The Finer Points of GMAT Grammar, Part 2 Sponsored by Manhat

by Vault Education Editors | February 05, 2010

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GMAT grammar: Playing it by ear

Inthe first installment of this series, we discussed an example of how the GMATtests your knowledge of the rules of Standard Written English.  The example illustrated that what we hear inspoken English is not always correct, begging the question: Can you ever trustyour ear on the GMAT?  A goodrelationship with your ear is essential for success in Sentence Correction.

Infact, sometimes only your ear can help you tell right from wrong.  A case in point is idioms, as they follow norules; they are what they are and either you know them or you don't.  For example, what rule of grammar dictatesthat "to prefer A to B" is correct while "to prefer A over B"is not?  There is no logic behind thedistinction, just linguistic happenstance.

Anothercase in point is subject-verb agreement: Once you have stripped a sentence toits bare-bones structure, you cannot miss a subject-verb mismatch.  No one would fail to notice that "I ishappy" is wrong.  It is only whenthe GMAT inserts a filler clause--"I, who blah blah blah, is happy"--thatyou may get confused.  Finally, anothercase in point is style: When a sentence offends the ear with awkward language,it is usually faulty.  Trust yourinstincts.

However,be cautious.  Sometimes your ear isactually your enemy.  This is especiallytrue for those who speak American English as a first language.  Spoken American English is notoriously relaxedin its adherence to rules of grammar.  Many things that Americans say may sound finebut are actually incorrect.  A native earoften responds to the familiarity and not to the grammar.

Forexample, if you heard "Everyone should use their best judgment," youprobably would not think twice about it.  It sounds natural.  Yet on the GMAT this is wrong--it should be "Everyoneshould use his (or her) best judgment."  How many times have you seen "10 items orless" in the supermarket?  Did youever realize that this phrase was incorrect?  Items are countable and the phrase shouldtherefore be "10 items or fewer."

Anothercommon misstep is to refer to singular companies as "they" (as in "CompanyX manages monthly payroll for us and we are pretty happy with them"), yetETS frowns on this usage.  Notice that "manages"is singular, yet the author still refers to the company as "them".

Sostudy idioms and grammar and listen carefully to what people say.  You'll be surprised how many mistakes you'llfind once you pay attention.

Ultimately,then, is your ear your friend or your enemy on GMAT Sentence Correction?  It all depends on how well-trained an ear itis!

Speakingof training--stay tuned.  Below, you willlearn about an intriguing grammatical issue that has most probably kept you awakeat night for months.

GMAT grammar: Which vs.that

Toconclude this series on the finer points of GMAT grammar we delve into thedifference between "which" and "that."

"Which"and "that" are known as "relative pronouns."  The term derives from the role the words playin relating parts of a sentence.  Comparethe following sentences:

  1. Walkon the left side of the street until you reach the third house thatis red.
  2. Walkon the left side of the street until you reach the third house, whichis red.

Dothe two sentences above lead you to the same house?  Not necessarily.

Thefirst sentence leads you to the third RED house on the left side of the street. This may be the third house on the leftside of the street (if the first two are also red) or it may be the eighthhouse on the left side of the street, or the 10th house, etc.

Thesecond sentence always leads you to the THIRD house on the left house on thestreet.  This house happens to be red.

Noticethat the first sentence employs the word "that"to indicate that the color RED is essential to identifying the house.  The second sentence uses "which"to introduce a clause containing information that is NOT necessary to identifythe house.

So,you use "that" when the information that follows is needed toidentify the subject of the main clause and you use "which" when theinformation that follows is NOT needed to identify the subject of the mainclause.

Nowwhen you see sentences containing "which" or "that" inSentence Correction, you will be equipped to handle them!

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