GMAT Idiom Tips for Non-Native English Speakers

by on March 23rd, 2011

Written by Jesse Sternberg. For more GMAT Verbal tips, be sure to check out our free Knewton webinar next week: The Top 5 GMAT Mistakes Made by Non-Native English Speakers!

You’ve probably heard that the grammar section of the GMAT features a lot of questions about “idioms.” If all you’ve heard about idioms is that they tend to be annoying, here’s a more formal definition:

What exactly is an idiom?

  1. A set phrase with a specific non-literal meaning, for example “keep tabs on” or “raining cats and dogs.”
  2. A conventional construction or usage that follows no specific grammatical rule but MUST be worded a certain way.

The GMAT focuses on the second type.

The distinction between those two types of idioms is important. We get many reports of students who speak English as a second language spending countless hours memorizing the meaning of phrases like “throw the baby out with the bathwater” to prepare for this section. While knowing such idiomatic phrases will help increase your English language proficiency, it won’t do much for your GMAT score.

For native English speakers, one of the best strategies on idiom questions is to simply “trust your ear,” or “listen for what sounds right.” For non-native English speakers, of course, this advice isn’t very useful. Instead, the first thing you should do is memorize this list of commonly tested idioms.

Make sure you know all the constructions on this list:

However, memorization isn’t your only hope. If you’re faced with an idiom that you don’t instantly recognize, look for other grammar errors among the answer choices.

Let’s take a look at an example:

If idioms aren’t your strong suit, the first thing to do here is look for grammatical errors that have nothing to do with the idiom in question but will allow you to eliminate a few choices:

You’ve now narrowed the question down to only two choices without even thinking about the idiom at all.

Having only these two choices left also makes it a little bit clearer what the exact idiom issue is. As is often the case, the difference lies in the preposition: should it be “connection of” or “connection between”?

Hopefully, after some practice, you’ll have a sense that “connection between” makes a little more sense and just sounds better. If not, you still have a 50% chance of getting it right — much better than your odds before eliminating the other 3 answer choices!

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