Going by social media content, it may seem that bad grammar, incoherent statements and typo-infested tweets are essential requirements to become rich, famous and powerful.
On the other hand, sentence correction questions continue to consistently & ruthlessly crush the career aspirations and higher education dreams of thousands of non-native speakers across the world every year.
While your ability to write grammatically correct sentences has no correlation with your business skills and career success (unless you’re aiming to be journalist), you still need to give it the respect it deserves. At least, till you get into your dream university.
GMAT test prep expert and personal tutor, Chiranjeev Singh, has tips to improve your sentence correction (SC) score.
How to improve Sentence Correction
by Chiranjeev Singh
Since, in preparing for GMAT Sentence Correction (SC), people go wrong in numerous ways, I have several pieces of advice to share here.
So, this article is going to be a lengthy one. However, I hope that the usefulness of the article justifies its length.
Let’s start with a very fundamental question:
What do you need to succeed on GMAT SC?
- Correct Grammatical Knowledge
- Knowledge of what is considered incorrect in English (grammatical errors)
- Knowledge of what is considered correct in English (an aspect ignored by most people)
- Ability to identify the exact meaning of a sentence – Required to spot the meaning-based errors
- Ability to apply the above two in complex sentences – Here, the ability to breakdown a sentence into its components is required. It’s very difficult to apply grammar rules and understand the nuances of meaning while dealing with the sentence as a whole.
Why do you not have the above skills despite a lot of preparation?
1. Sub-standard sources of preparation
A. Incomplete and incorrect knowledge
Not all sources of preparation are high quality. Rather, many resources, including some from renowned Indian test prep companies, teach incorrect knowledge.
What about people who browse the internet and download any SC guide they come cross and start preparing?
May God help them!
Besides, many people go wrong in reading through and believing in the posts of common users on GMAT Club.
A significant proportion of the reasoning presented on the forum is completely wrong.
Barring a few experts belonging to the top test prep companies, no other expert is worth following.
B. Flawed approach
Of course, your sources of preparation also teach you ‘how to’ practice and prepare.
These approaches are often unproductive and, at times, counterproductive.
A common approach taught in SC is split-based approach, which is highly sub-optimal even for the sincerest students.
For a struggling student, using the approach is equivalent to wasting time.
2. Lack of clarity on the goal
Here’s how people respond to some of my questions:
Q: What is the objective of your GMAT prep?
A: To get the target score
Q: How do you get the target score?
A: By preparing
Q: And how do you prepare?
A: By reading concepts and solving questions
Q: And how would reading concepts and solving questions lead to the score?
A: Well, never thought about it. It should, I believe, as it has led for many people.
Q: Do you face the same kinds of problems faced by those who succeeded by just following the concepts and solving questions?
A: Ummm, I don’t know.
Essentially, many of us are ‘mindlessly’ (I know it’s a harsh word, but I also know it’s the reality) cramming knowledge and solving hundreds and thousands of questions with a ‘hope’ that doing so will lead us to our goal.
For many of us, unfortunately, our hopes don’t turn into reality.
3. Lack of engagement
I think this is the biggest problem on which all other problems rest, and in a way, the second point above also flows from this point.
If we were engaged in the process of preparation – i.e. if we were using our minds to question and understand everything – we’d be able to rectify almost all our problems.
However, many of us are not engaged. We just blindly follow what others say or what we read on forums.
We don’t ask questions. We don’t try to question why we should do whatever we are asked to do.
This indifference could be either due to our general attitude of not asking questions or due to lack of energy and time we have for GMAT.
If we are engaged, we’ll be able to spot the flaws in our approach and the inconsistencies in and thus incorrectness of our knowledge.
What do you need to do to build the skills tested in SC?
1. Use reliable sources of knowledge
A. Reliable test preparation sources
Don’t pick a course or a book because it’s the cheapest or the most convenient to get. Research multiple options.
Don’t just read the overall rating but also read the detailed reviews of the course. Does the course help in building clarity of concepts? If the course is mainly about tricks and techniques, better stay away from it.
B. Follow ‘only the top experts’ on GMAT Club
Don’t even read through the replies of common users and even regular experts and moderators. You’ll end up with a lot of misconceptions and incorrect knowledge otherwise.
C. Non-underlined part of the SC question, and CR and RC questions
What could be a more reliable source of correct English than the non-underlined part of the SC question! Go through the non-underlined part of the sentence very carefully and evaluate it based on your understanding.
Sometimes, you’ll find errors even in the non-underlined part. That’s a clear indication that either your understanding of the applicable rule is incorrect or that there are exceptions to the rule that you don’t know of.
Either way, your understanding will get better.
Also, try to evaluate the sentences you come across in CR and RC questions as well. The English used in these questions is expected to be correct. Thus, as you evaluate the sentences in these questions, your misconceptions may come to the fore.
Clearly, if you don’t find anything correct in a CR or a RC question from the language standpoint, the chances are more than 99% that you are wrong. (I think there is a 1% chance that GMAC overlooked some language problem in a question)
If you follow this sincerely, you’ll be able to figure out all the incorrectness in your language knowledge over time.
D. WSJ, NYTimes, and FT
Replace reading Indian newspapers, many of which write incorrect English quite frequently, with reading reputed western publications.
As you read the articles in these publications, pay attention to the grammar aspect as well.
Besides, you may cross-check your understanding of the grammar rules by applying the same in these articles.
If you come across regular violations of the rules you believe in, the chances are very high that your rules are incorrect.
2. Pareto Principle – Understand what’s important
The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
In terms of GMAT SC, a large proportion of errors comes from a few topics. A ‘mastery over application’ of these topics is ‘essential’ to a good score in SC.
These topics include:
- Subject-Verb Agreement
- Pronoun Number Agreement
- Verb Tenses
- Common modifiers such as relative clauses (that, which), verb-ed (past participle), and verb-ing (present participle) – how they are used, and common placement issues
- Comparisons (Mainly the question – ‘are we comparing two similar things?’)
- Certain other common major issues – countable vs uncountable nouns, punctuation between two independent clauses etc
There are many other grammar and style issues that have appeared in SC questions. If you collect all the errors that have appeared so far in the official SC questions, the list is going to be very long.
And, many of us get lost in remembering the hundreds of different rules and issues.
The way out of this madness is prioritizing.
Your chief objective should be a mastery of the most common topics. Here, mastery is in terms of the application.
Almost everybody knows the rules. Who doesn’t know that the verb needs to agree with the subject!
However, many people fail to spot SV agreement issues in real sentences. We have the knowledge, but we fail to apply. How do we build our ability to apply the knowledge we have? It’s covered in the next point on process.
3. Have a Robust Learning Process
Let’s take it up in a separate section below – How to practice SC Questions.
How to practice SC Questions
The below way to practice SC is based on the objective that our practice should help us build the skills needed to succeed in SC. The skills needed to succeed are given at the beginning of the article.
Before I list out the chief ingredients of how to practice, let me first state a couple of important principles that will underlie our process:
1. Accuracy first, timing later
I cannot overemphasize this point. It is completely foolish to focus on speed or timing when you don’t have the accuracy in place.
Unless you are targeting a sub-V30 score, there is no point in timing yourself before you consistently hit 85-90% accuracy on new questions (comprising a mix of difficulty levels). Many people, from the beginning of their preparation, time themselves.
A parallel situation could be that you start driving at 60-80 miles per hour even though you cannot drive safely at 20-40 miles per hour.
What would that result in? A serious crash.
Exactly that’s what happens to people who prepare this way. Thus, first focus on building accuracy and clarity.
In almost all cases, timing naturally falls into place as a person breaches a certain level of clarity.
2. The process for practicing may not be the same as the process for taking the exam
The reason many people time themselves and solve hard questions from the beginning is that they follow this logic:
Since I’ll eventually need to solve the hard questions within time limits in the exam, I should practice the same way.
That’s junk logic that doesn’t work anywhere. Nowhere do you prepare the same way from the beginning as you eventually need to perform.
For example: if your eventual objective is to give a dance performance, you don’t start with performing all the steps of the dance at the same speed at which you’ll give the performance. Do you?
You start with learning one step at a time. You perform these steps very slowly in the beginning since your initial objective is to perform these individual steps perfectly.
Then, you start performing several steps together, again at a very slow speed since your objective is to first be perfect in your movement.
The speed comes over time as you keep practicing the right steps over and over again.
The process is the same whether you’re learning dance, music, sports, arts, or any academic subject. Your first objective must always be perfection or, in case of academic subjects, clarity and accuracy.
The timing will come over time as you keep practicing the right way.
Just as dancing all over the place without any harmony at a high speed will never make you capable of giving a good dance performance, solving questions within 2 minutes without a thorough understanding will never make you capable of scoring high on GMAT.
The best way to practice sentence correction questions
1. Break down sentences into subject-verb pairs and modifiers
I know of no other way for people to be able to consistently apply grammatical rules in complex sentences and understand the meaning of such sentences than breaking down sentences into their parts.
If you treat a large, complex sentence as a monolith, how will you apply even the basic grammar rules?
For example: If you don’t know which word is going to work as the subject and which word is going to work as the verb for that subject, how will check for the SV agreement? If you don’t understand which elements are parallel in a sentence, how will you check whether they should be parallel?
To know what breaking down sentences mean, kindly check my solutions to the official questions here. All solutions (barring a few exceptions) carry a breakdown of the original sentence in the question.
2. Focus on identifying the exact meaning of the sentences
How does GMAC create harder questions?
Think about it.
By testing on exotic grammar rules that nobody has heard of?
Nope. That wouldn’t make sense since to get a high score on GMAT, you are not expected to be a PhD in grammar.
The right answer to the question is: by increasing the complexity of the structure of the sentence (in which it becomes difficult to apply the same basic grammar rules) and by playing on the nuances of meaning.
Here are two excerpts from the updated introduction to Sentence Correction from OG 2020:
“In this way, the Sentence Correction questions pose some of the most refined and closely targeted reading comprehension tasks in the GMAT exam.” (underlined by me)
“The more difficult questions are not essentially designed to test for knowledge of rules or facts that are harder to learn or that require more technical training. Difficulty often stems from complexity and subtlety among the interconnected parts of the sentence and involves critical application of principles that all astute users of English should understand.”
From my experience, I can say that it’s not very easy to consistently find the exact meaning of the complex sentences without being able to break down the structure of the sentence. Rather, meaning and structure go hand-in-hand.
If you are very clear about the meaning of the sentence, you can easily figure out the structure of the sentence, and if you are clear about the structure of the sentence, you can figure out the exact meaning of the sentence.
3. Find all the errors in all the options
This suggestion flies in the face of process of solving SC questions taught by almost all test prep companies.
Besides, people find themselves naturally opposed to this time-consuming idea.
They reason that once you know an option is wrong, trying to find more errors in that option is plain simple waste of time.
And I agree. In the context of the exam.
Not in the context of the preparation.
And this is where the second principle outlined above comes in: our process for solving questions during practice need not be the same as our process for solving questions during the exam.
Since your objectives are different during the exam and during the preparation – you are not trying to learn but trying to score during the exam and you are trying to learn and not trying to score during the practice – your processes for solving the questions can be different.
While it doesn’t make any sense during the exam to find more errors in an option once you’ve found a deterministic error in it, it makes a lot of sense to look for all the issues in an option during practice so that you can glean out as much learning as possible from every option.
The benefits of finding all the errors in all the options:
A. Significantly increased ability to spot errors or significantly less chances of missing an error
Suppose you follow the traditional approach and reject an error as you soon as you find one error in it. In this way, you’d find 4 errors per question (1 error per incorrect option). Of course, repetitions are included in this figure.
Let’s say that I try to find all the errors in all the options. On an average, there are, let’s say, 2-3 errors per incorrect option.
So, on an average, I’d find 10 errors per question (2.5 errors on average per incorrect option).
Let’s say we both solve 500 SC questions with our respective approaches.
In those 500 questions, you’d find 2000 errors, and I’d find 5000 errors.
Now, think about it. Just in terms of quantity, I am much better prepared than you are in spotting errors.
Rather, my argument is that even if you solve 1250 questions and end up finding 5000 errors, my ability to spot an error will still be higher than yours since I found 5000 errors in a much smaller quantity of text (500 questions vs your 1250 questions).
The chances that I’m going to miss an error are much smaller than your chances.
Quite logically, this higher ability is going to result in a higher accuracy and thus a higher score for me.
B. Significantly enhanced understanding of what is considered correct in English
When you try to find all the errors in all the options, you’ll find yourself, especially in the beginning, marking constructions incorrect that are actually correct.
Think about it. The reason we become confused in the last two options is that we are not sure of the correctness of the correct option.
If we were sure that the construction presented in the correct option is indeed correct, we’d just mark it and move on.
Thus, confusion about errors is not the only source of confusion in SC questions; the confusion about what is correct also plays an important role. We are indeed not sure about many correct constructions.
Thus, when you try to find all the errors in all the options, you’ll end up marking many constructions incorrect that are actually correct.
This is not bad. Rather, this is helpful since once you check the solution and see that what you thought incorrect was actually correct, you’ll build your understanding of what is correct in English.
Thus, you’ll reduce your chances of confusion in the actual exam.
Now, the questions is: even if you try to find all the errors in all the options, how do you verify whether the errors you’ve found are indeed errors.
Generally, solutions given at the end of the official guide are not enough. You need solutions that also list out all the errors in all the options.
You can find such solutions on my website. I’ve created detailed solutions for all the SC questions that have appeared in OG 2017, OG 2018, and OG 2019.
Of course, you can also refer to the replies of the top experts on such questions on GMAT Club. Just remember to avoid reading posts of any other users or experts.
4. Collate and organize your learnings
When we see our mistakes, we tend to think that once we have made such a mistake and seen it, we are going to remember our mistake and thus not repeat them in the future.
Of course, when we are thinking this, our mistake is still fresh in our mind, and there may seem no clear reason why we may forget the mistake soon.
However, if we start paying attention or even just believe in the studies on how memory works, we’ll understand that the chances are very high that we’ll forget our learning just 2-3 days down the line.
And thus, when a question testing a similar concept appears a week later, we may make the same mistake again.
Rather, I say this to my students that if you are scoring below V40 in terms of SC, you are repeating the mistakes.
Thus, it’s extremely important to capture all our learnings, mistakes, and areas of confusion in a single place, for example in an excel file.
While creating and maintaining an error log is very helpful in itself since just the act of writing down our mistakes and areas of confusion can solidify our memory of the same, going through the error log at regular intervals to revise our past mistakes can immensely contribute to our overall clarity.
Besides, when we review our past mistakes regularly, our chances of making the same mistakes again fall considerably. This leads to increased accuracy and thus increased self-confidence.
About the author: A passionate teacher and learner, Chiranjeev Singh is a private GMAT tutor based out of Delhi. CJ (as he is commonly called) is an IIMA Alumnus and has scored 780 on the GMAT (we’ve verified his score from the Pearson VUE site). He follows a skills-based questioning-driven methodology and takes online sessions for students across the world.