Today we’ve got an inequalities data sufficiency question on tap from GMATPrep. Set your timer for 2 minutes and go!

Is m + z > 0?

(1) m “ 3z > 0
(2) 4zm > 0

This is a yes/no data sufficiency question. I’m just going to remind myself of the rules: an always yes answer to a statement is sufficient, an always no answer is also sufficient, and a maybe or sometimes yes / sometimes no answer is not sufficient.

You’ll note that I haven’t listed the five answer choices. Do you know what they are? If you haven’t memorized them yet, add that to your to-do list. (If you’re just starting out, stop reading this article and go study data sufficiency in general first. Then come back to this article once you feel comfortable with how DS works. : ) )

The question stem is asking whether the sum of m and z is greater than zero. I can also read that as is m + z positive? That’s interesting. What would I need to know in order to answer that question?

Certainly, if I knew what the values of the two variables were, then I could answer the question. They’re probably not going to give me that, though. What else? Let’s see, if I knew that m and z were both positive, then their sum would also have to be positive. What if they are both negative? What if one is positive and one negative? One could even be zero.

If both were negative, then the sum would also have to be negative. If one were positive and one negative, then hmm, I couldn’t tell without knowing more (such as the values of the numbers). Finally, one of the variables could be zero (but not both).

Okay, so I have some ideas about what’s being tested. I don’t really see a way to rephrase the question in a simpler way. It’s fairly straightforward as it is.

The first statement doesn’t look ridiculously hard, so I’ll start with that one. (As a general rule, I start with the first statement unless I don’t know what to do with it or it looks much harder than the second one. I know many teachers recommend starting with the easier of the two; I stopped recommending that because I don’t want to have to ask myself 15+ times Which of these two statements is easier? I just want to GO! And if that statement is too annoying or hard, then I’ll try the other instead.)

(1) m “ 3z > 0

Hmm. If you subtract something from m, the result is still greater than zero, so maybe that means m is positive? Oh, wait. No, that doesn’t have to be true; m could be zero and z could be negative. What I’m doing right now is thinking this through theoretically. I could also just try some simple numbers: if m = 5, z = 1, then 5 “ 3(1) > 0.The statement is true, so these are valid numbers to try. In this case, the answer to the question Is m + z > 0? is yes because 5 + 1 > 0.What if m = 0, z = -2? Then 0 “ 3(-2) > 0, which is true so these are valid numbers to try. But the answer to the question Is m + z > 0? is no (because 0 + -2 is not greater than zero). Sometimes yes, sometimes no? Statement 1 is insufficient.

I could also rearrange the statement to get m > 3z, especially if I want to think this through theoretically. It’s easier to see that I have no idea whether m and z are positive, negative, or zero given this inequality.

Cross off answers A and D.

(2) 4zm > 0

We can use the same approaches for this second statement. Theoretically: the inequality is 4z >m. These variables could be positive, negative or zero using the same reasoning we used above. Trying numbers: if m = 1, z = 2, then 4(2) “ 1 > 0, and the answer to the question Is m + z > 0? is yes (because 1 + 2 > 0). If m = -1, z = 0, then 4(0) “ (-1) > 0, and the answer to the question Is m + z > 0? is no (because 0 + -1 is not greater than zero). Statement 2 is insufficient. Cross off answer B.

Now, we need to look at the two statements together. Whenever we get to this step of a DS problem, our first task is to figure out how to combine the information we’ve been given. Combining the info might tell us something new.

How can we combine this info? The key is to look at the two rearranged inequalities:

m > 3z
4z >m

What do these inequalities have in common? Both of them have an m on one side. Great! We can combine these into one 3-part inequality:

3z > m > 4z

Wait, how can we do that? Check it out: the first statement tells us that 3z is less than m. That’s also what our new 3-part inequality tells us. And the second statement tells us that m is less than 4z “ just like our new 3-part inequality! Just be careful to make sure that you’re preserving the original relationship (direction of the inequality sign). Now what?

The value of m is somewhere between 3z and 4z. I notice that z cannot be zero (because then m doesn’t exist “ there isn’t anything that is both less than zero and greater than zero). And m can’t be zero either. This one’s a bit more subtle. 3z and 4z are either both positive or both negative. In either case, you can’t have zero in the middle of two positive or two negative numbers. Finally, I also notice that the two variables must have the same sign. We can’t have a negative m in the middle with a positive z on either side. Nor can we have a positive m with a negative z on either side.

So, either both are positive or both are negative. Can I tell which? It’s certainly possible for them both to be positive. For example, let’s say that z = 1 and m = 3.5 which makes 3(1) < 3.5 < 4(1) a true statement. If that's the case, then the answer to the question Is m + z > 0? is yes.

What about two negatives? Let’s say that z = -1 and m = -3.5. Then we have the inequality 3(-1) < -3.5 < 4(-1) or -3 < 3.5 < -4. Oops. That's not a true statement; I can't pick those numbers. I'll have to find some other numbers. Let's see. If I set z = -2 hmm. If z is negative, and I multiply it by both 3 and 4, the 4z number is always going to be farther from zero on the number line; in other words, 4z is always going to be smaller than 3z (when z is negative). But my inequality 3z < m < 4z tells me that 3z is always less than 4z. So z can’t be negative; it must be positive! And since m has to have the same sign, m is also positive.

If m and z are both positive, then the answer to the question Is m + z > 0? is always yes. The correct answer is C.

We’re not quite done talking about this one. Look at the title of this article again. Now, look down the page a little at what I wrote for the title of the Key Takeaways section. Here’s our big lesson on this problem!

In general, most number properties issues are too easy to write in a straightforward way. The test writers instead have to find a way to disguise what it is that they’re really asking. Inequalities are a great way to disguise positive / negative theories. That’s what this problem really ended up being about, right? We didn’t have to do a bunch of algebra or weird inequality manipulations. We had to figure out whether these variables represented positive or negative numbers.

I call these Know the Code problems. It takes too long to figure everything out from scratch while the clock is ticking. We’ve got to know the code in advance “ know, for example, that < 0 and > 0 is almost certainly testing us on positive and negative number properties theory, so that we can jump to that immediately. Grab a notebook or open a file on your computer and start keeping a log of Know the Code phrasings. In particular, take note of situations where you finish the problem and think I didn’t see that coming or you read an explanation and think, Oh, that’s what that question was all about? Then write something down that fills in these blanks: When I see _______ I will think / do _______.

Key Takeaways for Disguised Number Properties Questions:

(1)The GMAT test writers are really good at disguising number properties in general. Inequalities are often used to mask number properties questions, in particular problems that deal with positive and negative.Study from that point of view “ look for these disguises!

(2) Start keeping a log of all of the ways in which you discover that they distracted you from realizing that a problem was really about number properties (or anything else!).

(3) When you get stuck, try some real numbers to understand what’s going on. Don’t go over time; if you have to guess, do so and move on. Afterwards (if it’s not the real test!), you can go back and try numbers until you figure out exactly how the problem works and why.

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

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  6. Vivek January 22, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Excellent explanation…but this part ( 3z > m > 4z) is wrongly typed, it should have been 4z > m > 3z

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  12. Simon K March 2, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Wouldn’t it be much easier and more intuitive just to combine the two original inequalities when checking C?

    1) m – 3z > 0
    2) 4z – m > 0

    m’s cancel and 4z-3z gives us:

    z > 0

    And we can use that knowledge to let statement 1) tell us that

    m – (positive) > 0 , therefore m has to be positive.


  13. jeff n February 19, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    John P. – I agree with you on the 3 part inequality sign.
    I believe the writer of this messed up there.

  14. John P February 16, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Shouldn’t the 3 part inequality be 3z<m<4z? Only that version implies that both z and m is positive (3z is less than m which is less than 4z….)

  15. domenico February 7, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Hi Stacey.A really good explanation of a bunch of situation to deal with in less than to minutes. Thanks

    What about the solution ?

    I mean: both are sufficient, ok. we have: 3z < m < 4z…this is the same we have 3 < m/z 0.

    Can we say so ??? or it is wrong ???

    Hope is clear. Thanks