One of the hardest things about Sentence Correction is that it tests so much more than just grammar. Many students erroneously conflate Sentence Correction problems with high school grammar problems, and this can lead to avoidable mistakes on test day. Indeed, the rules you learned in high school still apply, but you must be able to recognize them among various other potential problems. It’s fairly simple to spot an agreement error on a verb (there are one problem) or a misplaced comma (good, job bro), but sometimes you have to eliminate an answer choice because the sentence just doesn’t make sense.
Think about a sentence like “This table has four arms.” Grammatically, the sentence is flawless (although I use the term loosely). However, from a logical point of view, it doesn’t make any sense at all. Tables are colloquially said to have “legs,” even if these don’t exactly fit the Darwinian definition of the term, but they are not typically said to have “arms”. On the GMAT, this sentence is as incorrect as “This table have four arms,” but it’s much harder to see for most people. The error lies not in the grammar, but in the meaning.
In fact, there are two broad categories of illogical meanings on the GMAT. The first is the type described above: A sentence that just doesn’t make sense. The second type can be more subtle, as it constitutes the array of answer choices that change the meaning of the sentence. This error often occurs when the structure of the sentence is changed and no longer meshes with the rest of the sentence. A typical example would be changing from “Human beings have skulls…” to “The skulls of human beings”… Within the underlined portion, everything can seem fine. But if the rest of the sentence is discussing how human beings are remarkable adaptable creatures, this simple switch can have serious ramifications as it changes the meaning dramatically. Originally, human beings were remarkable creatures. Now only their skulls are remarkable creatures, which is completely nonsensical and thus not a valid sentence on the GMAT.
Let’s look at an example and see if we can keep the meaning of this sentence.
The Buffalo Club has approved tenets mandating that members should volunteer time to aid the community.
A) that members should volunteer time
B) that time be volunteered by members
C) the volunteering of time by members
D) members’ volunteering of time
E) that members volunteer time
This sentence is not particularly long, and the underlined portion is only five words, so each word should be weighed carefully. Most of the words are not underlined, so the sentence tells us that the Buffalo Club is mandating something specific, and the goal of this endeavor is to aid the community. The only options we have are the few words (Malcolm) in the middle of the sentence.
Using the original sentence (answer choice A) as a benchmark, we see that the club is mandating that members should volunteer their time. This sentence doesn’t have a glaring grammatical error, but the logical error here is quite noticeable. Mandating something means that it is required, so the verb “should” is illogical within the sentence. It’s like telling someone that they’ve arrived late to work for the past two weeks, and that they’re definitely fired. Maybe. Answer choice A is illogical because the word “should” contradicts the logic of the sentence and undermines the entire message.
Answer choice A is the only one to use the word “should”, so we cannot use that decision point to knock out any other choices. However, A does correctly begin with the word “that”, which is a correct idiom to be used with mandated. When something is mandated, it must either be “The club mandated that Ron win” or “the club mandated the victory be awarded to Ron”. Either way, the directive must be clear, and Ron must be declared the victor (now that’s what I call a win-win situation). Answer choices C and D can be eliminated because they do not follow either idiom of the verb, and the meaning of the sentence is distorted.
This only leaves answer choices B and E. Let’s evaluate answer choice B first, and we quickly notice that the sentence is more verbose than it needs to be. Furthermore, the sentence is switched to the passive voice because “time” is now the subject of the sentence, not “members”. Since the members are being mandated to do something, they must be the subject of the sentence, not the time they are volunteering. Answer choice B can be eliminated.
This leaves only answer choice E, and it is indeed the correct answer. Comparing it with answer choice A, it is exactly the same, except that it removes the superfluous “should”. In reality, the members are being mandated to help out the community, and this is non-negotiable (House of Cards’ Victor Petrov style) so there is no room for ambiguity by adding in a rider.
On the GMAT, the difference between a correct answer and an incorrect answer often comes down to which selection actually makes sense. Nowhere is this more common than on sentence correction problems, where the inclusion or exclusion of one word can dramatically alter the meaning of a phrase. Indeed, if you master the strategies of logical meaning on the GMAT, you will (not should) do well on the exam.
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.