Burn the Which! On the GMAT, That Is…

holy-grail-witchIt’s Halloween as I write this, but by the time you read it, November will be upon us, and you’ll be several days into a serious candy hangover. With that in mind, you’re probably in the mood for something boring and self-disciplined — or just to throw up — and I couldn’t think of anything that better accomplishes both than a little bit of sentence correction.

Unless you were a big reader in high school (or you’re a incorrigible grammar nerd, the type who brightens up when I use the word “incorrigible”), sentence correction is probably your least favorite part of the GMAT. You should know English, you do know English, but the GMAT wants you to feel like you don’t, and it’s amazing the rest of us can even find the will to live while we listen to you talk. It wasn’t bad enough for the test writers to undo years of hard work with your therapist to forget your high school math; now they’re making you feel inadequate about your own language (or in some cases, a language you busted your butt to learn as an adult).

Like it or not, however, that’s the game here: testing the subtle differences between everyday English, the sort you speak and type and are reading from me right now (“This is him! Who were you looking for?”), and black-tie, formal English, the kind you use to lose friends and alienate people (“This is he! For whom were you looking?”). And no word — see how I started that sentence with “and”? I’m on your side! — better stands for this distinction than “which”, a seemingly simple, everyday word that you and the GMAT test writers will be fighting a brutal war to control.

In your world, after all, “which” is used to describe anything. In your world, “He was being such a jerk, which was totally uncalled for,” or, “I took the GMAT this morning, which was the worst thing I’ve done since I felt off the stage in the first act of that school play,” are perfectly grammatical. In the GMAT’s world, however, they aren’t, and it’s all because of that “which”. In your world, “which” can describe the gist of the sentence, but in the GMAT’s world, it describes the noun that precedes it. Luckily, there’s an easy, 99% accurate way to test GMAT-approved usage of “which”:

CORRECT: (non-human noun), which (phrase describing that noun)

INCORRECT: almost anything else

So these are correct:

“The sun, which is actually a star, was once considered a god.”

“My car, which has multiple dents, two differently colored front doors, and a dog sleeping on it, is a bit of a fixer-upper.”

“I finally saw Wayne’s World 2, which I’ve been hearing about for years.”

In each case, “which” directly connects a noun to a phrase that describes that noun. The sun IS actually a star, my car DOES have multiple dents, and Wayne’s World 2 WAS what I’d been hearing about (I’ve been living under a rock since 1992).

As obnoxious as this rule is — and by no means do I encourage you to follow it in your own writing or speech — it’s easy to remember on test day. If you see “which” begin a modifier, make sure that it’s next to the noun it describes. If it is, lovely! If it isn’t, burn that which!

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