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A few weeks ago, I wrote about making the most of your ear as a native English speaker. Here’s the short version: you already know, intuitively, a lot of the grammar that GMAT Sentence Correction tests. But the GMAT takes simple grammar errors and buries them in long, boring sentences with lots of extraneous detail. To outsmart the GMAT, simplify and visualize the sentence in your head as you read it. This will help your ear to do what it does best.
Now let’s talk about when and why to use your ear. It’s okay to use your ear on GMAT Sentence Correction… under two conditions.
First, save your ear for as late in the problem as possible. Using your ear can be time-consuming. It also doesn’t work as well when you have to decide between a lot of options. Plus, applying a grammar rule that you’re completely sure of can make you more confident in your answer. Many of us have ears that aren’t 100% reliable, especially when trying to understand a complex GMAT Sentence Correction problem.
In short, it’s fine to use your ear, but you should use the grammar rules you know first. Look at one split at a time. (A split is any difference among the answer choices.) If you know an applicable grammar rule, use it! If you don’t know the rule, but one option just sounds better than the others, keep that in the back of your mind and move on to a different split. You can come back to it later, once you’ve exhausted your grammar knowledge.
Here’s the second rule: every time your ear is wrong, pay attention. As you practice GMAT Sentence Correction, there will be times when the right answer sounds totally crazy to you, or the wrong answer sounds completely okay. When this happens, you should celebrate: you’ve just learned something new about your own “grammar sense.” Make a flashcard! One of my tutoring students once discovered that past participles always sounded wrong to him. More than once, he had accidentally eliminated the right answer, just because it had a weird-looking past participle in it. Once my student realized this, he suddenly started getting way more GMAT Sentence Correction problems right.
So, even if you have a great ear for grammar, you’ll still end up learning at least some grammar rules. You should memorize the rules that tend to fool your ear, and you should definitely learn these three rules that almost everyone gets wrong. Browsing through the Manhattan Prep Sentence Correction Strategy Guide is also a good use of your time: there can be a huge payoff from learning a small number of frequently-tested grammar facts, and using them quickly whenever you see them in a problem.
However, there’s one thing I should warn you about! If you have a good intuitive sense of grammar, when you start learning and applying more rules, it might seem as if it isn’t helping. In fact, you might feel as if you’re getting worse at GMAT Sentence Correction. That’s completely normal.
I recently heard another instructor use a great analogy to explain why this happens. When little kids play basketball, they always shoot the ball with two hands. But around the age of ten or eleven, young basketball players are usually strong enough to handle the ball with only one hand. However, when a kid first starts to shoot with one hand instead of two, he suddenly starts missing pretty much every shot! Nonetheless, the basketball coach has to keep pushing him to shoot one-handed. Why? Because there’s an upper limit to how good you can get at basketball if you shoot the ball like a little kid. Even if you’re better with two hands than with one hand right now, in the long run, sticking with what you know will artificially limit your improvement.
The same logic applies to using your ear on GMAT Sentence Correction. It’s tough to make your ear better. The only way to do it is to read a lot. That puts an upper limit on how well you can do if you only use your ear. When you first start trying to apply more grammar rules, you’ll struggle, because you’re using a new technique that you’re not great at yet. However, it’s much easier to improve your grammar skills than it is to improve your ear. With practice, you’ll return to your former level of accuracy and then rise above it.
As a native English speaker, you have a useful tool for GMAT Sentence Correction: your own intuitive sense of the language that you speak. You should use that tool! However, you should use it carefully, pay attention to whether it’s right or wrong, and avoid becoming too reliant on it. Following those suggestions will boost your GMAT Sentence Correction accuracy. 📝
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Chelsey Cooley 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.