The Finer Points of GMAT Grammar
Different From vs. Different Than“Americans say ‘Scuba-diving is different from snorkeling,’ the British sometimes say ‘different to,’ and those who don’t know any better say ‘different than.’”
-Paul Brians, linguistic pundit
There are many stock phrases in American English that sound fine to the casual ear but just don’t pass muster on the GMAT. “Different than” is one of them. We use "than" to indicate comparison: taller than, no less talented than, smaller than, greater than, much better than. It implies a quantitative comparison: more X, less Y.
But sometimes we cannot make a quantitative comparison. Sometimes all we are doing is making a distinction: not more or less, just something else. The phrase “different from” signifies this distinction. For example, “Red is different from blue.” Ok, so now we know that red and blue are not the same. But is red brighter than blue? More intense than blue? Who knows? All we can glean from “different from” is “not the same as.” The sentence “Red is different than blue” nonsensically tries to incorporate some quantitative comparison into what is essentially a qualitative distinction. Therefore, on the GMAT, “different than” is always wrong when comparing two nouns.
The only proper use of “different than” on the GMAT is when the sentence compares a noun and a clause. For example, “The Manhattan skyline is different than it was twenty years ago.” Here, we are comparing the Manhattan skyline and the clause “it was twenty years ago.” Though perfectly acceptable, the sentence can still be reworked to avoid “different than”: “The Manhattan skyline is different from what it was twenty years ago.” Now we are once again comparing two nouns: the Manhattan skyline and “what it was twenty years ago.” Don’t worry – the GMAT will not ask you to choose between the two equally correct sentences.
Bottom line: when you see “different” in Sentence Correction, you must ask yourself whether the comparison is between two nouns or between a noun and a clause. If the comparison is between two nouns, then you better look for an answer choice without the phrase “different than.”
Does the GMAT always adhere so strictly to the rules of Standard Written English? Stay tuned for part 2 in next week’s GMATTERS, when we elaborate.
Such As vs. LikeIn last week's edition, we saw that "different from" is correct and "different than" is incorrect. This is not the only instance when GMAT English diverges from what one hears or, increasingly, reads in daily American life
Another such instance is the difference between "like" and "such as": in GMAT Sentence Correction, such as is used to introduce examples, while "like" indicates only similarity and cannot be used for examples at all. Let's take a look at the following sentences:
1) I enjoy playing sports such as football and baseball.
2) I enjoy playing sports like football and baseball.
In the first sentence, we know that football and baseball are specific examples of sports the author enjoys. In the second sentence, however, all we can glean is that the author enjoys sports that are similar to football and baseball (rugby and cricket perhaps?). Whether either sentence is correct depends on the context. If football and baseball are meant as specific examples, sentence 2 is incorrect because "like" does not introduce examples.
This rule is becoming increasingly obsolete in modern American English, but it still must be followed in GMAT Sentence Correction problems.
In fact, these days this rule is so nitpicky that even the GMAT writers themselves sometimes abandon it in other GMAT question types!
For instance, Critical Reasoning Problem #59 from The Official Guide For GMAT Review (a book of past GMAT problems published be ETS) reads as follows:
Certain messenger molecules fight damage to the lungs from noxious air by telling the muscle cells encircling the lungs' airways to contract. This partially seals off the lungs. An asthma attack occurs when the messenger molecules are activated unnecessarily, in response to harmless things like pollen or household dust. (p513, The Official Guide for GMAT Review, 10th Edition)
Take a closer look at that last phrase: "In response to harmless things LIKE pollen or household dust." This is unacceptable usage! Pollen and household dust are examples of things that activate an asthma attack. You should now be able to use the information above to perform your own sentence correction on this GMAT Critical Reasoning problem!
So what should one do in the presence of such glaring inconsistencies on the GMAT itself? Or, to put the question another way: How should one balance the rules of Standard Written English with accepted norms of spoken English? Can you ever trust your ear?
Check in next week GMATTERS for part 3, when we discuss playing it by ear!
Playing it by EarIn the first two installments of this month's GMATTERS series, we discussed two examples of how the GMAT tests your knowledge of the rules of Standard Written English. These examples illustrated that what we hear in spoken English is not always correct, begging the question: Can you ever trust your ear on the GMAT? A good relationship with your ear is essential for success in Sentence Correction.
In fact, sometimes only your ear can help you tell right from wrong. A case in point is idioms, as they follow no rules; they are what they are and either you know them or you don't. For example, what rule of grammar dictates that "to prefer A to B" is correct while "to prefer A over B" is not? There is no logic behind the distinction, just linguistic happenstance.
Another case in point is subject-verb agreement: once you have stripped a sentence to its bare-bones structure, you cannot miss a subject-verb mismatch. No one would fail to notice that "I is happy" is wrong. It is only when the GMAT inserts a filler clause -- "I, who blah blah blah, is happy" -- that you may get confused. Finally, another case in point is style: when a sentence offends the ear with awkward language, it is usually faulty. Trust your instincts.
However, be cautious: sometimes your ear is actually your enemy. This is especially true for those who speak American English as a first language. Spoken American English is notoriously relaxed in its adherence to rules of grammar. Many things that Americans say may sound fine but are actually incorrect. A native ear often responds to the familiarity and not to the grammar.
For example, if you heard "Everyone should use their best judgment," you probably would not think twice about it. It sounds natural. Yet on the GMAT this is wrong – it should be "Everyone should use his (or her) best judgment." How many times have you seen "10 items or less" in the supermarket? Did you ever realize that this phrase was incorrect? Items are countable and the phrase should therefore be "10 items or fewer."
Another common misstep is to refer to singular companies as "they" (as in "Company X manages monthly payroll for us and we are pretty happy with them"), yet ETS frowns on this usage. Notice that "manages" is singular, yet the author still refers to the company as "them".
So study idioms and grammar and listen carefully to what people say. You'll be surprised how many mistakes you'll find once you pay attention.
Ultimately, then, is your ear your friend or your enemy on GMAT Sentence Correction? It all depends on how well-trained an ear it is!
Speaking of training – stay tuned for next week's bonus tip, the final installment in this series. You will learn about an intriguing grammatical issue that has most probably kept you awake at night for months.
Check in next week GMATTERS for part 4, when we discuss (drum roll, please...) The difference between "which" and "that."
Which vs. That:To conclude this month's series on the finer points of GMAT grammar we delve into the difference between "which" and "that."
"Which" and "that" are known as "relative pronouns." The term derives from the role the words play in relating parts of a sentence. Compare the following sentences:
(1) Walk on the left side of the street until you reach the third house that is red.
(2) Walk on the left side of the street until you reach the third house, which is red.
Do the two sentences above lead you to the same house? Not necessarily.
The first sentence leads you to the third RED house on the left side of the street. This may be the third house on the left side of the street (if the first two are also red) or it may be the eighth house on the left side of the street, or the tenth house, etc.
The second sentence always leads you to the THIRD house on the left house on the street. This house happens to be red.
Notice that the first sentence employs the word "that" to indicate that the color RED is essential to identifying the house. The second sentence uses "which" to introduce a clause containing information that is NOT necessary to identify the house.
So, you use "that" when the information that follows is needed to identify the subject of the main clause and you use "which" when the information that follows is NOT needed to identify the subject of the main clause.
Now when you see sentences containing "which" or "that" in Sentence Correction, you will be equipped to handle them!
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