It’s Wordy, It’s Awkward, It’s… Correct!

by on September 6th, 2009

Like a salesman trying to trick you into purchasing an expensive item by appealing to your emotions, the makers of the GMAT try to trick test-takers into both “buying” grammatically incorrect answer choices by making them concise, and eliminating answer choices that are grammatically correct by making them appear awkward and unwieldy.

How do we typically avoid splurging on unnecessary purchases? We train ourselves to shop wisely, basing our decisions on a range of criteria and not solely on what “seems” to be the most attractive option in the store. We focus on specific features, using logic to compare items. How can you choose the correct answer on test day? You don’t just listen to your ear; first make sure that each sentence you eliminate violates a concrete rule of English grammar. When choosing between the remaining, seemingly error-free, constructions, use the differences between the options to identify errors; all other things being equal, always pick the less wordy, less awkward, and more active answer choice.

But buyer, beware: The test-makers, like salesmen, want your ear to tell you what to do. Before going into “negotiations” with these tricksters, it’s best to learn some of their most common tricks.

First, make sure to hold on to wordy and awkward but otherwise error-free constructions. The test-makers especially like to make choice A (the original sentence in the prompt) sound particularly awkward, even when it is the only error-free option. This encourages test-takers to eliminate it immediately, and then to waste time picking between the remaining options. They want us to think “This is the ‘sentence correction’ section, our minds tell us, so this sentence, especially a wordy and awkward one, must need some correcting.”  But not necessarily!

Next, do not waste time struggling with pronoun-antecedent errors in complex sentences. Because it is easy to spot a pronoun within a sentence, there is not much that the test-makers can do to create errors with an underlined pronoun. Therefore, do not let pronoun use distract you; check for a logical antecedent, and make sure that the pronoun agrees with this antecedent in number- and move on. On the GMAT, a pronoun is even allowed have two physically possible antecedents within a sentence as long as only one of these antecedents is logical.

On questions dealing with parallelism, items that are linked must be the same part of speech. Options that follow this rule are sufficiently parallel. Once you are choosing between sufficiently parallel options, look for other errors. On tough questions especially, the GMAT-makers will often make the most parallel-looking option incorrect for some other reason, luring you to into choosing it over a sufficiently parallel option without other errors.

For example:

“For the play, the creation of a humorous script and the care of the cast being chosen are important.”


“For the play, the creation of a humorous script and the care with which the cast is chosen are important.”

… are both parallel. The first sentence uses “of” after “care” and looks even more parallel than the second sentence. However, the less parallel-looking option is grammatically correct and logical, whereas the more parallel-looking option is awkward and unidiomatic. Don’t be fooled- appearances aren’t everything.

Finally, when down to those final two options, plug each back into the original sentence and check for sentence logic. An underlined portion itself may read error-free, but, when read in the context of the entire sentence, may be illogical. Which option clearly places all modifiers, especially adjectival ones, as closely as possible to the words they modify? Which choice connects clauses logically?

The salesmen use the same tricks over and over again. Learn the gimmicks and buy only what you came for.

Written by Joanna Bersin, Knewton’s resident GMAT Sentence Correction expert.


  • I am still not convinced why first one is incorrect.
    Please explain.

  • Vaibhav,

    When comparing options, check for clear and logical constructions. The meaning of the second option is clear and logical.

    "The care with which the cast is chosen" refers to how carefully the cast is chosen. This is a logical factor that would be important for a play.

    "The care of the cast being chosen" does not have a clear meaning. "Being chosen" is an awkward and passive expression that seems to refer to the cast in the actual moment that members are being chosen. "The care of" the cast in this actual moment is an odd factor to consider important. "The care of" is an ambiguous expression here; it could refer to "the care of" this cast with respect to the medical benefits the members each receive or it could refer to how careful the members of the cast themselves are. Either way, "the care with which the cast is chosen" is more logically and clearly an important factor for a play than "the care of the cast being chosen" is.

    If this is still confusing, the point about sufficient parallelism could be better exemplified using the same example with a more concrete error.

    "For the play, the creation of a humorous script and the care of the cast being chosen is important."

    "For the play, the creation of a humorous script and the care with which the cast is chosen are important."

    The second option, again, does not look as parallel but must be correct. The subject "the creation...and the care" is a compound, plural subject, but the verb "is" is singular. The second option contains the plural "are" in addition to being clearer and more concise. The more parallel-looking option is not correct.


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