Quarter Wit, Quarter Wisdom: Using “Like” vs. “As” on the GMAT Verbal Section

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomIf you have seen the Veritas Prep curriculum, then you know we frequently highlight the strategy of “Think like the Testmaker” to answer GMAT questions. Recently, we had a student question the grammatical validity of this construct – this brought the “like” vs. “as” debate to mind, so we decided to tackle it this week.

When should you use “like” and when should you use “as” in a sentence?

Both words can be used in comparisons, however the structure of the sentence will be different in the two cases. This is because traditionally, “like” is a preposition and “as” is a conjunction – a preposition takes the form of an object while a conjunction takes the form of a clause. Therefore:

Using “like,” we compare nouns/pronouns (including gerunds). Usually, a single verb will be used.

Using “as,” we compare actual actions. There will be two verbs used when we compare using “as.”

So, this is how we are going to compare “like” and “as”:

  • He runs like a madman. – A single verb, “runs.”
  • He runs as a madman does. – Two verbs, “runs” and “does” (which is equivalent to “does run”).

In the same way, both of the following sentences are correct:

  • Think like the Testmaker.
  • Think as the Testmaker does.

But beware – “as” used with a noun or pronoun alone does not mean that this usage is incorrect. “As” can also be used to show a role or capacity. For example, in the sentence, “She works as a consultant,” the word “as” means that she works in the capacity of a consultant. There is no comparison here, but the sentence is still grammatically correct.

Also, we usually use “like” in the case of hypothetical comparisons. Take, for instance, the sentence, “She screams like a banshee.” Here, it would be odd to say, “She screams as a banshee does,” because we don’t really know how a banshee screams.

Let’s look at a few GMAT Sentence Correction questions now:

Like many self-taught artists, Perle Hessing did not begin to paint until she was well into middle age.

(A) Like
(B) As have
(C) Just as with
(D) Just like
(E) As did

In this sentence, the word “like” is correctly comparing “Perle Hessing” to “many self taught artists.” There is no clause after “like” and we are using a single verb. Hence, the use of “like” is correct and our answer is A.

Not too bad, right? Let’s try another question:

Based on recent box office receipts, the public’s appetite for documentary films, like nonfiction books, seems to be on the rise. 

(A) like nonfiction books 
(B) as nonfiction books 
(C) as its interest in nonfiction books 
(D) like their interest in nonfiction books 
(E) like its interest in nonfiction books

This sentence also has a comparison, and it is between “appetite” and “interest” and how they are both are on a rise. Answer choice E compares “appetite” to “interest” using “like” as a single verb. None of the answer choices have “as” with a clause so the answer must be E.

These were two simple examples of “like” vs. “as.” Now let’s look at a higher-level GMAT question:

During an ice age, the buildup of ice at the poles and the drop in water levels near the equator speed up the Earth’s rotation, like a spinning figure skater whose speed increases when her arms are drawn in

(A) like a spinning figure skater whose speed increases when her arms are drawn in 
(B) like the increased speed of a figure skater when her arms are drawn in 
(C) like a figure skater who increases speed while spinning with her arms drawn in 
(D) just as a spinning figure skater who increases speed by drawing in her arms 
(E) just as a spinning figure skater increases speed by drawing in her arms

There is a comparison here, but between which two things? Answer choice A seems to be comparing “Earth’s rotation” to “spinning figure skater,” but these two things are not comparable. Option E is the correct choice here – it compares “speed up Earth’s rotation” to “skater increases speed.” Therefore, our answer is E.

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Karishma, a Computer Engineer with a keen interest in alternative Mathematical approaches, has mentored students in the continents of Asia, Europe and North America. She teaches the GMAT for Veritas Prep and regularly participates in content development projects such as this blog!