Breaking Down a GMATPrep Absolute Value Problem

by on December 8th, 2010

A student taking the test soon has requested an article on Absolute Value, so that’s what we’re going to tackle this week; the problem is from GMATPrep®.

Let’s start with the problem. Set your timer for 2 minutes… and… GO!

Is |x|>|y|?

(1) (x^2) > (y^2)

(2) x > y

The first thing you’ll probably notice: I didn’t include the answer choices. The five Data Sufficiency answer choices are always the same, so we should have those memorized. If you don’t have them memorized yet, add this to your “to do” list.

Just in case, here are the five choices (in casual language, not official language):

(A) statement 1 works but statement 2 does not work
(B) statement 2 works but statement 1 does not work
(C) the statements do NOT work alone, but they DO work together
(D) each statement works by itself
(E) nothing works, not even using them together

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s tackle this problem! This one’s a tricky theory question; they’re asking us about the concept of absolute value (as opposed to asking us to do more straightforward calculations with absolute value).

I have two variables, x and y, and I’m asked a yes/no question about a particular inequality. My task is to determine whether I can answer this question “always yes,” “always no,” or “sometimes yes, sometimes no” given various pieces of information in the statements. An “always yes” or “always no” answer is sufficient to answer the question. A “sometimes yes, sometimes no” answer is NOT sufficient to answer the question.

First, I want to decide whether I can figure anything out just from the question stem (before I start addressing the statements). In this case, the question stem asks about a single inequality and provides absolute value symbols in that inequality. The absolute value of a particular number refers to how far that number is from zero on the number line without regard to the sign (positive or negative) of that number. For example, the absolute value of -5 is 5, because -5 is five units away from zero on the number line.

The question is asking whether the absolute value of x is greater than the absolute value of y. Sketch a quick number line. Draw a few tick marks and label the one in the middle zero (we want some positive and some negative, since this is an absolute value problem). Now think. What would have to be true in order for that statement to be true?

Pick a value for y and place it on your number line; show where y would be if it were either positive or negative (but the same number / distance from zero). Where would x have to go in order to make the statement true?

Your drawing might look something like this:

What does the drawing mean in words? In order for the question stem to be true, the distance from zero to x would have to be greater than the distance from zero to y, regardless of the sign. We can simplify that statement a little. “The distance from zero to x” can be expressed as “the magnitude of x.” So here’s the question in “normal” language:

Is the magnitude of x greater than the magnitude of y?

Next, I glance at the statements to decide which one I want to address first. If I think one is noticeably easier than the other, though, then I start with the easier one; otherwise, I start with statement 1. Do you think one statement is easier on this problem?

I think statement 2 is easier so we’re going to start with statement 2. (Note: determining the relative difficulty of the two statements is a somewhat subjective call; different people will disagree and that’s okay. Start with the one you think is easier.)

(2) x > y

I have two choices here: I can try some numbers or I can think this through theoretically (if I think I know the theory well enough). We’ll discuss both ways.

What kinds of number combinations could make this true? For example, x could be 3 and y could be 2. That would make the statement x > y valid, so I’m allowed to try those numbers. If x = 3 and y = 2, is the answer to my question yes, no, or maybe? (Look at your number line.) The answer is yes.

Now that I have found one example where I can answer “yes” to my question, my next goal is to see whether I can think of an example that would give me a “no” answer. What I’m really trying to do here is figure out whether there’s a pair of numbers that will make the expression x > y true but for which the magnitude of x is not actually greater than the magnitude of y. What about one positive and one negative? Try x = 2 and y = -3. The expression x > y true, but the magnitude of x is now less than the magnitude of y. The answer to our question is “no” this time.

Alternatively, I can think through the above theoretically. This is often faster than trying numbers, but it is also harder: if I don’t know the theory well enough, I either won’t be able to tackle the statement this way or I’ll be more likely to make a mistake with it. If I do know the theory here, then I also know that placing x > y on a number line is simply a matter of placing x somewhere to the right of y. The question, though, is asking about the distance from x or y to zero. I can place x and y anywhere, so long as x is to the right of y, and the possibilities include placing y closer to zero or placing x closer to zero.

A yes and no answer is insufficient. Eliminate choices B and D.

Now we have to tackle the more annoying (to me!) statement: 1.

x^2 > y^2

Many people will first think: if plain old x < y didn’t work, is this one really going to work? But you know the GMAT loves to trap us; let’s get to work!

Again, we can try numbers or think things through theoretically. Let’s try numbers first – and, wherever it makes sense, try to reuse the numbers you used for the first statement you evaluated (because then you can reuse some of your work!). We first tried x = 3 and y = 2; do those numbers make this statement true? Yes: 9 > 4. Is the answer to our question yes or no using these numbers? Yes, the magnitude of x is greater than the magnitude of y.

How about our “no” numbers from the 2nd statement? Can we also use those for this 1st statement? We tried x = 2 and y = -3. Hmm. Plugging those in for the expression in statement 1 yields 4 > 9. That’s not true, so we can’t use these numbers. Are there other numbers that do make the expression x^2 > y^2true and that also yield a “no” answer to our question?

Here’s where trying numbers gets tricky. It turns out that we could sit here all day but we’d never find numbers that make the expression x^2 > y^2true and that also yield a “no” answer to our question because this statement is sufficient to answer the question “yes” always. On the test, you’d try three or four sets of different numbers (with different characteristics – positives and negatives, fractions, etc.) and, if you kept getting a “yes” answer, you’d go with it, though you wouldn’t be 100% positive that you were right (you could have just failed to test the right combination of numbers).

In this case, you’d either try a few different sets and then go with the consistent answer you’re getting or you would see whether you could think it through theoretically. So let’s test the theory now.

What characteristics would the numbers, x and y, have to have in order to make the expression x^2>y^2 true? The signs wouldn’t matter. What would matter is only the basic number, stripped of its sign. (That’s interesting… just like the signs don’t matter in absolute value…) What would have to be true of the “basic” numbers (ignoring the signs)? Hmm. The “basic” number for x would have to be larger than the “basic” number for y. What’s the “basic” number when disregarding the sign? Hey – that’s just the magnitude or the absolute value of the number! So, in fact, statement 1 is literally defining the expression |x|>|y|. Excellent! Statement 1 is sufficient.

Note: The above is true even for fractions between zero and one. When you square a fraction between zero and one, that number gets smaller instead of getting larger, but when you square a smaller fraction and a larger fraction, the square of the smaller will still be smaller than the square of the larger. For example, if x = 1/2 and y = 1/3, the square of x is 1/4 and the square of y is 1/9. The x value is larger than the y value and the x^2 value is larger than the y^2 value.

The correct answer is A. Also, in future, I want to remember that the expression x^2>y^2 can be rephrased as |x|>|y|. Add this one to your list of “Unscramble the Code” rephrasings.

Key Takeaways for Solving Theoretical Absolute Value Problems:

(1) It’s worth taking the time to manipulate or simplify the expressions, equations, or inequalities using absolute value symbols. On theory problems, sketch out a number line and use that to understand what the text is really saying or asking. Know how to solve absolute value equations or inequalities algebraically as well (we didn’t have a problem that required this today).

(2) If you know the theory inside and out, think it through theoretically; if not, test some numbers. Either way, on data sufficiency yes/no questions, your goal is to try to find a “yes” and a “no.” If you can, then you know the info was not sufficient; if you keep getting only “yes” answers or only “no” answers, then it’s probably the case that the info is sufficient.

* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.


  • Great Article. Thanks

  • thanks for article! it's really understandable!

  • Thanks. But, what if x = 0.25 and y = 0.5. It is not mentioned that x and y are integers. In this case, stmt 1 too is not sufficient.

    • You're not permitted to set x=0.25 and y=0.5 (and not because they're not integers). See if you can figure out why. :)

    • Sorry, I'm unable to figure out the reason.
      Can you give me the reason?

    • Sure. The statements must be true, so you are only allowed to use numbers that make the statements true. Statement 1 is x^2 > y^2. Is (0.25)^2 > (0.5)^2?

      Nope. So those numbers aren't allowed to be chosen for this statement.

    • oh! that was a very simple point, which i missed to see.
      Thanks for clearing the doubt.

  • Hey Stacey, i did not understand as to why we cannot test fractions?

    • It isn't that we can't try fractions. We just want to try the easiest stuff first. For statement 2 (which we did first above), we were able to get there just using integers, so we didn't have to bother with fractions.

      You can (and, if you're trying numbers in general, *should*) try fractions for statement 1 - but the reason I didn't show that is that it turns out that that wouldn't help you get an absolutely definitive answer. When you're trying numbers and you can get a "yes" and a "no," then you immediately know that statement is insufficient and you can stop. If you're trying numbers and keep getting a "yes" every time (or a "no" every time), you don't know for sure whether that statement is sufficient or whether you just haven't tried the right numbers yet to get the "opposite" answer. That's the drawback to trying numbers. So that's why I discussed the theory at that point - because, using the theory, you can actually prove that the statement is always sufficient.

  • x^2 > Y^2 
    we can say |x| >|y| but we cannot say |x| >|y| >y^2

    • Hmm, part of the original problem seems to have disappeared from the article. I'll alert the BTG editors so they can fix it!

  • That's been fixed abc and Stacey!  Sorry for the trouble, we're working on it! 

  • HI Stacey,

    Wonderful article but the theoritical explanation for statement 1 seems to have gone missing from this article :(

    Coming to the analysis of Stament 2, you state : The next pair that pops into my head is two negative numbers… but I’m thinking twice about using that pair because I think I’m probably just going to get the same “yes” answer.
    If I use x = -2 and y = -3 then x > y but magnitude of x > magnitude of y is NO. Am I missing something here ?

    • It's there - it's just AFTER statement 2. :) I did statement 2 first and then moved to statement 1 (because statement 1 is a lot more annoying!).

      Re: your second question, yeah, you're right - you can use that! :) Not sure why I wrote that the way I did - it was so long ago now, I can't remember!

  • Dear Stacey,
    thanks for clearing the query on my 2nd Q. I still cannot find the theorytical explanation for x2 > y2 (hope I am not turning blind before the test) !!!!

    "In this case, you’d either try a few different sets and then go with the consistent answer you’re getting or you would see whether you could think it through theoretically. So let’s test the theory now.

    What characteristics would the numbers, x and y, have to have in order to make the expression “Unscramble the Code” rephrasings.

    Key Takeaways for Solving Theoretical Absolute Value Problems:"


    • oh, wait, you're right again - I just didn't keep reading. Yes, two paragraphs have disappeared! I'll email the editors and ask them to fix the article!

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