Breaking Down a Long GMATPrep SC Problem

by , Mar 16, 2011

Last week, we started discussing what to do when faced with Sentence Correction problems containing very long underlines and a jumble in the answer choices. Click here for the first half of our discussion on this topic. (Note: click here to read about the general process of attacking Sentence Correction questions; the techniques we discuss in this current article are to be used only when necessary.)

Many sentence correction questions can easily be scanned vertically, in order to find differences among the answers. But some problems instead move major parts of the sentence around, or change the basic structure (an independent clause becomes dependent and vice versa, for instance). If youre a ManhattanGMAT student, we would classify these kinds of questions as ones for which the splits are more challenging to identify.

Heres today's GMATPrep problem; set your timer for 1 minute and 15 seconds and go!

The government predicts that, for consumers and businesses that make a large number of long-distance calls, the Federal Communications Commissions recent telephone rate cuts will greatly reduce costs, though some consumer groups disagree with the governments estimates, suggesting they are too optimistic.

(A) The government predicts that, for consumers and businesses that make a large number of long-distance calls, the Federal Communications Commissions recent telephone rate cuts will greatly reduce costs

(B) The government predicts that costs will be greatly reduced for consumers and businesses that make a large number of long-distance calls by the Federal Communications Commissions recent telephone rate cuts

(C) The governments prediction is, for consumers and businesses making a large number of long-distance calls, costs will be greatly reduced by the recent telephone rate cuts made by the Federal Communications Commission

(D) For consumers and businesses that make a large number of long-distance calls, the governments prediction that the Federal Communications Commissions recent telephone rate cuts will greatly reduce costs

(E) For consumers and businesses making a large number of long-distance calls, the government predicts that the recent telephone rate cuts that the Federal Communications Commission has made will greatly reduce costs

[Note to those who answered the problem within the allotted time frame and thought it wasnt too hard. Did you read the answer choices horizontally? Or did you compare choices vertically? You may be able to get away with a horizontal strategy for this problem, but if you want to get better, then you need to learn the vertical strategy for harder problems. If this problem was easier for you, dont dismiss it. Use it to learn how to tackle harder problems. (And use this principle in general: easier problems are VERY good for learning how to tackle harder problems.)]

Okay, are you ready to jump in? What did you think when you read the original sentence?

The first thing I noticed was that the underline is quite long. Thats a really good clue that I might have one of these sentences where the splits (or differences in the answer choices) might be less obvious. Its more likely that big chunks of the sentence will move around, and the form of different pieces may change more substantially than usual. Basically, the longer the underline, the more likely these types of things are to happen.

The government predicts that, for <a certain group>, the <long modifier> rate cuts will reduce costs, though some groups disagree, <-ing modifier>.

The independent clause is one of the more complex structures: Subject Verb THAT Subject Verb Object.

The government predicts that the rate cuts will reduce costs.

A prepositional phrase (for) set off by commas interrupts the independent clause. If something is going to get picked up and moved around in the answers, thats a good candidate.

Theres also a long adjectival modifier describing the rate cuts: theyre owned by the Federal Communications Commission (that is, the FCC was responsible for them) and they occurred recently.

More simply, weve got:

Start of independent clause, modifier, rest of independent clause, dependent clause (introducing a contrast), modifier

The commas above correspond to the commas in the original sentence.

As we discussed in the first half of this 2-part article, it is far better to compare answers vertically than to read each answer choice horizontally. Your goal is always to find the best answer of the five; finding the best of something is by definition a comparison. On the problems we're examining in this series, the comparisons are not as straightforward as they are on many problems.

So how do we still use this technique when the splits, or differences, arent as straightforward? We break the sentence into major parts thats why I simplified our original sentence, above.

Where are those parts in the various answer choices? Answer choice A is always the same as the original, of course. What about the others? (The commas represent the actual commas found in the sentences.)

A: start of independent clause, modifier, rest of independent clause

B: independent clause with a that modifier embedded (that make)

C: start of independent clause), modifier, hmm more of the independent clause? A new independent clause?

D: opening modifier, subject (with embedded that modifier: that the FCC)

E: opening modifier, independent clause (with embedded that modifier: that the FCC has made)

In practice, I would start just with the independent clause in each choice, ignoring the rest of the sentence. Is each independent clause okay?

So, lets see. Answer D seems to be missing an independent clause. Thats not good every sentence has to have an independent clause or its not a sentence in the first place. Lets check that one again:

For consumers Okay, thats just a modifier.

the prediction that <something is true> Theres a subject (prediction) but no verb to go with it (only the that <something is true> modifier has a verb).

The rest of the sentence is the non-underlined stuff, and we already decided that that part consisted of a dependent clause and a modifier. So, we dont have a complete sentence. Prediction could be the main noun, but it has no verb! Eliminate D.

I also stumbled a little bit when trying to describe answer Cs independent clause:

The governments prediction is costs will be greatly reduced

I predict that costs will be greatly reduced

I predict costs will be greatly reduced

Whats the difference? Can I skip the word that in this sentence?

Turns out I cannot! Not in the above structure. If I want to predict something simple I can lets say that I want to convey the idea that things will be chaotic when the GMAT switches to the new version of the exam in 2012. I might say, I predict chaos! I wouldnt say I predict that chaos. Why not?

We reserve the that structure for situations in which we want to predict something more complete. I predict that you will all study hard tonight. I predict that there will be lots of chaos when the GMAT switches to the new exam in 2012. I predict that costs will be greatly reduced

All of those are more complex thoughts were predicting things that go beyond just a single word were predicting entire situations. For that, we need that. Eliminate C.

What else have we got? The original sentence contains the modifier for consumers and businesses that make a large number of long-distance calls. Where is that info in B and E? In choice B, the modifier isnt set off from the main sentence. What difference does that make? Choice E places the modifier at the beginning of the sentence, also set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Does moving the modifier to the front change anything?

Modifiers refer to some other part of the sentence, so we have to make sure that theyre placed in such a way that they modify the correct thing. The word for is a preposition, so were dealing with a prepositional phrase modifier. When a prepositional phrase modifier is set off by commas, it is typically functioning as an adverbial modifier that is, it is referring to some action in the sentence, as represented by a verb (the action). The modifier does not have to be placed right next to the verb, but it does have to be placed in such a way that it is clear which verb the modifier is attached to that is, we dont want to introduce confusion by placing the adverbial modifier too close to some other verb or action.

So what is happening for (certain) consumers and businesses? The rate cuts will reduce costs for these people and companies. The relevant action is reduce costs.

A and E both use commas to set off the prepositional phrase. In A, the prepositional phrase comes just before the clause that includes the verb reduce, so the placement in A is fine.

In E, the prepositional phrase comes just before the government predicts. That is one action: the government is predicting something. Is the government making this prediction for or on behalf of the consumers and businesses? No, thats the wrong action. Rather, the government is predicting some other action that costs will be reduced for consumers and businesses. The placement of the modifier in E is incorrect. Eliminate E.

What about choice B? The modifier comes immediately after will be greatly reduced. The placement here looks fine the costs will be reduced for these groups. That meaning is correct.

Were down to A and B. What else can we compare? Interesting. The opening part of B (The government predicts that costs will be greatly reduced) sounds so much better than the opening part of A that it makes me wonder about the end of choice B. On really long choices, Ive seen them do this before: the opening part sounds better but then something falls apart towards the end of that choice. If Im not paying enough attention, I might not spot it, and theyve just gotten me to fall into a trap. So Im going to examine the end of B.

Lets see: costs will be greatly reduced for <certain groups> that <have a certain characteristic> by <the thing thats reducing the costs>

That last bit is problematic. The verb is in the passive voice (costs will be reduced). With passive voice, the subject is not the thing making the action happen. Rather, something else is (often, but not always, introduced using the preposition by). So the by preposition at the end is telling us who or what is responsible for reducing the costs. For example: "I ate the pizza" (active) or "The pizza was eaten by me" (passive).

As a general rule, we prefer active voice to passive voice. We can see active voice in choice A: the rate cuts will greatly reduce costs. The subject (rate cuts) is responsible for the action. So this is one reason to prefer A over B, but Im going to take it a little further. The word by is a preposition and introduces a prepositional phrase. When a preposition immediately follows a noun with no comma between them, the default assumption is that the prepositional phrase refers to that noun. It doesnt always have to 100% of the time, but that is the most likely scenario.

Is that accurate here? Does by the Federal Communications Commissions recent telephone rate cuts modify long-distance calls?

No. I might say I make a large number of long-distance calls by Skype or by satellite phone. But I dont make a large number of long-distance calls by rate cuts. The fact that the sentence can initially be read in this nonsensical way introduces an ambiguity and the GMAT doesnt like ambiguity. Now we have two reasons to prefer A over B, and thats definitely enough to pick A and move on!

The correct answer is A.

Key Takeaways for Long Underlines + Jumbled Sentences on SC:

(1) Long-underline sentences are more likely to be jumbled that is, to move big chunks of the sentence around and even to change what information is located in the dependent vs. independent clauses. When you see this happening, break the sentence down into those chunks (commas are often great natural separators) and figure out the role of each chunk.

(2) When you use the chunk strategy, you will often start in one of two places: either start with the first chunk of the original sentence and go find the location of that chunk in subsequent answer choices, or start with the independent clause in each answer choice, wherever that might be. The more complicated the sentence, the more likely you are to concentrate on the independent clause first.

(3) These kinds of sentences also typically test the placement of the chunks is the modifier or other extra info in the right place relative to the other pieces of information? In this case, we were able to eliminate some choices because the modifiers were placed incorrectly relative to the other words in the sentence.

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