What Figure Skating Can Teach You about GMAT Sentence Correction Questions

Like many Americans, I get caught up in figure skating for exactly two weeks every four years. It’s a fascinating sport, but because I don’t follow it consistently, as I do with the NBA and NFL, I really have no idea how the figure skaters are being judged.

I see what appears to a be hiccup in the routine; the announcer says that it was a flawless set-up for an impressive jump. I see what appears to be a perfect routine; the scores come back and the skater is firmly in 13th.

When you see a GMAT question, you need to know exactly what criteria to use to “judge” a question, even if your first instinct is not correct. Check out the following question from a GMAC practice pack:

At first, I thought “We do need the structure to be parallel!” Why did I think this? Because I saw the word whereas. When I see a comparison word like that, the first thing I look for is consistency between the two things we’re comparing. “Language areas” comes after the comma and is not underlined; like it or not, that phrase is not going anywhere.

Wanting to retro-fit my comparison to match my non-underlined portion, I hope and pray that I see something like, “Whereas language areas in adult brains are X, language areas in a child’s brain are Y.” Clearly, we can compare language areas to other language areas, so my next thought is that I’ll eliminate any answers that don’t satisfy this rule.

However, a quick scan of the underlined terms of comparison in each answer choice reveals that we don’t have such an opportunity.

1. A) each language
2. B) (ignorable prepositional phrase) each language
3. C) each language
4. D) each language
5. E) each language

Whoa. I guess we’re going to have to go with “each language.”

What’s really going on here? “Whereas in some situations X happensthere are other situations in which Y occurs.” We aren’t comparing a thing to a thing; we’re comparing a situation to an analogous situation.

So, what do I focus on next? Simply making a complete sentence that comes right after a semicolon, and eliminating any answer choice that fails to make a sentence. If the answer doesn’t make a grammatical sentence anyway, then why should we care what it’s comparing?

Answer choice B just blows through the existence of a two-part comparison: “Whereas Situation X is a thing and Situation Y is a thing.” That’s not a sentence! We need it to say “Whereas Situation X is a thing <COMMA> Situation Y is also a thing.”

Answer choice C misuses a pronoun by having the plural word “they” refer to the singular noun “language.”

Answer choice D wrongly employs the past tense “occupied,” as the language ceased to exist before the study ended. (Or the adults all tragically died during the study.)

Answer choice E wrongly tries to pass off “Incomplete sentence + comma + AND + Complete sentence” as a grammatical structure to put after a semicolon. Nope.

So let’s recap. In a question that seems to be about comparisons, we just eliminated four answer choices on the basis of No Verb, Bad Pronoun, Bad Verb Tense, and Bad Sentence Structure. None of the wrong answers had anything to do with comparisons!

Meanwhile, I haven’t yet said a word about the correct answer A, and that’s because truthfully, I didn’t love A when I read it for the first time. When you don’t love A, but you can’t identify a tangible error, you just let it hang around. If you can drop four answer choices like the bad habits they are (as we did in B through E), then Mr. Lingering Around Answer A becomes your default champion.

Congrats, Answer Choice A. You’re the “Only Figure Skater Who Didn’t Fall on His Butt So He Wins By Default” of answer choices.

I don’t know much about figure skating, but I know that falling on your butt is not ideal.

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By David Ingber