Avoid 'Outside Information' on Sentence Correction

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This tip for improving your GMAT score was provided by David Newland at Veritas Prep.

A common mistake students make on critical reasoning especially, but also on reading comprehension, is bringing in outside information or opinions. It is important to work exclusively with the information provided in the argument or passage and not bring in anything additional. On sentence correction, there is no “outside information” as such, but there is an equivalent—and understanding how it is used can dramatically increase your score.

At Veritas Prep, we often speak of how the test writers will “sell the wrong answer” on a sentence correction question. They dress it up in language students find irresistible. They appeal to the “outside knowledge” that students think they have.

Typically this test maker’s trick involves an idiom that students have memorized—and are very comfortable with—that is included in the trap answer and another idiom that is also correct, but less well-known, that is included in the correct answer.

Students embrace the phrasing they want to see and miss the fundamental error in the answer choice. In effect, they have used “outside knowledge” to select the incorrect answer. That “outside knowledge” is the preference for a certain idiom and the incorrect idea that there is only one way to write a particular phrase.

Try the following example from the Veritas Prep Advanced Verbal book:

Immanuel Kant’s writings, while praised by many philosophers for their brilliance and consistency, are characterized by sentences so dense and convoluted as to pose a significant hurdle for many readers interested in his works.

A) so dense and convoluted as to pose
B) so dense and convoluted they posed
C) so dense and convoluted that they posed
D) dense and convoluted enough that they posed
E) dense and convoluted enough as they pose

Answer choice C features the idiom preferred by most test takers: “so x that y.” Because they know this idiom and are comfortable with it, they want to use this as a primary decision point. These test takers allow “outside information”—their preference for a certain phrase—to prevent them from seeing the more useful decision point later in the sentence.

The choice between “pose” and “posed” is a better decision point to use first. This is because it has a clear right answer. Unlike an idiom that might have multiple correct versions, either the past tense or the present tense is correct here, but not both.

The present tense “pose” is correct in this instance because “Immanuel Kant’s writings … are characterized by sentences …,” meaning that the entire sentence is present tense. The sentences currently “pose a significant hurdle for many readers.” Eliminate all three choices that use “posed.” Only choices A and E remain.
Once you have made this deduction, the final choice is a simple one. Choice E is not worded correctly. “Dense and convoluted enough as they pose” is poor grammar.

What about choice A? Is “so dense and convoluted as to pose” acceptable? Students may not like the phrasing “so x as to y,” but in fact this idiom is also correct and choice A is the correct answer.

In sentence correction, the equivalent of “outside information” is believing that there is only one way to word a phrase and using this mistaken knowledge as a primary means of evaluating a sentence. Remember that sentence correction is a process of elimination, and one preferred phrase does not make an answer choice correct. It is better first to use more reliable decision points, such singular/plural, verb tense, and parallelism. Stylistic considerations, such as the preferred way to word a phrase, can be evaluated later if no other more substantial choices are left.

On sentence correction, don’t bring in outside knowledge: after all, what you think you know can hurt you.

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