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Meaning Issues in Sentence Correction

If you’ve been following the GMAT forums, you’ve probably come to learn that GMAC (the creators of the GMAT) recently announced that many of the Sentence Correction questions on the exam are trending away from Idiom and toward Meaning. Hearing of this news, many people studying for the exam have recently called me in a panic, worried that all the time they spent poring over idioms and every minor grammatical rule in the English language has been for naught. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the time spent on memorizing idioms has no value (GMAC did state that idioms, as an element of the English language, won’t be completely phased out), I do think that the emphasis on meaning points to the GMAT’s larger and fundamental concern: an individual’s ability to reason through a situation, be it a complex equation or a sentence that, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite make sense. In this article, I want to make an essential point about meaning:

Meaning is not really a separate issue from grammar. In fact, meaning is fundamentally linked to many of the grammatical concepts that you’ve learned for the GMAT: pronouns, tense, subject-verb, and especially modifiers. Correct usage of all these rules demand that the grammatical rules that govern a given concept correspond with a meaning that is logical and effective.

To understand what I mean, let’s look at an incorrect use of a modifier (albeit in a simple question):

“A big fan of pop music, the Lady Gaga concert seemed like a good way for Jack to relax.”

Most test-takers would pretty quickly recognize that this sentence is wrong because it has a modifier issue. The noun modifier at the beginning of the sentence (“A big fan of pop music…), should be directly attached to what it’s describing (Jack), but in this case it is attached to the noun “the Lady Gaga concert.” Okay, so we’re on agreement that there’s a modifier issue. What does this have to do with meaning? In a word: EVERYTHING!

As I tell my students, when you’re determining proper usage of a modifier, you’re really concerned with two issues: the grammatical issue and the logical issue. With some exceptions, any noun modifier, BY DEFINITION, describes the noun to which it is attached. In the above example, grammatical rules dictate that “A big fan of pop music” grammatically describes “the Lady Gaga concert.” The issue, as your intuition probably told you, is concerned with meaning. Logically, “the Lady Gaga concert” is not the noun in the sentence that is “a big fan of pop music.” Thus, the sentence is in error, but this error is purely meaning-based. There’s actually no grammatical issue. We have a noun modifier, we know it needs to be attached to a noun, and it is. The issue is that the noun being modified grammatically cannot logically be “a big fan of pop music.”

Though the above example is somewhat simplified, there’s an important takeaway for your preparation: As you study Sentence Correction and go through practice questions, it will be important that you differentiate between the grammatical issues in a sentence and the logical issues in a sentence. If you analyze sentences only superficially, without paying attention the larger meaning being conveyed as a function of basic grammatical rules, you’ll stumble in situations that test your ability to understand what the author is truly trying to say. This might not hurt you too much on medium-level questions, but if you aspire to score in the 700+ range, it will be essential to train yourself to identify sentences that convey illogical meanings.

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