Meaning Issues in Sentence Correction (part 2)


Out of My Way! This is a Grammar Correction Emergency! lolcatLast week, I wrote about meaning issues in sentence correction, and there’s more to say “ so here’s part two of this topic. We’ll keep going till we don’t have anything else to discuss!

First and foremost, I want to address something that I keep seeing everywhere “ on the forums, in the comments sections of my articles and blog posts, and so on. People keep saying, But how are we going to study now? Are you going to publish a new book? What can we do? I’m taking the test soon!

I’m going to reiterate what I’ve been saying (and forgive me if you already heard this and got the message!): meaning issues have always existed, and there is plenty of existing material from which to study. We just didn’t concentrate as much on meaning before, because we were able to do more simply with grammar. They aren’t putting totally new kinds of SC questions out there “ they’re just increasing the proportion of an already-existing issue.

Now, because in the old days, the proportion was skewed more towards pure grammar, we were often able to get away with just studying grammar and not worrying so much about meaning. We can’t get away with that now “ we have to study the meaning as well. Luckily, the existing questions are already FULL of meaning issues, so we have plenty from which to study. Just make sure that you aren’t ignoring the meaning in favor of the grammar. When you’re studying, make sure you review every issue that you see in the problem in front of you, including any meaning problems “ even if you can get to the answer (on this one) without actually having to use that meaning issue.

In last week’s article, I showed six specific examples from OG12 (The Official Guide for GMAT Review, 12th Edition) and categorized these questions into three broad categories:

(1) Meaning is logical and clear in the original but changes in a wrong answer (becomes somehow illogical or unclear or unacceptably changes the meaning of the original)

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

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

So these are the three main cases we can have when doing these questions, from a question structure point of view. What else can we generalize here?

Where Do Meaning and Grammar Overlap?

There are a number of places, actually. In fact, I think there would probably be a way to create a meaning error using just about any grammar rule out there “ but there are some grammar rules that fundamentally overlap with meaning quite frequently. In some instances, you could even say the grammar rule is really all about meaning in the first place. Here are the main ones.


The whole purpose of a modifier is to provide extra information about something else in the sentence “ and the placement of the modifier is usually a key factor in telling us what that modifier is modifying. In fact, there’s a whole category of modifier errors “ misplaced modifiers “ that is all about messing up the meaning of the sentence by placing a modifier next to the wrong thing. Why is a misplaced modifier incorrect? Because it doesn’t make sense! Here’s an example of a misplaced modifier:

Bob walked around the block, who was exhausted after a long day at work.

Wow, I wonder what the block does for a living? Oh, right “ Bob was the one who was working, of course, not the block! Okay, so modifiers are one major source of potential meaning errors.


How about pronouns? Pronouns can be a major source of illogical or ambiguous meaning. Take a look at this:

Bob walked his dog, Joe, until he was exhausted.

Who was exhausted “ Bob or the dog? It’s possible for a dog or a person to become exhausted, so the meaning here is ambiguous. It doesn’t say until they were exhausted, so the sentence is only pointing to one of them, Bob or the dog. But which one?

Verb Tense

Verb tenses are also a significant potential source of meaning error. It turns out that we know what verb tense to use based upon the meaning of whatever we’re trying to convey. Can I say, Yesterday, I will go to the store? No, of course not, because yesterday indicates that I am giving information in the past tense.

How about this? Put some form of the verb to travel in the blank in the next sentence:

By 2003, she __________ out of the country three times.

She travels? She will travel? She traveled? Getting closer, but still not quite there. We want to say had traveled (past perfect). Why? How did we know that? I didn’t even give you any multiple choice options.

The meaning of the sentence tells us. By 2003 indicates that we’re talking about something that happened before 2003 “ that is, in the past. Further, we’re talking about two different times in the past here “ 2003 and whatever happened before 2003. That’s a classic setup for the past-perfect tense, which indicates the earlier of two past actions. By 2003, she had traveled out of the country three times.


One particular type of comparison error is all about meaning:

My hair is longer than my sister.

Um. Wow. Either your hair is really long or your sister is really short. J When we compare two things that aren’t really comparable, that’s called an apples-to-oranges comparison “ and the whole problem with such comparisons is that it just doesn’t make sense to compare those two things. As with the previous categories we discussed, there are a ton of these examples in the OG. They’re not quite so obvious as my little example above, but this is a very common error type on official questions.

Those are the four main ones that I identified as I was going through OG12 last week. There are all kinds of ways to toss in meaning problems, though, so do look through the list I posted on this blog if you haven’t already. Ideally, you’d want to look through the questions yourself before you then read what I’ve written about them “ just to see whether you can identify the same issues that I did. (Note, also, that the list is not completely comprehensive. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of ambiguity surrounding what constitutes a meaning issue, so I tried to make the list as clean as I could and didn’t include things that I felt weren’t very strong or might be arguable.)

Key Takeaways:

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

(2) Grammar and meaning overlap quite a bit “ there are certain common grammar categories that are really about meaning. Examples include many types of modifiers (especially noun modifiers), pronouns, verb tenses, and apples-to-oranges comparisons.

(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, if you’re more comfortable with those, but when you hit a wall and need to switch to meaning, you’ll know what to do.

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  4. Abhinav Chitre February 2, 2012 at 9:37 am

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  5. Pravin December 29, 2011 at 2:43 am

    Nice information. my query is, what is the key for right answer is the grammar or meaning.

    what if sentence is grammatically correct but meaningless, or sentence is meaningful sentence but grammatically incorrect.


  6. NONUSER October 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    This blog post doesn’t really instill confidence in your training program. A glaring grammatical error in the second section causes me to discount any of the following content. “Till” and “Until” are two completely different words.

  7. thang October 7, 2011 at 3:46 am

    it is wonderfull article. It gives us the general thinking of SC and specific cases for meaning issue.

    One thing I want to add to meaning issue. Gmat creates the wrong answers by distorting the intended meaning and requires the test takers to realize the intended meaning. The intended meaning possiblly is not in the answer choice A. Gmat dose not test us hard grammar but test our ability to realize the intended meaning. In doing so, gmat teach us how to write/plan a sentence/a complex idea.

    Do the following to understand above idea. Be a test maker, write down a long sentence and distort the meaning many ways. You will have many wrong answer choices and a SC problem. By thinking this way, you will be able to find mode of attacking for each kind of SC problem such as the kind involving a sentence all of which is underlined and which is considered hard by gmat thinking.

  8. Anatoli October 7, 2011 at 3:01 am

    Wow.That’s really useful! thanks