Every correct answer choice on GMAT Sentence Correction questions produces a sentence with a clear and unambiguous meaning. It’s hard to overstate the centrality of this aspect to the Sentence Correction “game.” Here is a short excerpt from the introduction to Sentence Correction in the GMAT Official Guide:
In sincere, straightforwardly informative writing – although not in all advertising, entertainment, and poetry – one should minimize ambiguity, yet in the end every sentence is at least somewhat open to multiple interpretations. Because one can never absolutely eliminate the risk of unintended interpretations, [correct] Sentence Correction answers should minimize that risk relative to the context, setting, and ordinary assumptions about the intent of the writer.
Wise writers operate with this assumption: if there is any possible way for my sentences to be misconstrued, they will be. The answer choices you select on Sentence Correction should produce sentences with the level of clarity you see in legal documents – or, as I often say when teaching, the level of clarity you would expect in instructions for disarming a bomb. Leave no room for alternative interpretations.
GMAT Sentence Correction: Types of Pronouns
When clarity is paramount, pronouns can be dangerous. There are three kinds of pronouns that could lead to ambiguity of meaning. When any of these pronouns are used, it must be abundantly clear to whom or to what they refer.
Be on the lookout for the standard personal pronouns it, its, they, and their. What is it? Who are they? Even if a rational reader could infer the referent of a pronoun, the sentence must be written so that a person couldn’t construe its meaning even if they tried. When teaching, I often caution against answer choices that include a “stray they.”
Also take care with the relative pronouns which, who, and whose. Any of these words should refer to a noun that was just mentioned. When the most recently mentioned noun is not intended to be the referent of a relative pronoun, look for a better answer choice.
Finally, be skeptical of the demonstrative pronouns this, that, these, and those. What is this? What are those? Make sure that a sentence never has two nouns competing to be the referent of any of these pronouns. A demonstrative that is “bald” or used in isolation is especially risky. It’s much clearer to say “these pretzels” than just “these.” It’s much clearer to say “those shoes” than just “those.”
Let’s try out an official GMAT question involving ambiguity of meaning
Many population studies have linked a high-salt diet to high rates of hypertension and shown that in societies where they consume little salt, their blood pressure typically does not rise with age.
(A) shown that in societies where they consume little salt, their
(B) shown that in societies where they have consumed little salt, their
(C) shown that in societies where little salt is consumed
(D) showing that in societies where little salt is consumed
(E) showing that in societies where they consume little salt, their
The uses of they and their in this sentence should trigger your “vague pronoun” alarm. Of course, we know that these pronouns refer to the members of the societies where little salt is consumed, but these members weren’t mentioned in the sentence! A pronoun can never “float” in a sentence without being tied to a noun that is explicitly present there. If the pronouns they and their refer to the members of societies where little salt is consumed, we need to see that language somewhere.
. . . shown that in societies whose members consume little salt, their . . .
Even this is too vague, because the clause before their has two plural nouns: members and societies. The better option is to flip the clause to the passive voice, as correct answer choice C does.
Here’s another official GMAT sentence correction problem
Dinosaur tracks show them walking with their feet directly under their bodies, like mammals and birds, not extended out to the side in the manner of modern reptiles.
(A) Dinosaur tracks show them walking with their feet directly under their bodies, like
(B) Dinosaur tracks show that they walked with their feet directly under their bodies, as do
(C) Dinosaurs left tracks that showed them walking with their feet directly under their bodies, like
(D) The tracks that dinosaurs left show that they walked with their feet directly under their bodies, as do
(E) In they tracks they left, dinosaurs are shown walking with their feet under their bodies, like
An apparent problem with the given sentence is the present-tense form of the verb walking. Dinosaur tracks cannot “show them walking,” because dinosaurs are not walking anymore. The tracks must instead show that they walked.
This leaves only answer choices B and D. Answer B might sound fine, but it is incorrect. Ask yourself what noun is being replaced by the pronoun they. The answer is dinosaurs: Dinosaur tracks show that dinosaurs walked with their feet directly under their bodies. Of course, this sounds redundant and silly. But replacing dinosaurs with they isn’t allowed, because the word dinosaurs doesn’t appear anywhere else in the sentence!
Remember, the noun that a pronoun stands in for must explicitly appear somewhere in the sentence – it cannot be inferred. The singular dinosaur at the beginning of the sentence is actually functioning as an adjective modifying tracks, and it’s singular anyway, not plural. So it can’t properly function as the antecedent of the pronoun they.
The only option is answer choice D. It might sound almost awkwardly clear and specific, but this is the level of clarity we’re looking for.
Here’s one with the demonstrative pronoun this
According to the laws of this nation, individuals are minors until they reach the age of eighteen, although this is less in some countries and more in others.
(A) although this is less in some countries and more in others.
(B) but this age is lower in some countries; higher in others.
(C) although in some countries, it is lower and in others it is higher.
(D) although it is less than that in some countries and more than that in others.
(E) but the relevant age is lower in some countries and higher in others.
Of course we can tell what each of these options is trying to say, but the demonstrative pronoun this is simply too vague. Using it instead, as answer choices C and D do, is no better. Answer B uses a semicolon incorrectly, but its use of this age almost sounds specific enough. The problem is that the referent of the phrase this age can only be “the age of eighteen.” Of course, it is nonsensical to say that the age of eighteen is lower in some countries and higher in others. The sentence is trying to say that the age at which a person ceases to be legally a minor is lower (than eighteen) in some countries and higher (than eighteen) in other countries.
Answer choice E – the correct answer – does this less redundantly and less laboriously by using the phrase the relevant age. It achieves conciseness (the term used in the Official Guide, although I prefer concision) without sacrificing clarity.
Here’s one more GMAT sentence correction problem involving a relative pronoun
Next month, state wildlife officials are scheduled to take over the job of increasing the wolf population in the federally designated recovery area, the number of which will however ultimately be dictated by the number of prey in the area.
(A) area, the number of which will however
(B) area; the size of the population, however, will
(C) area, however the number of wolves will
(D) area; the number of which will, however,
(E) area, when the size of the population will, however,
The problem with the use of which in the given sentence is that while it is obviously meant to refer to wolves, the last noun mentioned was the federally designated recovery area. This makes the sentence confusing and incorrect. By this reasoning, answer choice D is ruled out as well.
Choice C comes close, but however isn’t quite the right contraction to use in this context. It might work like this:
area; however, the number of wolves will
But it doesn’t work with the punctuation used in answer choice C. The use of when in choice E is even less appropriate. The correct answer choice is B.
GMAT Sentence Correction: The use of semicolons
Let’s talk about semicolons while we have them in front of us. The use of a semicolon is appropriate for conveying a close relationship between two complete “sentences.” I put “sentences” in quotes because once the semicolon is used, we have one sentence, not two. But a semicolon is only correct where it would also be correct to insert a period and begin a new sentence.
Next month, state wildlife officials are scheduled to take over the job of increasing the wolf population in the federally designated recovery area. The size of the population, however, will ultimately be dictated by the number of prey in the area.
This would be just as correct as the semicolon version presented in answer choice B. But the semicolon is preferable because it reveals the relatedness of the two “sentences.” If the clause on either side of the semicolon is not a complete sentence – lacking a main subject or a main verb – then the semicolon is unacceptable. This is another reason to throw our answer choice D in the problem above.
Next month, state wildlife officials are scheduled to take over the job of increasing the wolf population in the federally designated recovery area; the number of which will, however, ultimately be dictated by the number of prey in the area.
In this version, the clause after the semicolon could not be a complete sentence on its own. Let’s see how that would look:
The number of which will, however, ultimately be dictated by the number of prey in the area.
The number of what, exactly? This “sentence” lacks a main subject, having no noun that links to the relative pronoun which. This being the case, the use of the semicolon is unacceptable. Bottom line: a semicolon can only be used where a period (followed by a capital letter to start the new sentence) would be grammatically correct.
With practice, your “vagueness alarm” will become more sensitive. Handle those pronouns with care!
To learn more about another common error, check out our next article on “Common Sentence Correction Errors: Meaning Mistakes.”
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Contributor: Elijah Mize (Apex GMAT Instructor)