I’ve got a fascinating (and infuriating!) GMATPrep® problem for you today; this comes from the free problem set included in the new GMATPrep 2.0 version of the software. Try it out (1 minute 15 seconds) and then we’ll talk about it!
* ” Unlike computer skills or other technical skills, there is a disinclination on the part of many people to recognize the degree to which their analytical skills are weak.
“(A) Unlike computer skills or other technical skills, there is a disinclination on the part of many people to recognize the degree to which their analytical skills are weak.
“(B) Unlike computer skills or other technical skills, which they admit they lack, many people are disinclined to recognize that their analytical skills are weak.
“(C) Unlike computer skills or other technical skills, analytical skills bring out a disinclination in many people to recognize that they are weak to a degree.
“(D) Many people, willing to admit that they lack computer skills or other technical skills, are disinclined to recognize that their analytical skills are weak.
“(E) Many people have a disinclination to recognize the weakness of their analytical skills while willing to admit their lack of computer skills or other technical skills.”
I chose this problem because I thought the official explanation fell short; specifically, there are multiple declarations that something is “wordy” or “awkward.” While I agree with those characterizations, they aren’t particularly useful as teaching tools – how can we tell that something is wordy or awkward? There isn’t an absolute way to rule; it’s a judgment call.
Now, I can understand why whoever wrote this explanation struggled to do so; this is an extremely difficult problem to explain. And that’s exactly why I wanted to have a crack at it – I like a challenge. : )
Okay, let’s talk about the problem. My first reaction to the original sentence was: nope, that’s definitely wrong. When you think that, your next thought should be, “Why? Which part, specifically?” This allows you to know that you have a valid reason for eliminating an answer and it also allows you to figure out what you should examine in other answers.
Before you read my next paragraph, answer that question for yourself. What, specifically, doesn’t sound good or doesn’t work in the original sentence?
For me, the language “Unlike X or Y” was a huge trigger. The word “unlike” is a comparison marker: it signals that a comparison is about to be made. When comparing, we have to make sure that we’re comparing apples to apples – that is, similar things. In this sentence, the “X” portion is “computer skills or other technical skills.” After the comma, I’m expecting two things: some reference to another thing that is comparable to skills, and some message that tells me how these things are different. “Unlike, these skills, <some other skills are different>.”
Is that what I’ve got after the comma in the original sentence? Nope. I have the clause “There is a disinclination.” The word “there” isn’t comparable to skills; nor is the word “disinclination.” This is a faulty set-up. Great! I can eliminate answer A.
Next, I scan the remaining answers to see whether I can eliminate any others for the same reason. Try it yourself before you keep reading.
Answers B and C begin with the same structure (“Unlike computer skills or other technical skills”). What do they put after the comma? Answer B has “which they admit they lack. This is not the second half of an apples-to-apples comparison, but it is a modifier that’s referring to the technical skills… so maybe it’s okay. What’s after that? “Many people…” Nope. That’s not an appropriate comparison for “skills,” either, so B must be wrong.
Check out answer C. After the comma, we have “analytical skills” – a perfect apples-to-apples comparison (one type of skill to another type of skill). On this point, C is okay; I’ll leave it in.
Answers D and E change up the structure of the sentence. In D, the “computer… and technical skills” bit is now a modifier and there is no longer a strict comparison marker; the word “unlike” was removed. Answer E also removes the word “unlike.” Instead, it sticks the two halves of the sentence together using the word “while.”
Okay, I have a choice here. I can go back to C, which was structurally much closer to A and B, or I can dive into D and E to deconstruct their structure. Because I already read answer A completely and I’m familiar with that structure, I decided to tackle C next.
As we discussed earlier, the comparison portion in C is correct now. What about the rest of the sentence? The official explanation says simply that the answer is “wordy, awkward, and idiomatically incorrect.” But why is it wordy and awkward?
Actually, I’d argue that there’s a meaning problem here. This sentence specifically says that the analytical skills themselves cause people to not want to admit that they’re weak analytically. Is that why people won’t admit this? That doesn’t even really make sense – the fact that analytical skills exist in the first place doesn’t cause people to want to avoid admitting the weakness. So, yes, the sentence is “awkward,” but that’s specifically because the meaning is odd – it doesn’t make sense. Also, what does “they” refer to? The people? The analytical skills? Both could be called weak – the people are weak in analytical skills and the analytical skills of the people are weak. That also makes the sentence “awkward.” Okay, we have a couple of good reasons now to eliminate answer C.
Now, let’s compare D and E. Both start with the words “many people” but diverge from there. Let’s look at the core of each answer:
“(D) Many people are disinclined to recognize that their analytical skills are weak.
“(E) Many people have a disinclination to recognize the weakness of their analytical skills.”
Both cores are correct. “have a disinclination to” is a little bit more clunky than “are disinclined.” (Spoiler alert! The official explanation says that “have a distinction is wordy” when explaining why E is wrong.) I agree that it’s clunky, but I wouldn’t want to rely 100% on that. That kind of explanation is too vague / open to opinion.
So how did I decide? Based on the other bit – the modifier. In D, the modifier is separated out by commas and placed right after the subject. Who’s willing to admit blah blah blah? The people. These are the same people who later don’t want to recognize that their analytical skills are weak. This modifier is appropriately placed and constructed.
In E, the modifier is at the end and, interestingly, uses the word “while” to introduce the extra information. The word “while” can mean “in the course of,” “at the same time as” or “even though.” While (at the same time as, or in the course of) eating dinner, she nearly fell asleep in her soup. While (even though) she’s lactose intolerant, she eats ice cream all the time. In our sentence, the word “while,” means “even though.”
And here’s where the explanation gets extra tricky – and annoying. The official explanation says that “willing creates an incomplete construction.” But how? And why? I can think of a correct sentence that appears to have the same construction, so why is answer E incomplete? Here’s a sentence that seems to have the same construction:
Many people have a disinclination to admit fault while recognizing that they can’t possibly be in the right all the time.
The –ing word there (recognizing) is just fine. So why can’t I do the same with “willing?”
Look at this:
Many people recognize that they can’t possibly be in the right all the time.
This is correct – I just had to change the word “recognizing” to “recognize,” the appropriate verb form of the same word.
Now, do the same thing with answer E:
Many people… will to admit…? Many people willing to admit?
Er. I can’t do it! Not without introducing a different verb: Many people ARE willing to admit blah blah.
That’s because “willing” is not the standard present participle (-ing) form of some verb, the way “recognizing” is the participle of “to recognize.” If I want to use “willing” in this sentence, I have to say:
Many people have a disinclination to recognize (blah blah) while being willing to admit their lack of (blah blah).
That, of course, sounds terrible too, because the word “being” always sounds awkward when used in this way. It is correct, though, because now we do actually have a participle introducing that “while” portion of the sentence. The word “willing” looked like it should work, because it ended in –ing, but the resemblance is only superficial; it’s not the right kind of word. (It’s actually an adjective, in case you’re curious.) That’s why the explanation says that the sentence is “incomplete” – because there’s no participle after “while.”
The correct answer is D.
Key Takeaways for Comparisons
(1) Comparisons have to compare “apples to apples,” or similar things. Even if you know logically what the sentence is trying to compare, make sure the structure really is apples to apples.
(2) If the original sentence tries to compare two things but fails to do so correctly, the correct answer might remove that formal comparison structure completely (as this problem did). The correct answer no longer has a comparison marker (“unlike”) and instead structures the sentence using modifiers.
(3) We always tell people not to rely strictly on their ears when doing SC, but sometimes you have to. Look how long it took me to explain exactly why E was wrong – you’re almost certainly not going to articulate that to yourself during the test. (I certainly didn’t while doing this problem!) Sometimes, it’s enough to realize that, wait, we can’t write that sentence that way! We’d need to add XYZ (“being” in this case) or we’d need to cut out ABC or whatever it might be.
* GMATPrep® questions courtesy of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of this question does not imply endorsement by GMAC.