GMAT English vs. Regular English

by on September 4th, 2012

AlphabetGuest post from: Jonathan Bethune

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” ~ Charles Mingus

In William Zinsser’s 1976 classic book On Writing Well, there is a section wherein the author discusses the problem of pompous language. He explains that, because of social convention, we are often expected to put on airs of eloquence with unnecessarily verbose speech. The example that most sticks out in my mind is that of the dentist. To his patient, he says “are you experiencing any discomfort?” yet were he working on his son’s teeth he would simply say “does it hurt?”

Professional and academic life present us with numerous similar situations, moments where we fear that the simpler phrase is bound to cast us in a bad light. Indeed there may be no surer sign of adulthood than having acquired the ability to say very little with a lot of words. In this regard, the GMAT is in a league of its own. The language you find in critical reasoning and reading comprehension passages is often more excruciating than even the most inept dentist’s drill.

Consider the following:

The modern multinational corporation is described as having originated when the owner-managers of nineteenth-century British firms carrying on international trade were replaced by teams of salaried managers organized into hierarchies. Increases in the volume of transactions in such firms are commonly believed to have necessitated this structural change. Nineteenth-century inventions like the steamship and the telegraph, by facilitating coordination of managerial activities, are described as key factors. Sixteenth= and seventeenth-century chartered trading companies, despite the international scope of their activities, are usually considered irrelevant to this discussion: the volume of their transactions is assumed to have been too low and the communications and transport of their day too primitive to make comparisons with modern multinationals interesting.

That’s four sentences from an RC passage. If you can smoothly read through that and grasp its essential points in one pass, then you just might be the Chosen One my friend. GMAT passages are designed specifically to slow you down and make you go back and re-read. Strong, effective prose writing glides comfortably into your brain, with wings of clear declarative sentences, and gusts of active voice constructions to aid its flight. GMAT English, like a hateful linguistics textbook, attempts to confound and confuddle with every line.

Outside of the most esoteric of technical manuals, no publication of record would tolerate such a paragraph as the above excerpt. It is chalk full of stamina-draining constructions and is offensively garrulous. Consider the passive constructions: “The modern multinational corporation is described as having,” and “Increases in the volume of transactions in such firms are commonly believed” and “facilitating coordination of managerial activities, are described as key factors,” and “despite the international scope of their activities, are usually considered irrelevant.” ‘Is described’ by whom? ‘Commonly believed’ by whom? ‘Key factors’ according to whom? ‘Considered irrelevant’ by whom? It’s spooky how there are all these things being described and believed by an invisible Illuminati.

Passive constructions hurt the readability of your writing. Another issue is sentence length. Surveys show that, on average, people consider a sentence to be “difficult” if it has more than 21 words. The passage above has an average sentence length of 29 words, and I could find worse on the GMAT easily. Average word length and difficulty (a word’s difficulty is generally defined by how frequently it appears in print) also affect readability. GMAT passages love long chains of verbals and abstract nouns.

Why not say “making managers more efficient” instead of “facilitating coordination of managerial activities”? Or how about “People thought that more trade caused this change” instead of “Increases in the volume of transactions in such firms are commonly believed to have necessitated this structural change”? “Such firms,” “structural,” “volume,” and “commonly,” are all unnecessary or implied, and reworking the sentence gives us an agent performing an action (no more spooky passive voice) while cutting 32 syllables down to 8, effectively a 75% off sale!

Any decent writers out there can catch other sinister phrases within this particular excerpt. The point is not to say that we should all strive to always write as simply as possible. Sometimes complex language is necessary for the sake of precision and sophistication, and my 75% reduction is a bit extreme. Nevertheless you should understand that GMAT English and normal human being English are very different.

Non-native English speakers should be aware that traditional ESL courses and readings will not prepare them for a GMAT RC passage. Even reading a newspaper or textbook may not be enough. The best option, for native and non-native speakers alike, is to see and experience as many GMAT passages as possible, thus a good prep course is imperative. I could recommend one if you’d like.


  • Hi Josh,
    The logic is beautifully explained, however the solution to this problem, specially for a non-native speaker, is quite shrank. Which specialized course would you recommend? And what would be normal reading sources just to get the flow of english?

  • Excellent post thanks. I am a non-native english speaker and I have lot of difficulties with GMAT Verbal section. I was not sure why given the fact I am quite good at what you call "normal human being english".

    So, what material would you suggest? The OG?

  • Thanks for such a valuable analysis. When we identify the problems in a method, we should also provide acceptable solutions. Would you please guide all of us, the BTG community, how to overcome the difficulty in GMAT RC passages?

    Again, the test writers are choosing to use such convoluted structures to make the test takers fool. We should catch those structures. Is there any good book that deals with this aspect? Did you mean to read the official guides very seriously?

    Please come with solution.


  • Excellent post!!!

  • Excellent post! I am a non-native speakers so, i am facing a lot of difficuilties with gmat Rc passages. Please suggest me,the way improve my reading skills. Its a humble request from my side.


  • Excellent post! I am a non-native speakers so, i am facing a lot of difficuilties with gmat Rc passages. Please suggest me,the way to improve my reading skills. Its a humble request from my side.


  • After I read this post, I felt that I am not the only one!

    When I did verbal section for the first time, I thought I was going to give up GMAT. I, as a non-native English speaker, felt that I need another year to study English. However, It was a relief for me to notice that GMAT English is hard for everyone.

    As you said, I just need to get used to GMAT English.

  • Last day i requested that how can i improve my reading skills but i didn't get any reply from your side. May i know the reason please.

  • The best way to improve GMAT RC reading is to go through as many practice passages as possible. Whether it is through the official guide, a prep class, or with a private tutor, the only reliable way to get accustomed to GMAT English is to sit and read GMAT English.

    That said, you can only spend so much time reading GMAT passages before you begin to lose your mind. There are many ways to improve your comprehension generally. Reading a newspaper is always good for ESL students, as the language is authentic and mature. However I would not recommend reading straight news articles. Rather if you get a good paper like the New York Times, go over the business, technology, health, and science sections. The writing you find there will be closer to the GMAT style (though not as painful). What's more, if you read online, you can also examine the comments section and see other people break down the article's assumptions and premises.

    Any mature non-fiction reading is good for your brain, though editorials are very un-GMAT-like and magazine articles are a bit long. Combine regular GMAT prep with a good mixture of outside non-fiction reading, and you should improve with time.

    I hope that answers your question and sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

    • Thanks for your reply.

    • "Nice post....every Non Native speaker faces the difficulty in GMAT RC passages......hope this will help........the solution to the problem is mentioned in the article itself.........You need to paraphrase the sentences in your own words to make them simple while cutting out the crap"

  • Is this article ironic on purpose?

    I.e., the article is about wordiness, but the article itself is very wordy, at times to the verge of ridiculousness.


    "He explains that, because of social convention, we are often expected to put on airs of eloquence with unnecessarily verbose speech" --> As he explains, we often use overly wordy language to sound "smart."

    "such a paragraph as the above excerpt" --> this kind of writing.

    Etc. etc.

    If this is actually meant to be ironic, then it's kind of funny.  High five.
    If not, then, um.

  • Its well said, the loopholes are well described .

  • Thank you very much!!! I was actually thinking how to approach RC's with such complex formations, now i understand that regular reading of RC's will help overcome the problem

  • I am facing a lot of problems in Reading compreshension. When i give mock i faced a lot of problems with reading comprehension rather than when i practice them . Trying to find how to impove at it. I willfollow this and do as much passage i can. One more problem i have faced at the at the time of mock that i could not comprehend the simple passages also and this has happened as my brain get fatigue. It will be really helpful for me if some one guide me through a possible solution to my problems.

  • God, if only those admission staff guys from top Business School new how it is so tough to get an excellent score in the Verbal section of the GMAT. I am highly articulate in English and totally confident in communication but when it comes to the GMAT Verbal, I have no idea what is wrong with me, any tips?

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