What are GMAT sentence correction questions? What skills and concepts do they test? What are the most effective GMAT sentence correction tips?
In this article, I’ll go over the format of sentence correction questions on the exam, the grammar concepts you’ll need to know to complete them, a few examples of the most common sentence correction error types, and how best to prepare for these tricky questions before you take the GMAT.
The Basics: GMAT Sentence Correction Questions
Sentence correction questions are part of the verbal section of the GMAT. The verbal section contains 36 questions (including sentence correction, reading comprehension, and critical reasoning questions), and usually around 13 are sentence correction questions.
A sentence correction GMAT question will present you with a sentence, part or all of which will be underlined. Beneath the sentence will be five answer choices, each of which presents a different way to replace the underlined part of the sentence. The first of the answer choices will always be identical to the underlined portion. The next four will be different.
These questions test your ability to use English accurately and effectively, so the answer you select should be both grammatically correct and the most effective (concise, clear, and not awkwardly phrased) of the choices. The GMAT tests you in very specific ways, so it’s important to be familiar not only with grammar rules, but with the GMAT sentence correction rules in particular.
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What Do GMAT Sentence Correction Questions Test?
If you’re worried about learning GMAT sentence correction rules, fear not: they only test a few basic grammar concepts and skills. On a given test, you’ll generally see multiple questions about each of the topics.
There are seven main error types you’ll find on GMAT sentence correction questions.
GMAT sentence correction questions will require you to locate the subject of a sentence and its verb and to ensure that they match: a plural subject goes with the plural form of a verb, and a singular subject goes with the singular form of a verb.
In many sentences, the subject and its verb are right next to each other. In the sentence “He ran for mayor,” for example, the subject is ‘he’ and the verb, ‘ran.’ In sentence correction questions on the GMAT, locating the subject and its verb will be a bit trickier, usually because the subject and verb won’t be next to each other in a sentence. Take a look at this example, and try to find the main subject and verb:
The subject of the verb ‘fails’ is ‘attempts.’ This is incorrect: ‘Attempts’ is a plural subject, while ‘fails’ is the singular form of the verb ‘to fail.’ (Remember that the singular form of most verbs ends in -s.) The corrected version would be:
A GMAT sentence correction question will use the words in between the subject and the verb (in the case of this example, ‘to assuage his fear and soothe his conscience’) to confuse you or throw you off track. A good clue that a sentence correction question is asking you to correct a subject-verb agreement error is that the answer choices include both singular and plural forms of the same verb.
Verb Tense Accuracy/Consistency
In general, sentence correction questions will ask you to keep verb tense consistent through a sentence (past tense generally goes with past tense, for example). Sometimes, though, you might need to shift the verb tense if it’s specifically required by a sentence’s meaning, as in these examples:
What’s wrong here? There was an ongoing activity happening in the past (‘were cleaning up’) that was interrupted, also in the past, by the parents’ arrival. In this case, the verb tense needs to shift because of a sudden change in activity. The correct version would be:
To know how and when to shift the verb tense, look for clues related to time like ‘suddenly,’ ‘until,’ ‘already,’ and ‘by the time.’
An example of a correct verb tense shift:
In this case, the verb tense shifts from past to present to indicate what Amal is/was like at different points in time.
Idioms are simply common ways of saying things in English, often having to do with prepositions. We say someone graduated ‘from’ college, for example, not ‘to’ college. John is worried about his finances because he doesn’t have ‘much’ money, not because he doesn’t have ‘many’ money. I have ‘less’ cake after the party, not ‘fewer’ cake.
Idioms come up frequently in GMAT sentence correction questions and can be especially difficult for non-native English speakers. It can be helpful to memorize a few of the most common ones that tend to crop up on the GMAT, but some students memorize lists of 200+ idioms. While this may make you feel better, it probably won’t help you improve your score too much: There will only be a few questions on the GMAT that require you to be familiar with idioms, and they’ll be different on every exam, so your prep time is likely better spent elsewhere. Just note the idiomatic expressions with which you’re not familiar as you practice, keep a running list, and become familiar with those.
Some GMAT sentence correction questions will ask you to correct an illogical comparison, or a sentence that compares two unlike things (for example, a noun to a verb, or two inappropriately matched nouns). For example, if you say:
It’s actually quite a sad sentiment, as you’re saying that someone is fonder of donuts than they are of you. Obviously, what you really want to do is compare your love of donuts to his love of donuts. Correct versions of the sentences would read, “He loves donuts more than I love donuts,” or “He loves donuts more than I do.”
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Illogical comparison questions are quite easy to spot, as they will usually include clue comparison phrasing like ‘more than,’ ‘less than,’ ‘like’ or ‘unlike,’ or ‘as/as.’ Start to take note of these clue words as you complete GMAT sentence correction practice questions.
Parallelism means what it sounds like: you want the related parts of your sentence to be parallel, or matching. This error is especially common in lists. Here’s a simple example of a parallelism error:
The first two items in the list are infinitive verbs (verbs preceded by ‘to’)—to sing and to dance—followed by a noun (‘acting’). The correct version of the sentence would read, “I loved singing, dancing, and acting,” or “I loved to sing, to dance, and to act.”
Modifiers are words or phrases (in the case of the GMAT, we’re referring specifically to phrases) that modify, or describe/alter/specify, another part of a sentence. Here’s a correctly placed modifier:
Here, the modifier is ‘looking around fearfully,’ which describes ‘she.’
On the GMAT, you will encounter modifiers that aren’t in the right place. These are called dangling or misplaced modifiers. In general, remember that you want your modifier to be as close to the noun it’s modifying as possible.
A dangling modifier is one that ‘hangs’ off a sentence (usually the beginning) and doesn’t modify the right word or words. For example:
There are many ways to describe Frankenstein, but ‘majestic fairy tale creature’ is probably not one of them. That modifying phrase should be next to the word it’s modifying (Pegasus). The new sentence would read:
A misplaced modifier can be a little more difficult to spot. Here’s an example:
This sentence might be true, but it’s rather illogical and more than a bit unrealistic. Here, the modifying phrase is ‘on the day she graduated from college,’ which is when she likely did the planning, not the day she did the writing. Right now, it’s misleading. We’d rewrite it as such:
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Pronouns stand in for nouns, and the nouns they stand in for are called antecedents. For example, in the sentence “Carol left her coat outside,” Carol is the antecedent of the pronoun her.
The most common pronoun error type on the GMAT is the ambiguous pronoun. An ambiguous pronoun is one whose antecedent is unclear:
In this sentence, whose dog is it? What is the antecedent of ‘her?’ Sarah or Julie? There’s no way to tell for sure what the antecedent of ‘her’ is. The correct version of the sentence would clarify this for the reader (for example, “Sarah and Julie took Julie’s dog for a walk”).
On the GMAT, look out particularly for pronouns like ‘it’ and ‘they.’ While any pronoun can be ambiguous, these are the two most likely culprits. For example:
What cracked? The vase or the table? We can’t be sure, because we don’t know what the antecedent of ‘it’ is. We need to clarify that for the reader.
Pronoun agreement errors are also common on the GMAT. A pronoun agreement error is when a pronoun’s antecedent is plural, while the pronoun is singular, or vice versa. For example:
The singular antecedent ‘the male peacock’ does not agree with the pronoun ‘their.’ Instead, the sentence should be written as such:
This error type comes up particularly often in sentences dealing with animals. When speaking of an animal in general (‘the brown bear,’ ‘the flamingo,’), the correct pronoun is ‘it.’
Clarity and Concision
GMAT sentence correction questions will require you not only to make sure that a sentence is grammatically correct, but also to ensure that it’s not redundant, ambiguous, awkwardly phrased, or clunky.
For example, take a look at this sentence:
What could be more concise in this sentence? Let’s rewrite it.
Notice that the two sentences mean the same thing, but the former uses unnecessary phrases like “at this point in time” when simply “now” is sufficient. When you think you have found a clarity and concision error, take note: Does the shorter sentence shift the sentence’s meaning? Or does it simply say the same thing in a cleaner and more concise way?
Remember that this doesn’t mean you should simply choose the shortest answer choice or that the shortest answer option is always the correct one. You should always check for other error types first, and eliminate answer choices that way. If you can whittle the answer options down to two, however, it’s a safe bet to choose the shorter one.
GMAT Sentence Correction Practice Questions: Examples
Let’s go through four examples of GMAT sentence correction question, covering the most common error types.
Practice Question 1: Subject-Verb Agreement
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
This is a subject-verb agreement question; one clue is that the various answer choices include both plural and singular subject options (‘costs’ and ‘cost’). The first thing to do is to locate the subject and verb: ‘costs’ or ‘cost’ is the subject, while ‘are’ is the verb. Since we don’t have the option to change the plural verb ‘are,’ the subject must be ‘costs,’ so we can narrow down the answer choices right away to B, C, or E. Choices A and D contain subject-verb agreement errors.
Answer choices C and E contain idiomatically incorrect expressions (‘arising from’ and ‘costs of upgrading’).
Answer choice B (‘costs associated with’) is correct in terms of both subject-verb agreement and idiomatic expression.
Practice Question 2: Dangling Modifier
The original sentence is an example of a dangling modifier: In answer choice A, ‘architects and stonemasons’ is incorrectly modifying ‘huge palace and temple clusters.’ So some of the other answer choices are likely to contain dangling modifiers, too. When you see a phrase followed by a comma introducing a sentence, it’s a good idea to check for a dangling modifier before doing anything else.
Answer choice B is also a dangling modifier (‘architects and stonemasons’ is incorrectly modifying ‘without of benefits of animal transport’).
Answer choice D is also a dangling modifier and contains clarity and concision errors, beginning with the passive construction ‘there were built.’
Answer choice E isn’t a dangling modifier, but it’s still incorrect: It contains the grammatically incorrect ‘were the Maya who.’
Answer choice C corrects the modification error: ‘Architects and stonemasons’ is correctly modifying ‘the Maya.’ It is also preferable because it contains the active verb ‘built’ rather than the passive ‘were built,’ which is in several of the other answer choices. Answer choice C (‘the Maya…’) is correct.
Practice Question 3: Illogical Comparison, Idioms, Clarity and Concision
Many sentence completion questions contain more than one error. Several error types apply to this question.
The original sentence, answer choice A, is awkwardly phrased and wordy (a clarity and concision issue) and contains an illogical comparison (‘computer skills’ to ‘disinclination’). Look for illogical comparison issues when you see clue words like ‘as,’ ‘more,’ ‘less,’ ‘than,’ or ‘like.’
Answer choice B illogically compares ‘computer skills or other technical skills’ to ‘many people.’
Answer choice C has clarity and concision errors; the phrase ‘analytical skills bring out a disinclination’ is idiomatically incorrect. Answer choice E contains the wordy construction ‘Many people have a disinclination.’
Answer choice D clearly compares ‘computer skills or other technical skills’ to ‘analytical skills.’ It is also clearer and more concise than the other choices. The correct answer is D (“Many people, willing…”).
Practice Question 4: Pronoun Usage, Clarity and Concision
This question contains both pronoun usage and clarity/concision problems.
Answer choices A and B are both unclear and too wordy, but answer choice B also contains a pronoun agreement error. ‘Crab,’ a singular noun, is not the correct antecedent for the plural ‘their.’ It’s a good idea to look for pronoun usage problems when you see potentially problematic pronouns like ‘it’ or ‘their’ in the original sentence or an answer choice, or when you see several different options for pronouns in the answer choices.
Answer choice E also contains a pronoun agreement error: ‘Crab’ is a singular antecedent, while ‘they’ is a plural pronoun.
Answer choice D contains an idiomatic error (‘because of living’ is not a correct idiomatic expression).
Answer choice C corrects the pronoun error and appropriately matches ‘crab’ with the singular pronoun ‘it.’ The correct answer is C (‘because it lives’).
Sentence Correction GMAT Question Tips: Key Strategies
Remember that the first choice is “no change.” This is a simple tip, but it will save you a bit of reading time. It’s not labeled as no change, but the first answer choice is always the same as the given sentence. Try to identify the potential error type as soon as you read it (an introductory phrase followed by a comma, for example, often signals a dangling modifier). If you can’t, quickly skim the other answer choices for clues.
Shorter is often better. Particularly if you’re down to two answer choices in your process of elimination, choose the shorter option! Remember, the GMAT loves concision. If you’re fairly certain that two options are technically (grammatically) correct, the shorter answer choice is a safe bet. The shortest answer won’t always be the right one, but it’s a good guideline for clarity and concision questions in particular. Does one answer choice say the same thing as another, but uses extraneous words? There’s a good chance it’s not the best choice.
Cross out extraneous words and phrases. This is something you can use your scratch pad (or, at home, your sentence correction worksheet) for. Particularly for subject-verb agreement questions, try rewriting the sentence and crossing out all the extra words between the subject and verb. Prepositional phrases between the subject and verb, for example, are often used to confuse you. Isolating the key words will cut down on confusion and potential timing issues. It will also help you eliminate incorrect answer choices more confidently.
Take about a minute per question. Since you have 65 minutes to complete the verbal section and 36 questions to complete, and reading comprehension and critical reasoning questions tend to take a bit longer (one and a half to two minutes each), you should plan to spend around one minute on each sentence correction question. You should keep a sentence correction worksheet to log the amount of time you spend on each question.
GMAT Sentence Correction Tips: How to Prepare
Brush up on basic grammar terms, rules, and concepts. You won’t be tested directly on grammar terms (such as parts of speech) on the GMAT, but it can be very helpful to review them before the exam (especially if you’re rusty) as part of your GMAT sentence correction practice. If you’re thinking in terms of subjects and verbs when you’re faced with a subject-verb agreement question or can quickly tell the difference between the past perfect and the present perfect for a verb tense question, it becomes a lot easier to quickly correct any technical errors in a given sentence. Remember that you need to focus specifically on GMAT sentence correction rules, not just on grammar rules in general.
Learn to recognize error types. Recognizing sentence correction error types quickly and accurately will improve both your timing and your performance. GMAT sentence correction practice should always include labeling error types as you go along.
Once you recognize an error type, you’ll know much more quickly what to look for and how to solve the problem. For example, a subject-verb agreement question means you’re looking to isolate the subject and verb and eliminate the answer choices that match plural subjects with singular verbs, or vice versa, right off the bat. A dangling modifier question will require you to look for the noun immediately following a modifying phrase to make sure it’s being modified accurately. Knowing how to tackle each kind of error type will help you streamline your approach to each question. Use the list above and label each sentence correction question as you review. With practice, you’ll learn to recognize them right away and apply GMAT sentence correction rules to your approach to each question.
Practice with real sentence correction GMAT questions regularly. During GMAT sentence correction practice sessions, use the GMATPrep software or the resources in GMAT Verbal Practice to practice specifically with sentence correction questions and review them. This will help you get comfortable with the format of each error type and with the various GMAT sentence correction rules. As soon as possible, as you complete GMAT sentence correction practice questions, hone in on your weakest areas and focus your prep time on them. Keep track of your most common errors on a sentence correction worksheet.
Learn the most common idioms. Especially if you’re not a native English speaker, consider learning the most common idioms that crop up on the GMAT and incorporating that work into your GMAT sentence correction practice. Keep a running list of idioms that aren’t familiar to you as you practice, and make sure you know those as well.
For a comprehensive overview of the GMAT and how to prepare for each section, including more GMAT sentence correction tips and GMAT sentence correction practice questions, go to our complete GMAT study guide.
Nervous about the rest of the GMAT verbal section? Our complete guide to GMAT verbal will help you ace the reading comprehension and critical reasoning portions of the exam, in addition to offering even more GMAT sentence correction tips.