You might have seen GMAT idiom lists in prep materials or heard students talk about memorizing idioms for the GMAT. But how are idioms actually tested on the GMAT? How much do they really matter? And how can you familiarize yourself with them before the exam?
In this article, I’ll go over what an idiom means in the context of the GMAT, how idioms are tested on the exam, and top tips for learning common idiomatic expressions, including how to create effective GMAT idiom flashcards. In addition, I’ll provide you with a GMAT idioms list of the 93 most common GMAT idiomatic expressions and examples of each one.
What Are GMAT Idioms?
An idiom is a common expression or grammatical structure in English. You might hear idioms described elsewhere as a “saying”—for example, “as easy as pie”—but on the GMAT, you won’t see these as often. Instead, you’ll encounter more everyday constructions and have to decide which one is correct in English.
For example, which one of these sentences is correctly phrased?
Henry graduated from college.
Henry graduated of college.
The first one is correct: You don’t graduate “of” school. You graduate “from” school. There’s no special grammatical reason that this is the case, other than that that’s simply the way we talk about graduation in English (using the preposition “from” rather than the preposition “of,” that is). This is an example of how you’ll encounter idioms on the GMAT: There’s no specific grammar rule to follow, but an idiomatic expression will need to be corrected simply because it’s not used in English.
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So, how much do GMAT idioms matter for the test? This is a common question for students, and the answer isn’t black or white. If you’re a verbal whiz and used to reading high-quality materials, you probably won’t need to spend too much time on GMAT idioms, as you’re likely to know most of them already.
But if you’re a non-native English speaker or tend to have trouble with the verbal section, memorizing idioms might be more important for you to do. If you notice when you take practice tests early on in your prep that you’re missing incorrectly phrased idioms, you should devote additional study time to memorizing and practicing with common GMAT idioms.
No matter what, you should familiarize yourself with the most common idioms that you’re likely to see when you take the GMAT. As you go over the list later in this article, take note of any idioms that seem unfamiliar to you so you can memorize them. While you can’t memorize specific rules to prepare for idioms on the GMAT, the good news is that many of them do tend to show up on the exam over and over.
How Idioms Are Tested On the GMAT
We know now what a GMAT idiom is, but how will you be tested on them?
Idioms are tested in sentence correction questions in the GMAT verbal section. Sentence correction questions will show you a sentence that is partially underlined, asking you to choose between four rewritten replacements for the underlined portion (answer choices B through E) or leaving the sentence as is (answer choice A).
Sentence correction questions usually have more than one error. In idiom questions, often, there will be both an incorrectly used idiom in the given sentence and a broken grammar rule. One answer option may correct the sentence’s grammar, but still use the idiom incorrectly.
The right answer choice will correct both the grammar of the sentence and the incorrectly used idiom. For more information on the grammar rules you should know for GMAT sentence correction questions, go to our article on the 6 essential GMAT grammar rules.
So, what exactly do I mean by an “incorrectly used idiom?” There are three main errors you’re likely to encounter on GMAT idiom questions. Let’s walk through an example of each one.
#1: Preposition Usage
As in the “of/from” example in the prior section, many idiomatic expressions you see on the GMAT will be incorrect because they use the wrong preposition. Prepositions are words that show a relationship between a pronoun or noun and another part of a sentence. They include words like “of,” “to,” “for,” and “with,” as well as many words that indicate direction or location (“above,” “under,” and “below,” for example).
Idioms often involve the correct use of a specific preposition. On the GMAT, you might see those prepositions being used incorrectly.
Take a look at this example.
While larger banks can afford to maintain their own data-processing operations, many smaller regional and community banks are finding that the cost associated with upgrading data-processing equipment and with the development and maintenance of new products and technical staff are prohibitive.
- A) cost associated with
- B) costs associated with
- C) costs arising from
- D) cost of
- E) costs of
As in many sentence correction questions, there are two errors at play here: an idiomatic issue and a subject-verb agreement error. The subject of the verb “are” in the sentence is “cost(s).” Since “are” is the plural form of the verb “to be,” it needs to be preceded by a plural subject, so “costs” is correct rather than “cost.” This means that answer choices A and D can immediately be eliminated.
Now that we’ve narrowed the answer choices down to B, C, and E, we have to take a look at the idiomatic errors. “Associated with” is the correct idiom, while “arising from” and “of” don’t make sense in context, so answer choices C and E can be eliminated. Also, we need to match up the correct prepositions with one another: the “with” after “associated” needs to be followed by another “with.” “From” and “of” don’t match up with the first “with.”
One significant clue is the second use of “with” later in the sentence; “with” should be paired with “with,” rather than mixing prepositions (“of” and “with” or “from” and “with”). Thus, answer choice B is both grammatically and idiomatically correct.
Correlatives are words that work together to serve a single function in a sentence, though they might be separated from each other within the sentence. You can think of these words as “married pairs.” Some examples are “both/and,” “either/or,” and “neither/nor.”
On the GMAT, many idiom errors involve correlatives being used incorrectly. Let’s take a look at an example.
A recording system was so secretly installed and operated in the Kennedy Oval Office that even Theodore C. Sorensen, the White House counsel, did not know it existed.
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- A) A recording system was so secretly installed and operated in the Kennedy Oval Office that
- B) So secret was a recording system installation and operation in the Kennedy Oval Office
- C) It was so secret that a recording system was installed and operated in the Kennedy Oval Office
- D) A recording system that was so secretly installed and operated in the Kennedy Oval Office
- E) Installed and operated so secretly in the Kennedy Oval Office was a recording system that
The correct correlative in the context of this sentence is “so x that y” (see the idioms list below).
Answer choice B doesn’t pair “so” with “that,” and neither does answer choice D, so those two options can be immediately eliminated on the basis of idiomatic errors.
Answer choices C and E are illogically constructed.
In answer choice C, “it” is an ambiguous pronoun; we don’t know what “it” is referring to, so even though “so/that” is used in the sentence, the pronoun usage makes it the incorrect choice.
In answer choice E, the word order makes the sentence illogical; starting with “installed and operated” doesn’t make sense, as the subject of the sentence is “a recording system.”
Answer choice A, by contrast, starts with the correct subject (“a recording system”) and also includes the correct correlative construction (“so x that y”), so it’s the right option.
#3: Forms of Comparison
In English, there are certain rules about how we compare things to each other and which words we use to do so. For example, take a look at these three sentences. Which one is correct?
Between the two candidates, she was the better one.
Among the two candidates, she was the better one.
The first sentence is the correct one. When we compare two items (in this case, two candidates), we use the word “between” rather than “among.” So sentence #2 is incorrect because it uses “among” to refer to a comparison of two candidates.
The first sentence correctly uses “between” to compare two candidates, making it the correctly phrased one.
So now that we’ve selected “between” over “among” to compare two candidates, let’s go over another potential idiomatic error that you might encounter in comparison questions.
Between the two candidates, she was the better one.
Between the two candidates, she was the best one.
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Superlatives (words like “best” and “worst”) are used when three or more items are compared. When there’s a comparison between only two items, “better” or “worse” would be correct. So sentence #1 is correct in this regard, using “better” to compare the two candidates.
Idiom errors on the GMAT may make comparisons using incorrect phrasing. Let’s look at an example.
The financial crash of October 1987 demonstrated that the world’s capital markets are integrated more closely than never before and events in one part of the global village may be transmitted to the rest of the village—almost instantaneously.
- A) integrated more closely than never before
- B) closely integrated more than ever before so
- C) more closely integrated as never before while
- D) more closely integrated than ever before and that
- E) more than ever before closely integrated as
We can tell this sentence might include an idiomatic comparison error because of the clue word “more.” The correct idiom to use in this comparison is “more x than ever,” not “more than never.” So we can eliminate answer choices A and C immediately.
Next, we can eliminate answer choices B and E, which include the correct phrasing (“more than ever”) but in the wrong order. “Closely integrated,” which is what’s happening “more than ever before,” comes before the idiom in answer choice B and after the idiom in answer choice E.
Answer choice C contains the correct idiomatic expression with the words in the correct order; “closely integrated” (x) comes after “more” and before “than ever.”
GMAT Idiom List: 93 Most Common GMAT Idioms
It’s important to know not only what idioms are likely to show up on the GMAT, but also how to use them correctly. Here’s a handy GMAT idioms list, containing 93 of the most common GMAT idioms and an example sentence for each one.
|A debate over||A debate over the election results ensued.|
|A means to||This job is only a means to an end for him.|
|A responsibility to||The teacher has a responsibility to keep the children safe.|
|A result of||The consequence is a result of your behavior.|
|Ability to||He doesn’t have the ability to make better choices right now.|
|Act as||While Dr. Martinez was at a conference, Dr. Johnson acted as the interim head surgeon.|
|Act like||Stop acting like a child.|
|Agree on||The team agreed on a solution.|
|Agree to||When the police arrived, he agreed to a search.|
|Agree with||He agreed with the sergeant’s findings.|
|Aid in||The village needed aid in harvesting the season’s crops.|
|Allow for||My work schedule doesn’t allow for many breaks.|
|Appeal to||The contract appealed to my sense of order.|
|Are in danger of||If Maria doesn’t pass the class, she is in danger of being placed on academic probation.|
|As/as||I am as successful as he is.|
|Ask for||My committee asked for my dissertation paperwork.|
|Associate with||I associate the smell of cinnamon with the holiday season.|
|Attend to (someone)||He attended to his sick wife.|
|Attribute x to y/x is attributed to y||He attributes his depression to a death in the family.
Type 2 diabetes is sometimes attributed to obesity.
|Base on||We based our conclusions on the results of three peer-reviewed studies.|
|Believe x to be y||The judge did not believe the evidence to be sufficient.|
|Between…and||For her major, she has to choose between biology and chemistry.|
|Both x and y||Both my advisor and my professor will be at the meeting.|
|Centers on||The discussion centered on the film that we watched together.|
|Composed of||The organization is composed of elected officials.|
|Concerned with||Jason doesn’t concern himself with this matter.|
|Conform to||He refuses to conform to social norms.|
|Consider x y (no “to be”)||RIGHT: I consider Mark my friend.
WRONG: I consider Mark to be my friend.
|Contend with||My love for my daughter doesn’t content with my love for my son.|
|Created with||The playwright wrote the play with the help of community members.|
|Credit to||I credit my success to my mentors.|
|Decide on||It’s difficult to decide on a course schedule when there are so many classes available.|
|Delighted to||He told us that he would be delighted to assist us.|
|Depends on whether x||The success of the contract depends on whether we are able to compromise or not.|
|Depicted as||In the media, she was depicted as a villain.|
|Different from||He is very different from his siblings.|
|Disclose to||He disclosed his complicated history to the counselor.|
|Distinguish x from y||It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish temporary grief from clinical depression.|
|Distinguish between x and y||Toddlers start to learn to distinguish between right and wrong.|
|Doubt that||I doubt that he’ll actually call back today.|
|Dwindle away||We watched as our time dwindled away to nothing.|
|Either/or, neither/nor||Either Dr. Smith or Dr. Cortes will lead the discussion.
Neither an apology nor a letter will be sufficient.
|Elect as||She was elected as the club’s vice president.|
|Elect to||The voters elected him to office.|
|Enable to||My health insurance enables me to choose the proper specialist.|
|Essential to||Water is essential to life.|
|Estimate to be||The average lifespan of a black lab is estimated to be 14 years.|
|Fascinated by||My daughter was fascinated by the butterfly garden.|
|Further (for degree); Farther (for distance)||She ran farther than I did.
We tried to contain the spill to avoid further destruction.
|In contrast to||In contrast to her earlier self, Mary is now outgoing and exuberant.|
|In contrast with x, y||In contrast with Annie, David waits until the last minute to start writing his papers.|
|In the (morning, afternoon, evening)||The plane is leaving in the morning.|
|Independent from||Teenagers want to be independent from their parents.|
|Independent of||That’s my personal opinion, independent of any media influence.|
|Indicate that||The results indicated that our hypothesis was correct.|
|Indicate to||My boss indicated to me that he was displeased.|
|Indifferent towards||No matter how hard I try, I can’t be indifferent towards her.|
|Invest in||They were both invested in the relationship, so they got married.|
|Invest with||The judge is invested with the authority to approve of the will.|
|Just as…so too||Just as exercise can lead to weight loss, so too can a healthy diet.|
|Modeled after||We modeled the curriculum after Montessori educational materials.|
|Native of||She is a native of Spain.|
|Native to||This animal is native to Australia.|
|Necessary to||CPS deemed it necessary to remove the child from the home.|
|Not only/but also||The exam is not only difficult but is also lengthy.|
|Not so much/as||I was not sleepy so much as exasperated.|
|Originate from||The ritual originates from an ancient Nordic tradition.|
|Originate in||The cancer originated in her lungs.|
|Originate with||The idea originated with my brainstorming group.|
|Potential to||Though he is struggling, he has the potential to improve.|
|Prefer x to y||I prefer classic literature to contemporary works.|
|Prohibit x from y||The school cannot prohibit the student from writing a controversial paper.|
|Range from x to y||The kids range in age from 10 to 17.|
|Refer to||I was referred to a specialist after my appointment.|
|Regard as||We regard him as part of the family.|
|Require that x be y||The group requires that participants be attentive.|
|Required from||Our HR department doesn’t require that documentation from employees.|
|Required to||He is required to submit to a drug test as a condition of his parole.|
|Responsible for||He is not responsible for the child’s welfare.|
|Resulting in||Our collective stress ultimately resulted in a family fight.|
|Rival in||The massive tome rivaled War and Peace in length.|
|Sacrifice for||Don’t sacrifice your personal life for your career.|
|Sacrifice to||I sacrificed a great deal of time and energy to that demanding job.|
|Sequence of||The sequence of events that unfolded shocked all of us.|
|So x as to be y||He was so quiet as to be nearly unintelligible.|
|So x that y||It was so cold that school was cancelled.|
|Speak about||We need to speak about the incident.|
|Speak from||I speak from experience when I say that you should hire an attorney when filing a claim.|
|Subscribe to||I don’t subscribe to that theory.|
|Targeted…at||All of our criticism was targeted at the committee head.|
|To sacrifice x for y||We weren’t willing to sacrifice family time for church.|
|Unlike x, y||Unlike the flu, allergies are not contagious.|
|X expected to y||Taxes for the rich are expected to decrease next season.|
3 Expert Tips for Learning GMAT Idioms
Now that you have an idea of how idioms are tested on the GMAT and what kinds of idioms will show up on the exam, let’s go over three expert tips on how you can best familiarize yourself with them.
#1: Make GMAT Idiom Flashcards
Using the above GMAT idioms list, make flashcards to use during your prep. As you complete practice tests, you should also note any additional idiomatic expressions you aren’t familiar with and add GMAT idiom flashcards that include them. You should incorporate flashcards into your regular GMAT idioms practice.
In addition to your own GMAT idiom list, you can also use pre-made GMAT idiom flashcards, such as those available on the Magoosh GMAT Idioms app. The app divides common GMAT idioms into “basic” (more common) and “advanced” (less common) categories and can be used to quiz yourself on the idioms you’re likely to see on the exam. Find out more about using apps to prepare for the GMAT here.
#2: Write Example Sentences
Another way to familiarize yourself with common GMAT idioms is to write sample sentences with them. It’s important to get to know the idioms you’re not used to in context, rather than simply memorizing them. It’s also important not to simply rely on your ear or intuition, as you might already be used to using certain idioms incorrectly. Using them correctly over and over will help you break that habit.
As part of a study session or a warm-up, select 10 idioms from the GMAT idioms list (preferably 10 that you’re not comfortable with already) and practice using them in sentences. As you do this, turns of phrase that might have sounded strange to you earlier will begin to sound correct, which will help you recognize idiomatic errors on the exam.
#3: Read—A Lot
To familiarize yourself with a wide variety of common English idioms (beyond those on your GMAT idiom list), you should read and digest complex materials such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Science, Nature, and The Atlantic as a regular part of your GMAT prep.
This technique is especially important if you are a non-native English speaker, as like I said earlier, it’s important to familiarize yourself with idioms in context rather than to simply memorize a list. You’ll encounter many idioms as you read. Note any phrasing patterns that seem unfamiliar to you, and keep a log. Add them to your GMAT idioms list or to your flashcards so you can practice with them at a later time.
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