GMAT Verbal Prep: Spotting the Most Common Sentence Correction Errors
March 10, 2021
You don't need to be the Grammar Girl to ace the sentence correction questions on the GMAT. You just need to know how to identify the most common errors. Our expert shows you how.
The Verbal Reasoning section of the GMAT consists of 36 questions administered over a 65-minute span. That may sound like a good amount of time — almost two minutes per question — but remember that the section includes reading comprehension questions. You'll need to read a multi-paragraph passage before you can answer those, meaning those questions will be relatively time-consuming. You'll need to work efficiently to finish this section, but it's doable.
The Verbal Reasoning section includes three types of questions:
- Sentence correction (approximately 12 questions): Look at the underlined portion of a sentence to determine whether it is correct as written. If not, choose the answer choice that best corrects the error.
- Critical reasoning (approximately 10 questions): Read brief arguments and then choose the answer that strengthens or weakens them, identifies the conclusion or an assumption or identifies flaws in the argument
- Reading comprehension (approximately 14 questions): Read an extended passage, then answer questions that ask you to identify: the main idea; inferences made by the author; style elements of the writing; or, the logical structure of the passage.
Sentence correction questions make up about one-third of this section. Although these questions could theoretically test any and all grammatical and stylistic errors in the English language (Did you know that gerunds take the possessive? Do you know what a gerund is? Don't worry, it's not on the GMAT.), they don't. In fact, they typically stick to the six listed below. Focus your exam preparation on these errors as you study for the GMAT and you should significantly improve your performance on these questions.
Six most common sentence correction errors on the GMAT
The English language is replete with opportunities for embarrassing missteps. The writers of the GMAT don't expect you to recognize and know how to correct, them all. They don't expect you to know when to use who and when to use whom, or the correct spelling of amoeba, or even the difference between a colon and a semicolon.
Sentence correction questions are primarily concerned with errors that obfuscate or change the meaning of sentences. They are critical errors, not merely errors that make you sound less sophisticated.
The errors listed below comprise most of the error types you'll see on GMAT sentence correction questions. Note that more than one error may appear in a sentence and that in most questions several of these error types will appear among the incorrect answers; that is, an answer may correct the misplaced modifier in the original sentence but still be an incorrect answer because it adds a subject-verb error.
- Rule: A descriptor, or modifier — either a single word or a phrase — should be placed as close as possible to what it describes.
- Example: Founded in 1636, it's no wonder that students see Harvard University as one of the nation's most venerable institutions.
- What's wrong: The sentence begins with the descriptive phrase "Founded in 1636," which describes Harvard University. Because of its placement in the sentence, however, it appears to modify the word "it's," which of course makes no sense.
- A better way to write this sentence would be: "It's no wonder that students see Harvard University, founded in 1636, as one of the nation's most venerable institutions."
- Rule: When a sentence lists comparable actions, things, or descriptors, those actions, things, or descriptors should be alike in construction. Since they are being compared, they should be in a form that is clearly comparable.
- Example: The governor reviewed the legislation imposing new restrictions on local school boards and vetoing the bill, calling it an unnecessary usurpation of local autonomy.
- What's wrong: The sentence identifies two actions taken by the governor: she reviewed the legislation, and she vetoed the bill. These actions should be in parallel form.
- A better way to write this sentence would be: "The governor reviewed the legislation imposing new restrictions on local school boards and vetoed the bill, calling it an unnecessary usurpation of local autonomy."
- Note: Inclusion of the phrase "imposing new restrictions" complicates the sentence by confusing which phrases should be parallel. This is a common trap set by the writers of GMAT sentence correction questions.
Subject-verb agreement errors
- Rule: A subject and verb must agree in number. Singular subjects take singular verbs; plural subjects take plural verbs.
- Example: As a result of the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the likelihood that Earth surface temperatures will rise significantly in the foreseeable future now exceed 75 percent.
- What's wrong: The verb "exceed" is the plural form of the verb, which would be fine if its subject were "surface temperatures." The subject of this verb, however, is the singular noun "likelihood".
- A better way to write this sentence would be: "As a result of the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the likelihood that Earth surface temperatures will rise significantly in the foreseeable future now exceeds 75 percent."
- Note: The sentence purposely confuses you by interjecting a plural noun between the subject and the verb; this is a common GMAT ruse. Be on the lookout for it as you practice sentence completion.
Pronoun-antecedent agreement errors
- Rule: When a pronoun takes the place of a noun, the pronoun and noun must agree in number and gender. Watch out for collective nouns (company, military, faculty, committee) that take singular verbs and the singular pronoun "it." Also, a pronoun must have a clear antecedent; if the presence of several plural subjects makes it impossible to determine who "they" are in a sentence, the sentence should be rewritten to eliminate the confusion.
- Example: After their subpoena of multiple executive branch officials was ignored, the House committee issued orders holding those officials in contempt of Congress.
- What's wrong: The pronoun "their" refers to "the House committee," which as a collective noun should take a singular pronoun.
- A better way to write this sentence would be: "After its subpoena of multiple executive branch officials was ignored, the House committee issued orders holding those officials in contempt of Congress."
Clarity and concision
- Rule: Watch out for redundancy and excess verbiage that confuses meaning.
- Example: Because of the reason that all the bullfrogs' natural predators were eliminated from their habitat, the number of bullfrogs tripled in size over the course of just a few weeks.
- What's wrong: The phrase "because of the reason" is redundant; the word "because" is all that is necessary here. Also, the phrase "in size" is unnecessary and redundant; it is sufficient to say that the number has tripled.
- A better way to write this sentence would be: "Because all the bullfrogs' natural predators were eliminated from their habitat, the number of bullfrogs tripled over the course of just a few weeks."
- Rule: The GMAT loves to test idiomatic constructions, especially where prepositions or conjunctions are involved.
- Example: When asked to predict which team would win the Premier League football title, the sports analyst demurred, saying he thought that Liverpool was as likely to win than Manchester City.
- What's wrong: The construction "as likely" needs to be completed by the word "as," not by the word "than."
- A better way to write this sentence would be: "When asked to predict which team would win the Premier League football title, the sports analyst demurred, saying he thought that Liverpool was as likely to win as was Manchester City."
- Note: The verb needs to be completed on both ends of the comparison, hence the addition of the word "was" after "as."
Preparing for the GMAT
The best way to combat the exam's design is to read our tips and to practice regularly until you've seen and know all the tricks and traps of the GMAT. The Official Guide to the GMAT is the best source for practice questions; it even includes several entire GMAT practice tests.
If you're serious about prepping for the GMAT, you should begin studying (a little time every day) at least four weeks before the exam (six weeks would be better). As dozens of successful and expensive test prep courses will attest, prepping for the GMAT can improve your score. Don't concede this advantage to others; prep for the exam so you can score your best.
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