Pronoun Ambiguity on the GMAT

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Manhattan Prep GMAT Blog - Pronoun Ambiguity on the GMAT by Chelsey Cooley

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What’s the deal with pronoun ambiguity on the GMAT?

Unfortunately, this question doesn’t have a short answer. Pronoun ambiguity is one area in which the rules of GMAT Sentence Correction are actually a little… ambiguous. (Sorry!) This article will describe what we know about the rules, and, more importantly, how you can use them to gain points on Sentence Correction.

What is pronoun ambiguity on the GMAT?

Pronoun ambiguity is a type of grammar error. In English grammar, every pronoun has to “stand in for” a noun. On GMAT Sentence Correction, that noun always has to appear elsewhere in the sentence. You should be able to replace the pronoun with the noun it stands for, and the sentence should still make logical sense.

The student earned a 780 on the GMAT, because he studied.

The student earned a 780 on the GMAT, because the student studied.

We say that a pronoun is “ambiguous” if you can’t tell which noun it’s supposed to stand in for. For instance, this sentence has an ambiguous pronoun:

Silvia and Camila went to the movies, and she bought a box of popcorn.

But, as it often does, the GMAT likes to make things more complicated than that.

Why is pronoun ambiguity hard?

When you listen to or read a sentence in real life, your brain tries to give that sentence the benefit of the doubt. You want to understand what the sentence is communicating. So, even if the sentence is technically a little bit ambiguous, you normally don’t even notice that ambiguity. Instead, you ignore the ambiguity, and focus on what the speaker or writer is trying to say.

For example, is the pronoun in this sentence ambiguous?

The book sitting on the counter will be sold at a discount, because somebody tore its cover.  

Of course not! This sentence is completely unambiguous and completely correct. You know that its stands in for “the book,” not “the counter.” In the real world, you can figure that out easily because books have covers, but counters don’t. That’s real-world knowledge.

Here’s the problem: in the real world, we use real-world knowledge to figure out what a pronoun stands for. And GMAT Sentence Correction doesn’t test real-world knowledge. However, the GMAT also doesn’t want you to eliminate simple, correct sentences like the one about the book and the counter. It would be ridiculous for them to claim that the sentence above was wrong, even though you need real-world knowledge to understand it!

So, how do you handle pronoun ambiguity on the GMAT?

Here’s an example of a correct answer from a GMAT Sentence Correction problem:

A recording system was so secretly installed and operated in the Kennedy Oval Office that even Theodore C. Sorensen, the White House counsel, did not know it existed.

Like the previous sentence, this one has an “ambiguous” pronoun. When you read the sentence, real-world knowledge tells you that “it” stands in for “recording system.” However, it could technically stand for either “recording system” or “Kennedy Oval Office,” since both of those are singular nouns. Despite that “ambiguity,” this is the correct answer to this Sentence Correction problem. That tells us that the GMAT is okay with this type of “ambiguity.”

In short, you can’t eliminate an answer choice just because there are two nouns that could technically match the pronoun.

Nonetheless, the GMAT does sometimes test pronoun ambiguity. Check out Sentence Correction problem #698 in the 2017 Official Guide to the GMAT. The official explanation eliminates one answer choice that contains an ambiguous pronoun, and two others in which a pronoun “seems to refer to” the wrong noun. It’s clear that the GMAT does sometimes expect you to eliminate sentences with ambiguous pronouns. How do you do it, without accidentally eliminating sentences that the GMAT thinks are right?

  1. Start by looking at the splits, not at each answer choice individually. If all of the answer choices seem to have an ambiguous pronoun, you’re stuck with it! Tackle another issue instead and ignore the pronoun.
  2. Pronoun ambiguity is a meaning issue. When you do Sentence Correction problems, you should deal with grammar issues first and meaning issues second. Only use pronoun ambiguity once you’ve exhausted all of the grammar issues you can find.
  3. If you’re down to two answer choices, choose the one without the “ambiguous” pronoun. If you’ve dealt with all of the grammar issues and you have two answer choices left, choose the one that has a less ambiguous meaning.
  4. Don’t eliminate an answer choice just because you see the word “it” and two different singular nouns. Don’t eliminate an answer choice just because you see the word “they” and two different plural nouns, either. This situation occurs in right answers as well as wrong ones.

In short, pronoun ambiguity on the GMAT isn’t usually a great reason to eliminate an answer choice. If you just want the actionable advice, that’s all you need to know! However, if you’re interested in a deeper dive into English grammar, stay tuned for the next article on this topic. We’ll take a look at which nouns a pronoun can and can’t stand in for, and what the GMAT really means when it says that a pronoun “seems to refer to something.” 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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