Can you Spot the Meaning Error?

Stacey Koprince —  May 15, 2014 — 2 Comments

gmat-sentence-correctionSentence Correction tests grammar, yes, but it also tests meaning. In fact, a decent chunk of grammar actually revolves around meaning in the first place.

Try this GMATPrep® problem from the free exams and then we’ll talk about it.

* “In the mid-1920s the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company was the scene of an intensive series of experiments that would investigate changes in working conditions as to their effects on workers’ performance.

“(A) that would investigate changes in working conditions as to their effects on workers’ performance

“(B) investigating the effects that changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance

“(C) for investigating what the effects on workers’ performance are that changes in working conditions would cause

“(D) that investigated changes in working conditions’ effects on workers’ performance

“(E) to investigate what the effects changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance”

What did you think? I did give away that this problem tests meaning; did you spot any meaning issues?

The first step on SC is to glance at the start of the underline (even before you read the sentence). The underline starts halfway through on the word that. The word that can signal issues with modifiers or with the underlying sentence structure, so keep these possibilities in mind as you move to the next step, reading the sentence.

Did you like the original sentence or did you think there was something wrong with it?

In fact, the original has a meaning issue! We have a starting point. The sentence talks about something that happened nearly 100 years ago, so it doesn’t make sense to say that these experiments would investigate something. The place was the scene of the experiments conducted at that time in the past.

You can use would properly in certain past conditions: She would have eaten the fish if she hadn’t been allergic. If she ate fish, she would have an allergic reaction. The test results showed that feeding her fish would cause an allergic reaction.

You can’t, then, just cross off any other answers that also contain would; you’ll have to read to figure out the meaning.

Answers (B), (D), and (E) all use would, but they don’t say would investigate. Instead, all three talk about what effects changes in working conditions would cause or would have.

This usage is acceptable because the information is conveying a cause-effect relationship: changes cause effects. By definition, the effects have to happen later than the changes. The word would can be used to indicate a “future in the past” meaning, similar to the example The test results showed that feeding her fish would cause an allergic reaction.

Hmm, that starting point allowed the elimination of only one answer, (A). Back to the drawing board. What next?

If you noticed anything else about the original sentence that you didn’t like, try that next. Otherwise, scan the answers vertically to spot differences and tackle one of those differences. Let’s follow the latter path next.

The opening of each answer is as follows:

The Hawthorne Works was the scene of a series of experiments…

(A) that would investigate

(B) investigating

(C) for investigating

(D) that investigated

(E) to investigate

Idiom time. It’s acceptable to say a series of experiments that did something or a series of experiments investigating something.

It isn’t acceptable to say a series of experiments for investigating something. If you wanted to convey that kind of meaning, you’d need to say something similar to a series of experiments designed to investigate something. You can also drop the word designed and go straight into to investigate.

Okay, (A) and (C) down, three to go. What next?

Here’s where it gets a bit messy. The remaining portions of the choices differ enough that you can’t compare a single word or a couple of words. Now you have to look at an entire chunk of each sentence.

Here are (B), (D), and (E) again. What are these things trying to say?

“(B) investigating the effects that changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance

“(D) that investigated changes in working conditions’ effects on workers’ performance

“(E) to investigate what the effects changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance”

Something like: when there were changes in working conditions, what effects would there be on performance?

Do all three options convey this logically and unambiguously?

As it turns out, no. Take a look at answer (D). Strip out the modifiers:

“(D) that investigated changes in working conditions’ effects on workers’ performance”

(D) that investigated changes in effects on performance

This choice doesn’t talk about changes in the conditions. It talks about changes in the effects. It doesn’t make any sense to jump straight to the effects—you change the input (conditions) to see how the output then changes. Very tricky!

Answers (B) and (E) are very close. The only differences are towards the beginning.

“(B) investigating the effects that changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance

“(E) to investigate what the effects changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance”

This last one is the trickiest of all. Consider these two examples:

New York was the scene of a study investigating the theft.

New York was the scene of a study to investigate what the theft.

You probably knew immediately that the second sentence is wrong. Why? Once you toss in the word what, you need a clause (a verb) to go with theft: New York was the scene of a study to investigate what the theft then led to in future.

Choice (E) uses the word what, but this choice doesn’t make the effects portion a clause. The verb would have applies to changes. You could say something like “to investigate what the effects on workers’ performance are when there are changes in working conditions.” That sentence is a little clunky, but it does contain the necessary verb. (Notice that answer (C) also uses the word what and that one does talk about what the effects are.)

That takes us down to one answer, (B). This answer uses an acceptable idiom (a series of experiments investigating…) and conveys the appropriate meaning (they were investigating the effects that resulted from changes in working conditions).

In my opinion, the test writers purposely used would investigate incorrectly in (A) hoping that people would then automatically eliminate other answers because they also use what seems to be a similar, incorrect verb structure. Conveniently, the correct answer contains would have, so anyone doing this will have just crossed off the correct answer. That leaves answer (D), which seems just fine if you don’t notice that the meaning is illogical (and that choice is written confusingly enough that it would be easy to overlook the meaning issue).

The correct answer is (B).

Key Takeaways: Meaning in SC

(1) Always go for the low-hanging fruit first: anything that you know how to tackle easily and confidently. This will help you to narrow down the answers before you have to get to the toughest stuff, making it easier (though not easy!) for you to try to strip out the trickiest traps.

(2) When answers change as much as the ones in this example do, you are probably looking at a Structure, Modifier, Meaning, or Parallelism issue (or multiple issues intertwined). You’ll likely have to compare entire chunks of the answers, not just a few words at a time.

(3) When you do have to compare chunks, first get the meaning straight in your head: what is the sentence actually trying to convey? Be on the lookout for choices that twist the meaning in an illogical or ambiguous way; you can cross these off.

Learn more about GMAT Sentence Correction in the next part of this series: Can you Spot the Meaning Error? (Part 2).

Last time, we tried a problem that tested meaning; we also discussed how to compare entire chunks of the answer choices. Today, we’re going to combine those two things into a new skill.

* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.

 

Stacey Koprince

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Stacey Koprince is an Instructor and Trainer as well as the Director of Online Community for Manhattan Prep. She also co-manages the company's GMAT curriculum and product line. She has been teaching various standardized tests for more than fifteen years and her entire teaching philosophy can be summed up in five words: teaching students how to think.

2 responses to Can you Spot the Meaning Error?

  1. ramendra.awesome May 18, 2014 at 6:40 am

    Hello Stacey,

    Greetings!

    Thanks for elaborating on the meaning issue in such a detailed way. However, I have a doubt in the question discussed above. I hope, it is fine to ask questions here.

    Quoting you from above:
    “Choice (E) uses the word what, but this choice doesn’t make the effects portion a clause. The verb would have applies to changes.”

    I could not find any issue with the use of what. Please help me understand if the below sentence is grammatically incorrect:

    I was appointed the head of the FWA committee to investigate what effect the poison would have on fish.

    If this sentence is correct as it is written right now, option E should also be correct, though the position of article ‘the’ is slightly problematic in option E.

    Please help me understand gaps in my understanding. Thank you very much in advance!

  2. Hi Stacey,
    I selected D.

    In the explanation for D you say “Strip out the modifiers”. Can this be applied to all other questions with possessive modifiers?
    I did not try to remove the modifiers. If we don’t strip out modifiers, sentence appears to convey the correct meaning.

    Can you please give me another example where we can strip out possessive modifiers to identify a meaning error.

    Thanks for your help in advance!

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