A lot of students have reported lately that the Sentence Correction questions on the official test were a lot harder than what they were expecting, or that they’ve been having trouble finding splits (differences) in the answers. Or they find the splits but don’t know how to process them / what to do with them. They narrow down to two answers but then don’t know how to pick between the two – they can see the differences but aren’t sure of the significance of those differences.
The title of this article is a little bit misleading – nothing about the SC section is technically “new.” The proportion of certain types of questions, though, has been changing, and so the section can feel very different (and challenging!) for someone who’s not prepared for that.
Before we dive into our discussion, I also want to mention another major reason why someone might feel that SC (and / or CR and RC) are much harder on the real test: if you’re suffering from mental fatigue late in the test, everything will feel harder. People are more prone to suffer from mental fatigue if they are not taking practice tests under 100% official conditions (including essay + IR, two 8-minute breaks, and so on).
How have things been changing?
Many people have heard by now that meaning is much more commonly tested than it used to be – GMAC announced this about 9 months ago. Lots of students, though, don’t quite know what to do with that information. This changes what we study, of course, but it also changes what we expect to see when looking at the questions themselves, and it can change the process we use to answer an SC question.
Questions that test meaning are more likely to have longer underlines, with chunks of the sentence changing or moving around. That means that the “splits,” or differences, in the sentence are not going to be as straightforward as they are in some other sentences.
Want an example? Glad you asked. Take a look at Official Guide 13th edition SC #131, which can also be found as #132 in OG12. This is an example of one of the “old school,” more straightforward structures. We can scan the answers easily and see that one split is “it” vs. “they” and another split is “is” vs. “are.”
Contrast that with OG13 SC #136 (also #136 in OG12). Here, we’ve got a much longer underline, and a much tougher task in comparing parts of the answers. About the only easy split is the one at the beginning (“whereas” vs. “unlike”) and that split isn’t even useful! (You can introduce a contrast using either word.)
Another great example is OG13 SC #132 (this one didn’t appear in OG12). Here, the entire sentence structure is changing; we can’t find a simple one-word or two-word sequence to compare.
What process can we use for these harder SCs?
When a sentence does have more straightforward splits, we can use our “standard” process for working through an SC problem (see this article for details). But when we have long underlines with big chunks of the sentence moving around or changing, we have to concentrate more on the structure of the overall sentence. This takes more time, so we don’t want to use such a process on every SC – only when we need to use it.
How do they test meaning?
Along with the more structure-focused solution process, we also need to study meaning very explicitly. There are two ways in which meaning can be problematic: something can be ambiguous or something can be illogical. An illogical meaning is outright wrong and is often the easier type of meaning error to spot. An ambiguous or confusing meaning is something that could be interpreted in more than one way. These can be harder to spot because you might read it one way and simply think that’s the meaning, not realizing that someone else could interpret the wording differently and come up with an alternate meaning.
For instance, in O13 SC #135 (OG12 SC #135), the original sentence is illogical because it says: “Spanning more than 50 years, Friedrich Muller began…” This is illogical because a person cannot “span 50 years.” A person’s age or lifetime can span 50 years. A person’s career can span 50 years. These things are all measurable in some way and so can be represented by a numerical value – but the actual person can’t be represented in this way.
In OG13 SC #130 (OG12 SC #131), the pronoun “it” in the original sentence is ambiguous. What was “just over 33 percent?” Does the amount of nuclear-power-derived energy produced in Germany equal 33% of the amount of nuclear-power-derived energy produced in France? Or is it the case that 33% of all energy produced in Germany derives from nuclear power, while in France, the equivalent figure is 75%? I’d guess they’re trying to say the latter, but the original sentence is actually ambiguous. The correct answer (C) makes the comparison very clear.
How do we study meaning?
First, we have to start looking for illogical and ambiguous meaning when we study SC. Don’t just rest on the grammar. A larger proportion of the problems you see on the real test will require you to have to decide based upon meaning – maybe not for all 5 answer choices, but certainly for at least two, perhaps the most tempting final two remaining answers.
Second, “meaning” actually overlaps pretty significantly with grammar. Modifiers are ultimately about meaning: the incorrect placement of a modifier can mean that the modifier is referring to the wrong thing, messing up the meaning of the sentence. Verb tense is also ultimately about meaning: when a wrong verb tense is used, we think “that doesn’t make sense” because there’s some other clue in the sentence that tells us we should be using past or future instead.
For example: Yesterday, I will buy some milk.
Huh? I can’t use “will buy” if I’m talking about yesterday. That doesn’t make sense! That’s really a meaning issue right there.
Parallelism and comparisons also often have to do with meaning – primarily because incorrectly constructed parallelism structures often result in an illogical or ambiguous meaning once again.
Want some more? You can browse our blog for more articles, but it’s also time to study on your own. In this blog post, I listed a bunch of problems from OG12 along with commentary about certain answer choices that messed with the meaning. I recommend that you start by looking only at the second column, the question number. Look up the question yourself and try to articulate any meaning issues in the various answer choices. Then go back to see what I said in the blog post. (Note: I did not discuss every possible meaning issue. This can be subjective at times, so I tried to limit the list to things that most or all of us could agree are definitely meaning issues.)
I also recommend re-doing some OG questions, allowing yourself to eliminate ONLY based on meaning, not grammar. See how far you can get and how much you can pick up about how to deal with meaning and structure. Then test yourself on newer material, particularly questions that are new to OG13 or to GMATPrep 2.0 (such as the questions found in Prep Pack #1).
Key Takeaways for dealing with meaning and convoluted sentences
(1) You are going to see a higher proportion of questions like this on the real test than you are used to in the current practice materials. Expect that and be prepared to deal with these more convoluted issues. The good news: plenty of study material does exist as long as you’re looking out for it.
(2) You’ll likely need to dive more into structure in order to address meaning issues and convoluted sentences. This process can take a bit longer than the “normal” process, so make sure you get comfortable enough to be able to do this efficiently and effectively.
(3) You will still see some questions with more straightforward splits. When you do, don’t forget that you can still do the standard “vertical” comparison, which is the most efficient way to narrow down answers when such splits are available!
* GMATPrep® and Official Guide® quotes courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of these quotes does not imply endorsement by GMAC.