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To improve on Sentence Correction, think of it as a logic puzzle

Sentence Correction on the GMAT is a deceptive logic puzzle. It’s deceptive because it looks like it’s just a question of grammar, but that’s not the case. Take this question, for instance:

A professor at the university has taken a sabbatical to research on James Baldwin’s books that Baldwin wrote in France while he was living there.

(A) on James Baldwin’s books that Baldwin wrote in France while he was living there
(B) about the books James Baldwin wrote in France
(C) into James Baldwin’s books written while in France
(D) on the books of James Baldwin, written while he lived in France
(E) the books James Baldwin wrote while he lived in France

Grammatically, all of the answers check out. Verbs are fine, parallelism is fine (and non-existent), and the pronouns are, at first glance, appropriate.

So how do we pick out the right answer? You guessed it: through logic!

Specifically, logic comes in when we answer the question behind the question: how do we efficiently and grammatically convey the intended meaning of the sentence? (Note: the nice thing about sentence correction is that this “question behind the question” never varies. We should ask this about every single question in this section.)

The obvious place to start would be to determine the intended meaning of the sentence. If we look at the original prompt, it’s sort of clear: The professor is researching the books that James Baldwin wrote in France while Baldwin lived there.

Now, which of our answer choices efficiently and grammatically convey that meaning?

a) Efficiency-wise, we end up repeating “Baldwin” twice, and using the pronoun “he”. That doesn’t seem very efficient. Glancing through the other answers, they manage to avoid repeating “Baldwin”, so I think there must be a chance to be more efficient. Grammar-wise, “research on” is not the right idiom, but that’s more subtle.

b) This misses the meaning entirely, as it doesn’t even include Baldwin living in France.

c) Same deal. Baldwin lived in France; he wasn’t just there to write books.

d) This looks ok at first glance, but it actually fails a meaning test. We want to efficiently convey to the reader that James Baldwin wrote these books while living in France, and the professor is researching them, right?

Well, this hides away James Baldwin in a possessive phrase “of James Baldwin”. Now, head to the pronoun (which is frequently a source of confusion as to meaning). It’s not clear that it refers to James Baldwin. In fact, it comes pretty close to conveying the meaning that the professor lived in France.

If this doesn’t seem clear, let’s make up a similar sentence. “The dog of the boy waited, whining as he did his math homework.”

Pretty confusing, right? It sounds like the dog was doing the math homework. That’s because the pronoun “he” doesn’t match what we’re trying to refer to.

So, how do we solve this problem? Well, the correct answer is E. Let’s see how they solve the pronoun confusion issue.

e) “A professor at the university has taken a sabbatical to research¬†the books James Baldwin wrote while he lived in France”.

Nice! So, first of all, we solve the idiom issue that I briefly mentioned before (research doesn’t take a preposition).

More importantly, however, we solve the pronoun issue, and thereby efficiently and grammatically convey the meaning of the sentence. We set up “James Baldwin” as a subject, and then, we we use the pronoun “he” as a subject right next to James Baldwin, it’s pretty obvious that it refers back to James Baldwin.

To use our alternative sentence again, it’d be like, “The dog chewed on the homework the boy had struggled over while he waited for the school bus.”

Once again, the “boy” is a subject, “he” is a subject, and using “he” close to “the boy” means that it refers back. The dog isn’t waiting for the school bus, in other words.

Plus, unlike A, we don’t have to repeat Baldwin more than once, and, unlike b or c, we don’t have to skip out on the really important information that James Baldwin lived in France while he was writing these books.

Now, how do we take this as a broader lesson for sentence correction?

The broader lesson is that every sentence correction question is a logic puzzle: solve for the meaning while keeping grammar and efficiency as your rules or guidelines. And, when you get the question wrong, your explanation in your error log needs to explain how the correct answer solves that logic puzzle.


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