GMAT Tip of the Week: Yogi Berra Teaches GMAT Sentence Correction

GMAT Tip of the WeekThe world lost a legend this week with the passing of Yogi Berra, a New York Yankee and World War II hero. Yogi was universally famous – his name was, of course, the inspiration for beloved cartoon character Yogi Bear’s – but to paraphrase the man himself, those who knew him didn’t really know him.

As news of his passing turned into news reports summarizing his life, many were stunned by just how illustrious his career was: 18 All-Star game appearances (in 19 pro seasons), 10 World Series championships as a player, 3 American League MVP awards, part of the Normandy campaign on D-Day… To much of the world, he was “the quote guy” who also had been a really good baseball player. His wordsmithery is what we all remembered:

  • Never answer an anonymous letter.
  • It ain’t over ’til it’s over.
  • It gets late early out here.
  • Pair up in threes.

And his command (or butchering) of the English language is what you should remember as you take the GMAT. Yogi Berra famously “didn’t say some of the things I said” but he did, however inadvertently, have a lot to say about GMAT Sentence Correction:

Pronouns Matter

What’s funny about his quote, “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours”?

It’s the pronoun “they.” You know what Yogi means – go to other people’s funerals so that other people will come to yours. But in that sentence, the logical referent for “they” is “other people(‘s)”, and those other people have already been designated in the sentence as people who have already died. So the meaning is illogical: those same people cannot logically attend a funeral in the future. When you use a pronoun, it has to refer back to a specific noun. If that noun cannot logically do what the pronoun is said to be doing, that’s a Sentence Correction, illogical meaning problem.

What’s funny about his quote, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”?

Again, it’s the pronoun, this time “it.” Since a fork in the road is a place where the road diverges into two paths, you can’t take “it” – you have to pick one path. And this is a good example of another sentence correction theme. In order to fix this thought (and the one above), there’s really not a pronoun that will work. “Them” has no logical referent (there’s only one fork) so the meaning is extremely important.

The only way to fix it is to change something prior in the sentence. Perhaps, “When you come to a turnoff on the road, take it,” or, “when the road presents a turn, take it.” On the GMAT, a pronoun error isn’t always fixed by fixing the pronoun – often the correct answer will change the logic that precedes the pronoun so that in the correct answer the previously-incorrect pronoun is correct.

Modifiers Matter

What’s funny about his quote, “Congratulations. I knew the record would stand until it was broken”?

Of course records stand until they’re broken, but in a grammatical sense Yogi’s primary mistake was his placement of the modifier “until it was broken.” What he likely meant to say is, “Until the record was broken, I thought it might stand forever.” That’s a perfectly logical thought, but we all laugh at the statement he actually made because the placement of the modifier creates a laughable meaning. So learn to spot similarly-misplaced modifiers by checking to make sure the language means exactly what it should.

Redundancy Is Funny (but sometimes has its place)

What’s funny about, “We made too many wrong mistakes,” and “It’s like déjà vu all over again”?

They’re redundant. A mistake is, by nature, something that went wrong. And déjà vu is the feeling that something happened before, so of course it’s “all over again.” Redundancy does come up on the GMAT, but as Yogi himself would point out, there’s a fine line between “redundant (and wrong)” and “a useful literary device”.

Take, for example, his famed, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” quote. In a sports context, even though the word “over” is repeated, that sentence carries a lot of useful meaning: “when someone might say that the game is over, if there is still time (or outs) remaining there’s always a chance to change the result.” The world chuckles at this particular Yogi quote, but in actuality it’s arguably his most famous because, in its own way, it’s quite poignant.

What does that mean for you on the GMAT? Don’t prioritize redundancy as a primary decision point! GMAT Sentence Correction, by nature, involves plenty of different literary devices and sentence structures, and it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll feel like an expert on all of them.

Students often eliminate correct answers because they perceive redundancy, but a phrase like “not unlike” (a “not” next to an “un-“? That’s a redundant double-negative!) actually has a logical and important meaning (“not unlike” means “it’s not totally different from…there are at least some similarities,” whereas “like” conveys significantly more similarity). Rules for modifiers and pronouns are much more absolute, and you can get plenty of practice with those. Be careful with redundancy because, as Yogi might say, sometimes saying it twice is twice as good as saying it once.

It’s all in your head.

“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”

To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, 90% of Sentence Correction is mental and the other half is grammatical. When he talked about baseball, he was talking about the physical tools – the ability to hit, run, throw, catch –  as meaning substantially less than people thought, but the mental part of the game – strategy, mental toughness, stamina, etc. – being more important than people thought. The exact percentages, as his quote so ineloquently suggests, are harder to pin down and less important than the takeaway.

So heed Yogi’s advice as it pertains to Sentence Correction. Memorizing and knowing hundreds of grammar rules is “the other half” (or maybe 10%) of the game – employing good strategy (prioritizing primary Decision Points, paying attention to logical meaning, etc.) is the more-important-but-often-overlooked part of success. However eloquently or inelegantly Yogi Berra may have articulated his lessons, at least he made them memorable.

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By Brian Galvin.