We’ve talked a lot about meaning in sentence correction recently and I’ve got another problem along that same theme for you. The problem I chose comes from the new GMATPrep 2.0® (warning: you may not want to read the explanation until after you’ve used the new software yourself, just in case you see the same problem!). This one actually did also show up in the old version of GMATPrep, but I saw it years ago and forgot about it. When I saw it during my 2.0 test last week, I had the same reaction that I did when I first saw the problem about 5 years ago: “I can’t believe they actually did that!”
Here’s the problem. Set your timer for 1 minute 15 seconds and go for it!
* As the former chair of the planning board for 18 consecutive years and a board member for 28 years, Joan Philkill attended more than 400 meetings and reviewed more than 700 rezoning applications.
(A) As the former
(B) The former
(D) She was
(E) As the
Short underline – should be easy right? I received this question as #14 on my test… and I got the first 13 questions right. That should give you an idea of the difficulty level. : )
My first reaction to the original sentence was: hmm, that sounds fine and I don’t see any glaring grammar issues either. My next step, whenever I can’t find anything wrong with the original, is to compare the remaining answers. In this case, the comparison appears easy, because each answer only contains a few words… but such short answers often mean that the issue tested is going to be an obscure one. The shorter the underline, the tougher it is – because you either know the one or two issues being tested, or you don’t. While longer underlines take more time to read, they also give us more opportunities to narrow down the answers.
I noticed that the original sentence started with “as,” so I looked to see whether the other answers changed this in any way (one thing I thought was that they might try to use “like”). I quickly realized that they weren’t focused so much on “what is the right opening word for the subordinate clause” but rather “is this the main clause or a subordinate clause?” (Main clause = main sentence; subordinate clause = extra information or modifier, not the main sentence.)
From my read-through of the original, I was already aware that the main clause is the part beginning “Joan Philkill attended…” As such, the stuff before the comma needs to be a subordinate clause. But I also noticed something else while examining these answers, something that hadn’t occurred to me when I read the original sentence: the last two answer choices dropped the word “former.”
That’s interesting. They dropped the word and didn’t replace it with any synonym or anything else that would have the same meaning. Does that mean that answers D and E must both be wrong? The alternative would be that something was wrong with the original meaning – it was either illogical or ambiguous. And this line of thinking is what led me to realize that some kind of meaning issue is being tested and I’d better figure out what’s going on!
What are the two main options? Answer E is basically the same as A, except it has dropped the word “former,” so let’s compare just those two:
As the former chair of the board, Joan attended lots of meetings.
As the chair of the board, Joan attended lots of meetings.
What’s the difference in meaning between those two sentences? Let’s try a simpler example.
As the former president, I ran the country.
As the president, I ran the country.
When I ran the country, was I the president or the former president? Ah, I see. The above two sentences are the equivalent of:
While I was the former president, I ran the country.
While I was the president, I ran the country.
While actually doing the action, my title was “president.” It was only afterwards that my title changed to “former president” – the person who used to be president. I am the former president now; I was the president while I was running the country. It wouldn’t make sense to say I was the former president while I was running the country.
The same is true for Joan. She is the former chair now – she used to be the chair in the past. But it wouldn’t make sense to say that she was the former chair of the planning board for 18 years, as answer A indicates. That would mean that she once was the chair, but she quit 18 years ago, and for the past 18 years, she has not been the chair of the planning board. Further, it would mean that she attended all those meetings in the 18 years after she was no longer the chair – she attended the meetings while her title was “the former chair.”
Here’s the timeline of Joan’s titles:
board member: 28 years
chair of board: 18 years (presumably included in the 28 years above, though we don’t know exactly how they overlap)
former chair of board: don’t know how long, but occurred after; she could still have been a regular board member during this time or she could have left the board entirely
Wow. So answers A, B, and C are all wrong because it’s illogical to say that she attended all those meetings while she was “the former chair for 18 years.” Alternatively, B and C drop the word “as” at the front, so we can also uncover another meaning issue here.
Former heavy metal rocker, Joan Jett was elected mayor of her hometown.
The modifier at the beginning is now just extra info about this person, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the action in the main clause. The original sentence, however, indicated that she attended these meetings while she was in office, so we’ve lost that meaning.
That leaves us with D and E. What’s the difference between these two? Ah, now we’re getting back to the subordinate clause / main clause issue.
(D) She was chair and a board member, Joan attended more than…
(E) As the chair and a board member, Joan attended more than…
Answer D gives us two main clauses connected by a comma, otherwise known as a run-on sentence. I walked to the store, I twisted my ankle. That’s not an allowed structure.
Answer E gives us a subordinate clause followed by the main clause. As I walked to the store, I twisted my ankle. That’s an allowed structure and it’s the only answer left.
The correct answer is E.
Key Takeaways for Meaning and Short Underlines
(1)Short underlines don’t give us many clues, and any grammar rules tested will often be on the obscure side. If you’re not sure what to do grammatically, make sure you’re examining meaning as well.
(2) Meaning issues come down to two main categories: logic and ambiguity. If something is illogical, don’t pick that choice. Outright grammar errors and illogical meaning are definitely wrong. If something is ambiguous, on the other hand, make a note but leave it until you’ve checked the remaining answers. Ambiguity is more like wordiness in this way – it’s probably wrong, but check the other answers first to make sure.
(3) When in doubt on short underlines, guess even more aggressively than usual. The lack of many differences means that, if we don’t know, we just don’t know. Don’t keep going back and forth between answers – pick and move on.
* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.