Comparisons in GMATPrep Sentence Correction

by on November 20th, 2012

I’ve got a fascinating (and infuriating!) GMATPrep® problem for you today; this comes from the free problem set included in the new GMATPrep 2.0 version of the software.

Try it out (1 minute 15 seconds) and then we’ll talk about it!

* ” Unlike computer skills or other technical skills, there is a disinclination on the part of many people to recognize the degree to which their analytical skills are weak.

“(A) Unlike computer skills or other technical skills, there is a disinclination on the part of many people to recognize the degree to which their analytical skills are weak.

“(B) Unlike computer skills or other technical skills, which they admit they lack, many people are disinclined to recognize that their analytical skills are weak.

“(C) Unlike computer skills or other technical skills, analytical skills bring out a disinclination in many people to recognize that they are weak to a degree.

“(D) Many people, willing to admit that they lack computer skills or other technical skills, are disinclined to recognize that their analytical skills are weak.

“(E) Many people have a disinclination to recognize the weakness of their analytical skills while willing to admit their lack of computer skills or other technical skills.”

I chose this problem because I thought the official explanation fell short; specifically, there are multiple declarations that something is “wordy” or “awkward.” While I agree with those characterizations, they aren’t particularly useful as teaching tools – how can we tell that something is wordy or awkward? There isn’t an absolute way to rule; it’s a judgment call.

Now, I can understand why whoever wrote this explanation struggled to do so; this is an extremely difficult problem to explain. And that’s exactly why I wanted to have a crack at it – I like a challenge. :)

Okay, let’s talk about the problem. My first reaction to the original sentence was: nope, that’s definitely wrong. When you think that, your next thought should be, “Why? Which part, specifically?” This allows you to know that you have a valid reason for eliminating an answer and it also allows you to figure out what you should examine in other answers.

Before you read my next paragraph, answer that question for yourself. What, specifically, doesn’t sound good or doesn’t work in the original sentence?

For me, the language “Unlike X or Y” was a huge trigger. The word “unlike” is a comparison marker: it signals that a comparison is about to be made. When comparing, we have to make sure that we’re comparing apples to apples – that is, similar things. In this sentence, the “X” portion is “computer skills or other technical skills.” After the comma, I’m expecting two things: some reference to another thing that is comparable to skills, and some message that tells me how these things are different. “Unlike, these skills, <some other skills are different>.”

Is that what I’ve got after the comma in the original sentence? Nope. I have the clause “There is a disinclination.” The word “there” isn’t comparable to skills; nor is the word “disinclination.” This is a faulty set-up. Great! I can eliminate answer A.

Next, I scan the remaining answers to see whether I can eliminate any others for the same reason. Try it yourself before you keep reading.

Answers B and C begin with the same structure (“Unlike computer skills or other technical skills”). What do they put after the comma? Answer B has “which they admit they lack. This is not the second half of an apples-to-apples comparison, but it is a modifier that’s referring to the technical skills… so maybe it’s okay. What’s after that? “Many people…” Nope. That’s not an appropriate comparison for “skills,” either, so B must be wrong.

Check out answer C. After the comma, we have “analytical skills” – a perfect apples-to-apples comparison (one type of skill to another type of skill). On this point, C is okay; I’ll leave it in.

Answers D and E change up the structure of the sentence. In D, the “computer… and technical skills” bit is now a modifier and there is no longer a strict comparison marker; the word “unlike” was removed. Answer E also removes the word “unlike.” Instead, it sticks the two halves of the sentence together using the word “while.”

Okay, I have a choice here. I can go back to C, which was structurally much closer to A and B, or I can dive into D and E to deconstruct their structure. Because I already read answer A completely and I’m familiar with that structure, I decided to tackle C next.

As we discussed earlier, the comparison portion in C is correct now. What about the rest of the sentence? The official explanation  says simply that the answer is “wordy, awkward, and idiomatically incorrect.” But why is it wordy and awkward?

Actually, I’d argue that there’s a meaning problem here. This sentence specifically says that the analytical skills themselves cause people to not want to admit that they’re weak analytically. Is that why people won’t admit this? That doesn’t even really make sense – the fact that analytical skills exist in the first place doesn’t cause people to want to avoid admitting the weakness. So, yes, the sentence is “awkward,” but that’s specifically because the meaning is odd – it doesn’t make sense. Also, what does “they” refer to? The people? The analytical skills? Both could be called weak – the people are weak in analytical skills and the analytical skills of the people are weak. That also makes the sentence “awkward.” Okay, we have a couple of good reasons now to eliminate answer C.

Now, let’s compare D and E. Both start with the words “many people” but diverge from there. Let’s look at the core of each answer:

“(D) Many people are disinclined to recognize that their analytical skills are weak.

“(E) Many people have a disinclination to recognize the weakness of their analytical skills.”

Both cores are correct. “have a disinclination to” is a little bit more clunky than “are disinclined.” (Spoiler alert! The official explanation says that “have a distinction is wordy” when explaining why E is wrong.) I agree that it’s clunky, but I wouldn’t want to rely 100% on that. That kind of explanation is too vague / open to opinion.

So how did I decide? Based on the other bit – the modifier. In D, the modifier is separated out by commas and placed right after the subject. Who’s willing to admit blah blah blah? The people. These are the same people who later don’t want to recognize that their analytical skills are weak. This modifier is appropriately placed and constructed.

In E, the modifier is at the end and, interestingly, uses the word “while” to introduce the extra information. The word “while” can mean “in the course of,” “at the same time as” or “even though.” While (at the same time as, or in the course of) eating dinner, she nearly fell asleep in her soup. While (even though) she’s lactose intolerant, she eats ice cream all the time. In our sentence, the word “while,” means “even though.”

And here’s where the explanation gets extra tricky – and annoying. The official explanation says that “willing creates an incomplete construction.” But how? And why? I can think of a correct sentence that appears to have the same construction, so why is answer E incomplete? Here’s a sentence that seems to have the same construction:

Many people have a disinclination to admit fault while recognizing that they can’t possibly be in the right all the time.

The –ing word there (recognizing) is just fine. So why can’t I do the same with “willing?”

Look at this:

Many people recognize that they can’t possibly be in the right all the time.

This is correct – I just had to change the word “recognizing” to “recognize,” the appropriate verb form of the same word.

Now, do the same thing with answer E:

Many people… will to admit…? Many people willing to admit?

Er. I can’t do it! Not without introducing a different verb: Many people ARE willing to admit blah blah.

That’s because “willing” is not the standard present participle (-ing) form of some verb, the way “recognizing” is the participle of “to recognize.” If I want to use “willing” in this sentence, I have to say:

Many people have a disinclination to recognize (blah blah) while being willing to admit their lack of (blah blah).

That, of course, sounds terrible too, because the word “being” always sounds awkward when used in this way. It is correct, though, because now we do actually have a participle introducing that “while” portion of the sentence. The word “willing” looked like it should work, because it ended in –ing, but the resemblance is only superficial; it’s not the right kind of word. (It’s actually an adjective, in case you’re curious.) That’s why the explanation says that the sentence is “incomplete” – because there’s no participle after “while.”

The correct answer is D.

Key Takeaways for Comparisons

(1) Comparisons have to compare “apples to apples,” or similar things. Even if you know logically what the sentence is trying to compare, make sure the structure really is apples to apples.

(2) If the original sentence tries to compare two things but fails to do so correctly, the correct answer might remove that formal comparison structure completely (as this problem did). The correct answer no longer has a comparison marker (“unlike”) and instead structures the sentence using modifiers.

(3) We always tell people not to rely strictly on their ears when doing SC, but sometimes you have to. Look how long it took me to explain exactly why E was wrong – you’re almost certainly not going to articulate that to yourself during the test. (I certainly didn’t, while doing this problem!) Sometimes, it’s enough to realize that, wait, we can’t write that sentence that way! We’d need to add XYZ (“being” in this case) or we’d need to cut out ABC or whatever it might be.

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

20 comments

  • Stacey, as always your explanation is just superb! Eliminating ABC was easy for me, but I ended up going up with E and getting it wrong :(

    Just one question. Your detailed explanation made me more curious about this. Say for example the Option D did not exist and we have to choose from the following two options. As per my understanding of your explanation, in that case the second option with "being willing" will be more appropriate.

    “(1) Many people have a disinclination to recognize the weakness of their analytical skills while willing to admit their lack of computer skills or other technical skills.”
    “(2) Many people have a disinclination to recognize the weakness of their analytical skills while being willing to admit their lack of computer skills or other technical skills.”

    • Yes, if you had to choose between those two, you'd have to go with #2. But... yuck. "Being" in general always sounds awkward! :)

  • Though he had had success broadcasting his controversial radio program on highly regulated terrestrial airwaves, Howard Stern opted out of terrestrial broadcasting in favor of the less regulated satellite radio medium.

    a) Though he had had
    b) Though he has had
    c) Even though he had
    d) Having had
    e) Having achieved

    Official explanation for C being wrong given in MGMAT CAT is that Even though is unnecessarily wordy.
    The official explanation is as follows:

    C) The use of the simple past “he had” fails to establish a time-ordering of the two past events; the past perfect form of the verb is needed to indicate that Howard Stern “had had success” (past perfect) prior to the moment in the past when he “opted out” (simple past) of terrestrial broadcasting. Also, “even though” is unnecessarily wordy. The more concise “though” is preferred.

    In your article above, you mention about the usages of while which is as follows:
    In E, the modifier is at the end and, interestingly, uses the word “while” to introduce the extra information. The word “while” can mean “in the course of,” “at the same time as” or “even though.” While (at the same time as, or in the course of) eating dinner, she nearly fell asleep in her soup. While (even though) she’s lactose intolerant, she eats ice cream all the time. In our sentence, the word “while,” means “even though.”

    I sense some kinda of contradiction here . . the last sentence above seems to endorse 'even though'

    • PLEASE don't hold me to GMAT standards. :) There are numerous examples of ways in which formal grammar doesn't match how we actually write / speak in the real world. In the real world, feel free to use "even though."

      On a broader note, do not apply general examples of what you read in the paper (or hear people say) to the GMAT - study for the GMAT specifically based on what the GMAT tests and how it tests it. Even official *explanations* sometimes contain specific constructions (while explaining something) that they actually call wrong when tested within some other problem!

  • I went with E too. I liked your explanation on what "while" means.
    My instant reaction was may while is used to compare the sentence before and after it.

    Thanks.

  • Thanks for the detailed explanation Stacey. I have a question here though. The problem states "the degree to which" people think their analytical skills are weak and this part is completely removed in option D. Is this acceptable in the GMAT sense for other questions as well? 

    • Nice catch! Yes, you could do this on other questions as long as the overall meaning is still there (they're not acknowledging that they're weak).

  • My answer is also D.

  • I got the correct answer. I also went with D.
    I was successful in knocking out A, B and C with proper reasons but I was a bit confused between D and E but then I knocked out E considering that it is wordy. But the above explanation really helped with the correct reason of eliminating E.

  • Hi Stacey,

    Would be glad if you could respond to my concern..

    • Answer above. Please note that it is not at all unusual to wait a week to get a reply. It is extremely rare, in fact, to get an answer within 1 day. :)

  • Hi Stacey,

    I have a question with regard to " Also, what does “they” refer to? The people? The analytical skills? Both could be called weak – the people are weak in analytical skills and the analytical skills of the people are weak. That also makes the sentence “awkward.” Okay, we have a couple of good reasons now to eliminate answer C."

    How can they refer to inanimate objects such as Skills in this case. They, them and their should refer to people. However pronouns such as who, whose and whom can refer to both. Could you confirm if my understanding on this is correct.

    Lesnin.

    • The cars are red. They are red.

      I have eaten the apples. I have eaten them.

      The apples' skins are red. Their skins are red.

      The pronouns "he" and "she" refer to people, while "it" refers to non-people. But the pronouns, they, them, and their can refer to people or non-people.

      "Who" is almost always used only for people, those "whose" can refer to non-people.

      The company whose employees are striking is losing money.
      The employees, who are striking, are mad at their employers.
      The company, which is losing money, is struggling to deal with the employee strike.

  • Err.. I am kinda confused. You mean to say that usage of 'even though' can be correct and this would depend on the structure of the sentence on GMAT?

    Regards,
    Sachin

    • I mean that the GMAT tests formal grammar rules, but we don't actually hold ourselves to all of these in the "real world." There are literally hundreds of examples of ways in which we write and speak on a daily basis that the GMAT would consider incorrect. So we have to follow the formal rules on the test, even though (see that? :) that's not how we'd really speak or write on a daily basis.

      Formally, I should have written:
      As a result, we have to follow the formal rules during the test, though this may not be how we would actually speak or write ourselves.
      (not supposed to start a sentence with "so," supposed to use a simple "though" rather than "even though," don't use contractions, etc.)

  • Thanks for the clarification, Stacey :)

  • Both D and E got me traped, but I picked up D s the answer for the reason that Eis wordy and awkward. Nice explanation for 'while' Stacy, Will keep this in mind from now onwards. MGMAT SC tips increased by SC hit rate by great deal. Thanks MGMAT!

  • Stacey , pls help

    I learn gmat, like my friends.

    "comma+like" at the end of sentence must refer to the subject of the previous clause. is that right.

    the og question is
    According to a recent poll, owning and living in a freestanding house on its own land is still a goal of a majority of young adults, like that of earlier generations.

    (A) like that of earlier generations
    (B) as that for earlier generations
    (C) just as earlier generations did
    (D) as have earlier generations
    (E) as it was of earlier generations

    why A is wrong?

    • "like" means similar to. It's used in comparisons to compare nouns to nouns. It can't be used to compare two clauses (both with verbs).
      John, like Mary, has brown hair.

      In the case of the original sentence (answer A), using "like" means we can only refer to a noun, not the whole previous clause - but we actually do want to talk about the whole clause:
      owning and living... is a goal of a majority of young adults now
      as
      owning and living... was a goal of a majority of young adults of earlier generations

      If you can only take the noun the second half might read:
      like owning and living of earlier generations (missing the fact that it's a goal)
      like a goal of earlier generations (what was the goal?)

      Either way, we're missing half the meaning. Using "as," though, allows us to refer to the entire clause, not just a noun.

  • Hi, Stacey. Excellent explanation!
    I just have one more question. Since there are both commas before and after "willing to admit that they lack computer skills or other technical skills" in Choice D, isn't the "willing..." part then viewed as nonessential modifier thus can be eliminated from the complete sentence without hurting the meaning? If it's true, there is no actual comparison in D. How can D be correct? I guess I have some kind of misunderstanding in terms of nonessential modifier but I don't know what it exactly is. Looking for help. Thanks in advance!

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