Meaning Issues in Sentence Correction


Grammatically Conscious LoLcatRecently, we heard from GMAC that it has been testing meaning more often in sentence correction than it used to (this increase started years ago). In the last couple of days, I’ve gone through the first 100 problems in the Official Guide 12th Edition (OG12) so that we can discuss some of these issues.

I’ve categorized these meaning issues into three broad categories; in this article, I’m going to call out some particular examples and discuss what’s going on with each. You can then use these examples to help you continue to study different problems. We’ve also put together a list of specific problems and answer choices that deal with these meaning issues. You can find that list here. Finally, pay attention to the explanation wording “ if it mentions that something changes the meaning or is ambiguous then you know a meaning issue is going on in that problem!

Before we dive in, I have to say that I was surprised while researching this “ turns out that there are even more meaning-based questions than I would have thought (which is why I’ve only gotten through the first 100 OG questions rather than all of them by deadline time). In the OG, a lot of the answer choices that test meaning also have other grammatical issues, so we can often get away with ignoring the meaning and focusing on the grammar.

My guess is that GMAC has been working hard to make us deal with the meaning more by not giving us a grammar out on so many answer choices (on the real test). If you’ve been ignoring the meaning aspect when you see that there’s a more pure grammar reason for getting rid of an answer stop doing that. When studying, pay attention to every possible reason for an elimination. Seek out these meaning issues and study them.

The really good news

There’s a LOT already in OG for us to study. I know many people have been stressing out about the idea that they won’t have enough to study “ but there’s plenty in the book. You just have to make sure that you aren’t overly emphasizing the grammar rules when studying because, on the real test, you may see more questions that don’t give you the grammar options and you will instead have to make the call based on meaning.

Meaning is correct in original but changes in a wrong answer

Note: I will always list the source problem first and then discuss it; if you would like, examine the source problem yourself first to see whether you can find any meaning issues before you read further.

Source: OG12 #46 (the Buddha problem)

The original sentence states that the artisans’ creative energy was expended on the creation, construction, and decoration of various things. One of the answer choices, though, mixes up that meaning. Answer E says that the creation of Buddha images accounted for much of [one thing] as well as construction and decoration of the temples. The “creation of images” (the subject) constructed and decorated (the verb) the temples? No, of course not. That doesn’t make sense.

Source: OG12 #81 (the ulcer problem)

The original sentence tells us that ulcers are not caused by stress, alcohol, or rich foods Answers D and E both change the word or to the word and “ that is, ulcers aren’t caused by stress, alcohol, and rich foods. What’s the difference? Or means that any one of the three does not by itself cause an ulcer. And is a very different construction “ now, the physicians are claiming that the combination of all three together does not cause ulcers, but that’s not what the original sentence says. There’s nothing wrong with or illogical about the original meaning, so we don’t have an acceptable reason to change it by changing or to and.

Meaning is incorrect or illogical in the original and is fixed in the correct answer

Source: OG12 #79 (the food allergy problem)

The first (non-underlined) portion of the sentence indicates that attorneys sometimes try to blame their clients’ misconduct on something ingested. That part is fine; the problem starts with the underlined portion. The comma but indicates that a new independent clause is starting in general. In this problem, that new clause actually begins with a dependent clause and is then followed by an independent clause.

In attributing criminal or delinquent behavior to some food allergy, the perpetrators are

What’s wrong with that? This says that the perpetrators (the criminals, or the attorneys’ clients) are the ones who are attributing their behavior to an allergy. But the first half of the sentence didn’t say that “ it said the attorneys were the ones arguing this! We can’t change the non-underlined portion; we just have to make the underlined portion fit the non-underlined portion. Answers C and E repeat this error from the original sentence. Notice that the correct answer says neutrally that if [this] behavior is attributed to That is, it no longer says that the perpetrators are the ones attributing their behavior to an allergy.

Source: Verbal Supplement 2nd Edition #37 (the earthquake problem)

We discussed this one in the last article, when we first announced this increased emphasis on meaning. I’m including this one here again because of the and vs. or issue. In OG12 #81 above, we examined an instance in which we did not want to change from the original or to the word and because that unacceptably changed a perfectly fine original meaning.

In VS #37, however, the and in the original sentence is illogical. The problem says that some buildings were destroyed and heavily damaged but that doesn’t actually make sense! A building is either destroyed or heavily damaged, but it can’t be both simultaneously because these are two different states on the same continuum. The correct answer, B, switches that and to the more logical or.

I also wanted to include this one because answers B and E are both grammatically correct, but they have different meanings. My guess is that there may be more questions with this characteristic on the real test now, so I wanted to point you to a specific example. There aren’t a ton of released questions right now that fit this pattern, but you can still study this meaning issue with all of the others “ just don’t let yourself be so focused on grammar that you ignore meaning issues where they exist!

Meaning is ambiguous or unclear in the original and is made clear in the correct answer

Source: OG12 #18 (the fungi problem)

The original meaning is unclear “ what is in the form of carbon dioxide? You may be able to figure this out if you know that carbon can be found in the form of carbon dioxide, so that’s presumably what they mean but a lot of people wouldn’t know or notice that. In the correct answer, the word carbon is moved so that the modifier in the form of carbon dioxide appears right after, making it very clear that we’re talking about carbon in the form of carbon dioxide.

Source: OG12 #75 (the rhinoceros problem)

In the original problem, the pronoun their could technically refer to either tourists or rhinoceroses. In this case, we can use common sense “ clearly, we should be talking about the horns of the animals, not of the tourists! Answers A and B can both be eliminated for this reason. The correct answer substitutes the animals’ horns for their horns, making it very clear which mammal has the horns. J

Key Takeaways:

(1) Meaning issues aready exist in many official problems, so we have lots of study material.

(2) In problems where you can get away with answering without having to address a meaning issue, don’t be lazy. Still make yourself study the meaning issue in case you see a different problem that doesn’t offer you a more straightforward grammar reason for eliminating a wrong answer.

(3) Because we don’t have a huge number of examples of wrong answers that are grammatically okay but have a faulty meaning, try doing some drills where you look first for meaning issues and only deal with grammar after that. On the real test, you can still look for grammar issues first, but when you hit a wall and need to switch to meaning, you’ll know what to do.

* The text excerpted above from The Official Guide for GMAT Review 12th Edition and The Official Guide for GMAT Verbal Review 2nd Edition is copyright GMAC (the Graduate Management Admissions Council). The short excerpts are quoted under fair-use statutes for scholarly or journalistic work; use of these excerpts does not imply endorsement of this article by GMAC.

For more problems that deal with meaning, check out our list here.

  1. rajdeep October 10, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    “…by deadline time” –> redundant word usage :)

  2. Fengsuwen October 8, 2011 at 7:02 am

    How to inprove our ability in solving critical reasoning problems?