How to Use Pronoun Substitution to Answer GMAT Sentence Correction Questions

SAT/ACTIt was around the time my daughter was born that my wife and I began to have pronoun fights. A certain amount of ambiguity is hard-wired into all language, so when you combine the complexity of English with a healthy dose of sleep deprivation, commands like “put it over there,” become intolerable. What is “it?” Where is “there?” (And why are we fighting over pronoun ambiguity when there’s a screaming child we’re not attending to?)

Lest you fear for the stability of our marriage, rest assured, dear reader, these fights were not hard to resolve – all we had to do was substitute the noun we intended the pronoun to refer to, and suddenly the intolerably vague directive became an unmistakable clear request. There’s a lesson here for the GMAT.

Because pronouns are so common, there’s no avoiding their usage on Sentence Correction questions, and the best way to avoid getting thrown off by them is to substitute in whatever noun or noun phrase these pronouns appear to be referring to. This has two benefits: first, we’ll be better able to assess whether the pronoun is used correctly, should it appear in the underlined portion of the sentence. And secondly, it will help us to understand the meaning of the sentence so that we can properly evaluate whether whatever we choose is, in fact, logical.

Take the following question, for example:

According to public health officials, in 1998 Massachusetts became the first state in which more babies were born to women over the age of thirty than under it.

(A) than
(B) than born
(C) than they were
(D) than there had been
(E) than had been born

Notice that this sentence ends with the pronoun “it.” Because the “it” is not part of the underlined portion of the sentence, test-takers will often pay the word scant attention. This is certainly true of many students who have brought this sentence to my attention. Pretty much all of them selected B as the correct answer and were astonished to learn they were wrong.

So, let’s look at the relevant clause with answer choice B: more babies were born to women over the age of thirty than born under it. This sounded fine to the students’ ears. When I asked them what “it” referred to, however, they quickly recognized that “it” refers to the preceding noun phrase “the age of thirty.” I then asked them to reread the clause, but this time, to substitute the referent in place of the pronoun. The phrase read as follows: more babies were born to women over the age of thirty than born under [the age of thirty.]

The problem was immediately apparent. This clause compares babies born to women over the age of thirty to babies born under the age of thirty! Hopefully, it goes without saying that the writer did not intend to persuade the reader that some population of babies were under the age of 30 when they were born.

Clearly, B is incorrect. Once we substitute the referent for the pronoun, we can quickly see that only answer choice, A, makes any logical sense: more babies were born to women over the age of thirty than under the [age of thirty.]  We’re simply comparing the number of babies born to women in two different age groups. Not only is A the shortest and cleanest answer choice, it’s also the most coherent option. So, we have our answer.

Let’s try another one:

In 1979 lack of rain reduced India’s rice production to about 41 million tons, nearly 25 percent less than those of the 1978 harvest

(A) less than those of the 1978 harvest
(B) less than the 1978 harvest
(C) less than 1978
(D) fewer than 1978
(E) fewer than that of India’s 1978 harvest

Notice the “those” in the underlined portion. What is “those” referring to? It must be referring to some plural antecedent, so our only real option is “tons.” Let’s take a look at the sentence with “tons” in place of “those.”

In 1979 lack of rain reduced India’s rice production to about 41 million tons, nearly 25 percent less than [the tons] of the 1978 harvest. 

Do we want to compare the rice production in 1979 to the “tons” in 1978? Of course not. We want to compare one year’s production to another year’s production, or one harvest to another.

C and D both compare one year’s production to a year, rather than to the production of another year, so those are both wrong.

E gives us another pronoun – this time we have “that,” which must have a singular antecedent. It seems to refer to “rice production,” so let’s make that substitution.

In 1979 lack of rain reduced India’s rice production to about 41 million tons, nearly 25 percent fewer than [the rice production] of India’s 1978 harvest.

Well, this makes no sense – we use “fewer” to compare countable items, so we certainly wouldn’t say that one year’s production is “fewer” than another year’s production. So, E is also out.

This leaves us with answer choice B, which logically compares one year’s harvest to another year’s harvest.

Takeaway: Anytime you see a pronoun in a Sentence Correction sentence, always substitute the referent in place of the pronoun. This practice will clarify the meaning of the sentence and prevent the kind of ambiguity that leads to both incorrect answers and marital discord.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles written by him here.