“Except” And “Least” In Critical Reasoning Question Stems

by on September 8th, 2009

The word “except” has a dramatic impact when it appears in a question stem. Because “except” means “other than,” when “except” is placed in a question it negates the logical quality of the answer choice you seek. Literally, it turns the intent of the question stem upside down. For example, if a question asks you to weaken the argument, the one correct answer weakens the argument and the other four answers do not weaken the argument.

If “except” is added to the question stem, as in “Each of the following weakens the argument EXCEPT,” the stem is turned around and instead of the correct answer weakening the argument, the four incorrect answers weaken the argument  and the one correct answer does not weaken the argument.

Many students, upon encountering “except” in a question stem, make the mistake of assuming that the “except” charges you with seeking the polar opposite. For example, if a question stem asks you to weaken the argument, some students believe that a “Weaken EXCEPT” question stem actually asks you to strengthen the argument. This is incorrect. Although weaken and strengthen are polar opposites, because except means “other than,” when a “Weaken EXCEPT” question stem appears, you are asked to find any answer choice other than Weaken. While this could include a strengthening answer choice, it could also include an answer choice that has no effect on the argument. Thus, in a “Weaken EXCEPT” question, the four incorrect answers Weaken the argument and the one correct answer does not weaken the argument (could strengthen or have no effect). Here are some other examples:

Which of the following, if true, strengthens the argument above?

One correct answer: Strengthen
Four incorrect answers: Do not Strengthen

Each of the following, if true, strengthens the argument above  EXCEPT:

One correct answer: Does not Strengthen
Four incorrect answers: Strengthen

Which of the following, if true, would help to resolve the  apparent discrepancy above?

One correct answer: Resolves the Paradox
Four incorrect answers: Do not Resolve the Paradox

Each of the following, if true, would help to resolve the apparent  discrepancy above EXCEPT:

One correct answer: Does not Resolve the Paradox
Four incorrect answers: Resolve the Paradox

As you can see from the examples, the presence of except has a profound impact upon the meaning of the question stem. Because “except” has this powerful effect, it always appears in all capital letters whenever it is used in an GMAT question stem.

The word “least” has a similar effect to “except” when it appears in a question stem. Although “least” and “except” do not generally have the same meaning, when “least” appears in a question stem you should treat it exactly the same as “except.” Note: this advice holds true only when this word appears in the question stem! If you see the word “least” elsewhere on the GMAT, consider it to have its usual meaning of “in the lowest or smallest degree.”

Let us look more closely at how and why “least” functions identically to “except.” Compare the following two question stems:

Which of the following, if true, would help to resolve the  apparent discrepancy above?

One correct answer: Resolves the Paradox
Four incorrect answers: Do not Resolve the Paradox

Which of the following, if true, helps LEAST to resolve the  apparent discrepancy described above?

One correct answer: Does not Resolve the Paradox
Four incorrect answers: Resolve the Paradox

By asking for the question stem that “least” helps resolve the paradox, the test makers indicate that the four incorrect answers will more strongly help resolve the paradox. But, in practice, when “least” is used, all five answer choices do not resolve the paradox to varying degrees. Instead, four answers resolve the paradox and the one correct answer does not resolve the paradox. Why do the test makers do this? Because the test makers cannot afford to introduce uncertainty into the correctness of the answers. If all five answer choices resolve the paradox, then reasonable minds could come to a disagreement about which one “least” resolves the paradox. In order to avoid this type of controversy, the test makers simply make sure that exactly one answer choice does not resolve the paradox (and, because that answer choice does not resolve the paradox it automatically has the “least” effect possible). In this way, the test makers can present a seemingly difficult and confusing task while at the same time avoiding a test construction problem. Because of this situation, any time you encounter “least” in a question stem, simply recognize that four of the answers will meet the stated criteria (weaken, strengthen, resolve, etc.) and the one correct answer will not. Thus, you will not have to make an assessment based on degree of correctness.

Here is another example comparing the use of the word “least:”

Which one of the following, if true, would most strengthen the  argument above?

One correct answer: Strengthen
Four incorrect answers: Do not Strengthen

Which one of the following, if true, LEAST strengthens the argument  above?

One correct answer: Does not Strengthen
Four incorrect answers: Strengthen

Because “least,” like “except,” has such a strong impact on the meaning of a question stem, the test makers kindly place “least” in all capital letters when it appears in a question stem.

In the answer keys to this book, we will designate questions that contain “except” or “least” by placing an “X” at the end of the question stem classification. For example, a “Weaken EXCEPT” question stem would be classified as “WeakenX.” A “Strengthen EXCEPT” question stem would be classified as “StrengthenX” and so on.

Except And Least Identify The Question Stem Mini-Drill

Each of the following items contains a question stem. In the space provided, categorize each stem into one of the ten Critical Reasoning Question Types: Must Be True, Main Point, Assumption, Strengthen, Resolve the Paradox, Weaken, Method of Reasoning, Flaw in the Reasoning, Parallel Reasoning, or Evaluate the Argument, and notate any Except (X) identifier you see.

1. Question Stem: “Each of the following, if true, supports the claim above  EXCEPT:”

Question Type: _______________________________________________

2. Question Stem: “Each of the following, if true, weakens the conclusion  above EXCEPT:”

Question Type: _______________________________________________

3. Question Stem: “Which one of the following, if all of them are true, is  LEAST helpful in establishing that the conclusion above is properly  drawn?”

Question Type: _______________________________________________

4. Question Stem: “Each of the following describes a flaw in the  psychologist’s  reasoning EXCEPT:”

Question Type: _______________________________________________

5. Question Stem: “Which one of the following, if true, does NOT help to  resolve the apparent discrepancy between the safety report and the city’s  public safety record?”

Question Type: _______________________________________________

Except And Least Identify The Question Stem Mini-Drill Answer Key

1. Question Type: StrengthenX

The four incorrect answer choices Strengthen the argument; the correct answer choice does not Strengthen the argument.

2. Question Type: WeakenX

The four incorrect answer choices Weaken the argument; the correct answer choice does not Weaken the argument.

3. Question Type: StrengthenX

The four incorrect answer choices Strengthen the argument (“helpful in establishing the conclusion” is the same as Strengthen); the correct answer choice does not Strengthen the argument. The “LEAST” in the stem functions in the same fashion as “EXCEPT.”

4. Question Type: FlawX

The four incorrect answer choices describe a Flaw in the Reasoning; the correct answer choice does not describe a Flaw in the Reasoning.

5. Question Type: ResolveX

Although this question stem uses neither “except” nor “least,” the use of the word “NOT” indicates that the four incorrect answer choices Resolve the Paradox and the correct answer choice does not Resolve the Paradox. Hence, this question is classified ResolveX.

Originally from PowerScore’s GMAT Critical Reasoning Bible.

2 comments

  • Excellent article. I was faring particularly badly in these type of questions

  • great article. i bought the powerscore book because of this...it seems the Verbal on the real test ( at least anecdotely) is more difficult and the question stems more ambiguous. this book has been great in terms of helping identify conclusion/ identify question and define a clear strategy for attacking CR. much much much better than the book i have from the course im taking

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