GMAT Grammar is an odd concept. I mean, how could it possibly be different from normal English grammar?
The problem, then, becomes one of how one defines “normal English grammar.” The problem is that there’s not really one particular type or book of grammar that is actually consistent in every variant of English.
Do we follow Harvard’s grammar book or the University of Chicago’s grammar book, or perhaps Oxford or Cambridge or Crocodile Dundee?
Unfortunately, English doesn’t have its own Academie française to tell us what is correct or incorrect. Actually we do if you count the Academie française, but frustratingly they only make the rules for French.
So be it, then… but what do we do? Well, the GMAT loves talking about a little concept called Standard English. They then provide us about three-and-a-quarter pages of weird little examples of what this is meant to be and politely tell us to check the interwebs for the rest.
Here’s the Secret
I’m going to let you in on something that the testwriters won’t tell you: “Standard English” is bullshit. It essentially means “whatever the testwriters think is correct.”
It doesn’t precisely follow Harvard or Chicago (although it’s closer to Chicago). It definitely doesn’t follow the non-American grammars.
Now this isn’t as bad as it sounds, but for this reason, learning GMAT grammar requires a bit of a mindset shift. We have to move from the idea that there’s a pure English that was handed to Moses on stone tablets, because, naturally, Moses didn’t fucking speak English.
Levity aside, there is no Greater English that we must aspire to. It’s just learning what these clowns want and sticking to it. The good thing about GMAT Grammar is that while it’s extremely subjective, it is NOT arbitrary.
What does that mean? This, simply: understanding what’s going on in these sentences is possible. It is repeatable.
It’s simply up to you to learn what the test wants.
GMAT Grammar is Annoying
However, it is what it is. There are a few places to start: recognize what the grammar section tests you on.
You will find the following topics listed in the Official Guide. I’ll list these in plain-speak rather than give you the confusing headings that were provided in the OG itself.
- Noun-verb agreement
- Pronoun agreement
- Number and Counting Words
- Pronoun use: subject/object/reflexive (seriously, “myself” needs to be put out of its misery)
- Sentence Structure: run-ons, commas vs. semi-colons, etc.
- Preposition use, particularly in phrasal verbs: e.g., “ability to,” not “ability of” or “capable of” not “capable to.”
- Parallel structure in comparisons
- The dreaded Parallelism itself (nice to have, but not at the expense of, you know, what the sentence is trying to fucking say)
- Verb tense (with about ten variations that are dumb and that therefore you probably don’t need to memorize)
Oh, they also say to “read material that reflects standard usage.” Thanks again. Look, I’ll be the first person to tell you that you need to read to do well on the GMAT.
Read things such as Scientific American and the Economist because they have a complexity level similar to that of the GMAT.
Don’t worry about the grammar, but note when you see something that doesn’t necessarily make sense because it will have been edited and there’s probably a good reason that they’re using the words that way.
Your Grammar Teacher Was Probably an Idiot
So remember all that shit your teacher taught you in high school? Yeah, I’d wager at least two or three of those things were flat wrong and a lot of others are “nice to have” or “sure, if it’s good writing.”
Bear in mind, GMAT grammar says nothing about what is “good writing.” Rather, it’s about what is technically correct.
In other words, No one cares whether it’s poetic. It can be as stilted as possible, but if it’s concise and gets the logical point across better than the other choices (the “least worst answer”) then it’s probably the correct answer.
So all that stuff you remember about “it’s always ‘her and I.’” Just wipe the slate clean. That’s nonsense and completely incorrect.
GMAT Grammar Sample Rule:
> OBJECT: “It happened to me,” therefore “it happened to her and me.”
–”It happened to her and I” is bullshit nonsense, despite whatever crap they fed you in high school. Squeegee your brain and come back to class.
>SUBJECT: “I am going to the store,” therefore “She and I are going to the store.”
–You’ll notice that adding the other person (the “she and…” or “her and…”) doesn’t change whether it’s Subject or Object.
If this has blown your mind, just you wait. There’s a lot more where that came from.
Along with everything else, the writers of the GMAT know that they’re dealing with at least one generation who have been fed a number of grammar rules completely wrong.
Effectively, in much of the Western world, high school teachers are hired primarily on the basis of whether they are breathing–little attention is paid to things like competence. Dog bless the rare teacher who isn’t a fool, but seriously, leave your high school hang-ups at the door.
That said, if you’re from the UK you probably never had a grammar class–so whether you’re ahead or behind remains a question!
One nice thing to know is that you’ll never be expected to choose a GMAT grammar question based on whether the apostrophe is placed correctly. No one knows how to do that shit properly anyway.
But I’m Not a Native English Speaker!
Um, yeah? Does that somehow excuse you from ⅓ of the GMAT Verbal section?
I didn’t think so. Excuses are great if you’re on trial at Nuremberg. Now be quiet.
It also doesn’t put you behind–I just got done talking about what crap grammar education is, so let me let you in on a little secret: the grammar you got from those ESL books is probably more accurate than what the native speakers got from their teachers.
In fact, the GMAT takers who do best on Verbal tend to be non-native speakers who speak English well. That said, anyone who is competent enough at English to be taking the damn GMAT in the first place is capable of getting a V40+ with enough targeted work.
But I’ve Been Speaking English Since I was Born!
Presumably that freaked the doctors out a bit, yes?
Anyway, sure–of course. And you still think that it’s “less chairs on the patio” and “it happened to her and I” (see above). Be quiet.
Seriously, though, there is still probably a bit that you could learn. No matter how good your grammar is, the simple fact is that you don’t know the particular things that the GMAT likes and dislikes.
There tends to be a lot of low-hanging fruit in Sentence Correction, even for people who are otherwise quite good at Verbal.
>There might be gaps you don’t know about.
>There might be things that you thought were correct that you will find not to be correct.
>There might be things that you simply didn’t know were grammar errors.
The best thing about it is that these rules are fairly consistent, so you learn it and then apply it and you get the points. Easy. GMAT Grammar is an excellent place to increase your score.
Sentence Correction is Really Hard! I thought it would be easy.
Um, yeah. That’s what this article is about. Check out these videos for more information.
Here are some free videos where I discuss GMAT grammar rules!
It seems like a lot now, but you’ll get used to it. The secret is always just practice.
The Reason GMAT Sentence Correction is Difficult is its Very Nature
While it’s possible that one can gain competence at Sentence Correction fairly rapidly, it is extremely hard to reach a level of complete mastery as is actually possible on Reading Comprehension and Critical Reasoning.
This may have to do with the fact that Sentence Correction forces the testtaker to keep the most abstract, memorized information in her head for the longest period of time. Remember, you have five answer choices, sometimes with 3-5 errors per choice.
Also–and don’t forget this–there is no reason to assume that the correct choice will sound appealing in any way. Remember, like the rest of the Verbal section, GMAT Sentence Correftion is more about eliminating incorrect answer choices than it is about choosing a correct answer choice.
Always bear in mind that you must throw out the bad answer choices before you will know for sure that the choice you like is the best among this terrible set of selections.
Where do I learn more about GMAT Grammar?
My advice would be to find a book that is specifically oriented toward GMAT and what this test is specifically after.
Get a book. Some book, at least. There are actually a couple of good ones out there.
My clients all use my own GMAT Grammar book, Last Minute GMAT Grammar. Guess what? You don’t have to if you don’t want to (but if you did I would be flattered!).
Check it here:Last Minute GMAT Grammar eBook
You can also use Manhattan GMAT Sentence Correction, which tends to be decent if a bit overcooked–take this with caveats: the detail can be a bit granular, and remember, not everything is true 100% of the time.
Check it here:
Beyond that, your mileage may vary.
Remember the golden rule of GMAT materials: if it starts with M it’s probably OK, if it starts with E, stay the hell away. Other letters probably won’t harm you.
The GMAT is a strange little exam, isn’t it?
To think: it’s asking you to jump through weird hoops that no one else would ask you to. And yet what if that is a feature and not a bug?
Learning what the GMAT wants is part of the process. It’s not a knowledge exam; it’s an exam of logic and adaptability to the framework that the writers of the test decided is correct.
You don’t have to like that, but you do have to live with it if you intend to get a good GMAT score.
My advice: start with the basics and you’ll likely see immense improvement. Only use Official Guide questions. Then start noting why the book’s answer is better than your answer.
If you still have questions, talk to me.