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.

Quarter Wit, Quarter Wisdom: Be Tolerant Towards Pronoun Ambiguity on the GMAT

Quarter Wit, Quarter WisdomWe encounter many different types of pronoun errors on the GMAT Verbal Section. Some of the most common errors include:

Using a pronoun without an antecedent. For example, the sentence, “Although Jack is very rich, he makes poor use of it,” is incorrect because “it” has no antecedent. The antecedent should instead be “money” or “wealth.”

Error in matching the pronoun to its antecedent in number and gender. For example, the sentence, “Pack away the unused packets, and save it for the next game,” is incorrect because the antecedent of “it” is referring to “unused packets,” which is plural.

Using a nominative/objective case pronoun when the antecedent is possessive. For example, the sentence, “The client called the lawyer’s office, but he did not answer,” is incorrect because the antecedent of “he” should be referring to “lawyer,” but it appears only in the possessive case. Official GMAT questions will not give you this rule as the only decision point between two options.

But note that the rules governing pronoun ambiguity are not as strict as other rules! Pronoun ambiguity should be the last decision point for eliminating an option after we have taken care of SV agreements, tenses, modifiers, parallelism etc.

Every sentence that has two nouns before a pronoun does not fall under the “pronoun ambiguity error” category. If the pronoun agrees with two nouns in number and gender, and both nouns could be the antecedent of the pronoun, then there is a possibility of pronoun ambiguity. But in other cases, logic can dictate that only one of the nouns can really perform (or receive) an action, and so it is logically clear to which noun the pronoun refers.

For example, “Take the bag out of the car and get it fixed.”

What needs to get fixed? The bag or the car? Either is possible. Here we have a pronoun ambiguity, but it is highly unlikely you will see something like this on the GMAT.

A special mention should be made here about the role nouns play in the sentence. Often, a pronoun which acts as the subject of a clause refers to the noun which acts as a subject of the previous clause. In such sentences, you will often find that the antecedent is unambiguous. Similarly, if the pronoun acts as the direct object of a clause, it could refer to the direct object of the  previous clause. If the pronoun and its antecedent play parallel roles, a lot of clarity is added to the sentence. But it is not necessary that the pronoun and its antecedent will play parallel roles.

Let’s look at a different example, “The car needs to be taken out of the driveway and its brakes need to get fixed.”

Here, obviously the antecedent of “its” must be the car since only it has brakes, not the driveway. Besides, the car is the subject of the previous clause and “its” refers to the subject. Hence, this sentence would be acceptable.

A good rule of thumb would be to look at the options. If no options sort out the pronoun issue by replacing it with the relevant noun, just forget about pronoun ambiguity. If there are options that clarify the pronoun issue by replacing it with the relevant noun, consider all other grammatical issues first and then finally zero in on pronoun ambiguity.

Let’s take a quick look at some official GMAT questions involving pronouns now:

Congress is debating a bill requiring certain employers provide workers with unpaid leave so as to care for sick or newborn children. 

(A) provide workers with unpaid leave so as to 
(B) to provide workers with unpaid leave so as to 
(C) provide workers with unpaid leave in order that they 
(D) to provide workers with unpaid leave so that they can 
(E) provide workers with unpaid leave and 

The answer is (D). Why? The correct sentence would use “to provide” (not “provide”) and “so that” (not “so as to”), and should read, “Congress is debating a bill requiring certain employers to provide workers with unpaid leave so that they can care for sick or newborn children.” In this sentence, “they” logically refers to “workers.” Even though “they” could refer to employers, too, after you sort out the rest of the errors, you are left with (D) only, hence answer must be (D).

Let’s look at another question:

While depressed property values can hurt some large investors, they are potentially devastating for homeowners, whose equity – in many cases representing a life’s savings – can plunge or even disappear.

(A) they are potentially devastating for homeowners, whose
(B) they can potentially devastate homeowners in that their
(C) for homeowners they are potentially devastating, because their
(D) for homeowners, it is potentially devastating in that their
(E) it can potentially devastate homeowners, whose

The correct answer is (A). The correct sentence should read, “While depressed property values can hurt some large investors, they are potentially devastating for homeowners, whose equity – in many cases representing a life’s savings – can plunge or even disappear.” The pronoun “they” logically refers to “depressed property values.” Both the pronoun and its antecedent serve as subjects in their respective clauses, so the pronoun antecedent is quite clear.

One more question:

Although Napoleon’s army entered Russia with far more supplies than they had in their previous campaigns, it had provisions for only twenty-four days. 

(A) they had in their previous campaigns 
(B) their previous campaigns had had 
(C) they had for any previous campaign 
(D) in their previous campaigns 
(E) for any previous campaign

The correct answer is (E). The correct sentence should read, “Although Napoleon’s army entered Russia with far more supplies than for any previous campaign, it had provisions for only twenty-four days.”

The pronoun “it” logically refers to “Napolean’s army” and not Russia. Both the pronoun and its antecedent serve as subjects in their respective clauses, so the pronoun antecedent is quite clear. Note that the pronoun and its antecedent are a part of the non-underlined portion of the sentence so we don’t need to worry about the usage here but it strengthens our understanding of pronoun ambiguity.

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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!