What Not to Not Do with Multiple or Complex Negations on the GMAT

by on October 29th, 2009

The GMAT has a limited bag of tricks up its sleeve to disguise incorrect answer choices. Think of the test-makers as politicians caught in a lie; they can exaggerate, change the subject, twist the truth further, or draw dubious inferences to throw you off their scent. In the end, though, any politician will tell you that the most efficient way to get away with a lie is to simply confuse your accuser into submission. This is one of the GMAT’s greatest tricks, and one of its most common techniques with which to accomplish it is to use negation and reversals in unexpected and mystifying ways.

Negations are words that reverse the meaning of a sentence. They include adverbs and adjectives, such as not, cannot, unlike, or without, as well as verbs that negate their subjects, such as neglect, deny, reverse, refuse, or counteract. Negations can make parsing them into a nightmare, especially during the GMAT, when reading quickly is a key skill. Dealing with negations and reversals effectively is doubly important for non-native English speakers.

Consider the following statement:

Employees with children are just as responsible as those without children.

That makes sense. Now, let’s throw in a GMAT-like reversal.

An employee with children at home is no more likely to neglect his or her work duties than is an employee without children at home.

It’s getting a bit ugly and hard to parse, but perhaps we recognize that “no more likely to neglect” means the same thing as “just as responsible” does. Let’s add a few more twists:

Unlike the results found by research conducted on employees with and without disabled older relatives, the results of a recent study found that employees with children at home are no more likely to neglect their work duties than are employees without children at home; however, the same cannot be said for such employees’ attentiveness to housekeeping duties.

Whew, that’s a mouthful!

Never fear! There are some nice ways to handle negation and reversal on the GMAT that make it less stressful.

1. Train yourself not only to notice, but to physically feel any negation words that pop up in an argument, passage, or answer choice.

Did you notice the “not only” at the beginning of the last sentence? We hope so. By “feel,” we mean that your reading brain should be put on high alert as soon as you spot a negation; when you read “The CEO denied the charges that his management style had sunk the company’s financial situation, but not that it was responsible for the rise in employee morale,” that very first “denied” should color the way you read the entire rest of the sentence; everything after that point is being denied, and any further reversals must fit into that framework.

2. When multiple negations appear in a sentence, they can, but don’t always, cancel one another out.

a. Unlike Renaissance scientists, early Medieval scientists were not expected to perform impartial experiments.
b. The new vaccine could not decrease the rate of infection throughout the antelope population.

In (a) above, the negations cancel one another out; we can be sure that Renaissance scientists are expected to perform experiments. In (b), though, we cannot know that whether the vaccine increased the rate of infection or whether the rate of infection stayed exactly the same. Think logically! Furthermore, incorrect answer choices often play on this double negation trick; if (b) was in an argument, the GMAT will often offer an incorrect answer choice that states “The rate of infection among the antelope population has increased since the introduction of the vaccine.”

3. Let yourself be a ping-pong ball.

Don’t read so fast that you plow through negations without noticing they’re there; instead, let them bounce your understanding of the sentence around freely, back and forth, until the meaning becomes clear. Practice on this sentence, which has no less than seven negation words or reversals:

Although neither a lack of iron nor a lack of vitamin B12 is a guaranteed predictor of anemia, a condition in which the body does not have enough red blood cells, both of these deficiencies may, in the absence of other countervailing measures, cause the condition.

4. Don’t be afraid to re-read sentences with complex negations and to rephrase them in your own words.

An extra few seconds of reading is always better than choosing an incorrect answer. Speaking complex sentences out loud helps many test-takers as well (but not too loudly; mind the others in the room!).

Good luck, and one last piece of advice from us at Knewton:

Never forget to avoid ignoring negations!

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