred from the passage above?
(A) All bad writers can become better writers
(B) All great writers had to be taught to become better writers.
(C) Some bad writers can never become great writers.
(D) Some bad writers can become great writers.
(E) Some great writers can be taught to be even better writers.
Since this is an inference question, we must read through the answer choices because there are many possible answers that could be inferred from this passage. When reading through the passage, you probably note that answers C and D are somewhat complimentary. Either the bad writers can become great writers, or they can’t. However, some people might be miffed by the fact that “some writers” is vague and could mean different people in different contexts. However, while the term “some writers” is undoubtedly abstract, it can refer to any subset of writers one or greater (and up to the entire group). Any group of bad writers is thus conceivable in this passage, but the answer choice must be true at all times, so the groups comprised of “some writers” can mean anyone, and these two groups can be considered equivalent.
If you recognize that either answer choice C or answer choice D must be the answer, then you can easily skip over the other three choices. For completeness’ sake, let’s run through them quickly here. Answer choice A directly contradicts the first sentence of this passage: Some bad writers simply cannot improve their writing. Answer choice B contradicts the major point of this passage, which is that great writers have a combination of skill and talent, and you cannot teach talent. Answer choice E makes sense as an option, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be true. This is a classic example of something that’s likely true in the real world, but not necessarily guaranteed by this particular passage.
This leaves us with two options to consider. Can bad writers become great writers, or can they never become great writers? As mentioned above, great writers are born with some level of talent that cannot be mimicked by practice alone. The passage explicitly states “no one can one can become a great writer simply by being taught how to be a better writer”. Even though some bad writers can improve their writing with some help (perhaps even writing a Twilight Saga), some cannot improve their writing at all. If these bad writers cannot improve their writing, they necessarily will never become great writers. Answer choice C must be true based on the passage.
Looking at answer choice D in contrast, it states: “some bad writers can become great writers”. Perhaps some can, but this cannot be guaranteed in any way from the passage. It’s possible that all the writers are terrible even after year of practice. In fact, since we know that some will never improve (the opposite), this conclusion is certainly is not guaranteed. Answer choice C is supported by the passage, answer choice D seems conceivable in the real world, but it is certainly not assured.
On the GMAT, as in life, when confronted with two complimentary choices, you have to end up making a choice. In this instance, because you typically have five choices to consider, whittling the competition down to two choices already saves you time and gives you confidence. Recognizing which option must always be true is all that’s left to do, and that often comes down to playing Devil’s Advocate. When you’re tackling a decision such as this, consider what has to be true, and you’ll make the right choice.
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.