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How To Read A Sentence Correction Problem

Before you start: Keeping track of your thinking / answers

One of the biggest mistakes people make is not keeping track of their thinking as they assess the answers. On verbal in general, we’re usually going to do two passes through the answers. On our first pass, we’re deciding between “this is definitely wrong – I’m never going to look at this again” and “maybe…” We don’t try to decide which answer is the right answer when we haven’t even seen all of the choices yet.

Then, on our second pass, we’ll look only at the “maybe” choices. Perhaps we’ll only have one, in which case we now have our right answer. If we have more than one, then we’ll have to start comparing the two and figure out how to narrow down from there. Okay, now on to Sentence Correction specifically.

Read the original sentence in its entirety

Another big mistake people make is focusing too much on the words in the underline and not enough on the rest of the sentence. The part that isn’t underlined is correct, of course, and can’t be changed – and that’s exactly why we need to pay attention to it. Often, there are things in the non-underlined part that tell us what we need to have in the underlined part in order to match.

As you’re reading the original sentence in its entirety, ask yourself: is this all okay? Are there any definite errors? Does anything sound not-quite-right?

If we spot an actual error in the original sentence, we immediately cross off answer choice A on the scratch paper. (Remember that answer A is always identical to the original sentence.) We then scan the other answers in the same location to find any that repeat the same error and cross those off, too. Every time you find an error on SC, immediately look at the remaining answers to see whether you can cross off any others for the same reason. We repeat this process with any other actual errors in the original. (But don’t spend a ton of time hunting for those errors; if we don’t see anything pretty much right away, we should move on to another approach.)

If something sounds not-quite-right, then we ask ourselves why. Which part, specifically, sounds not quite right? How else is that particular part written in the other answer choices? If we can use these questions to identify an actual error, then we deal with it as described in the previous paragraph. If we can’t get beyond “it just doesn’t sound right,” we don’t do anything with that information; instead, we start looking for something else to use. In particular, unless we can find a definite error, we do not eliminate answer choice A at this stage.

Processing answers B, C, D, and E

After we’ve dealt with everything that we can deal with in the original sentence (and sometimes we can’t find anything to do!), we start processing the other answers. Possibly we have crossed some off already; possibly we still have all five answer choices left. Our next task is to scan the remaining answer choices vertically to find differences, or “splits.” Splits represent differences in the answer choices for the same general part of the sentence. The “split” might be as simple as a difference in one word (e.g., has vs. have) or as complicated as re-wording or moving an entire clause (e.g., changing a modifier into part of the sentence core or placing a modifier at the beginning of the sentence vs. the end).

There are typically multiple splits in any SC problem. There are a couple of important things to know about splits:

A split does not always indicate an error! Sometimes, differences are introduced but both variations are grammatically correct; the test writers are trying to get us to waste time on something that won’t actually help us answer the question.

There is always a split at the beginning of the underline and there is always a split at the end of the underline. That is, at least one answer choice among B, C, D, and E will vary from the original sentence at the beginning of the underline, and at least one answer choice among B, C, D, and E will vary from the original sentence at the end of the underline

How do we use that information? First, we always know exactly where two of the splits will be: at the beginning of the choices and at the end. We can look there first to see what kinds of differences exist in this sentence (though we have to remember that a difference doesn’t necessarily mean an error).

We do not need to deal with the splits in any particular kind of order. Each person simply looks for the first one that she/he knows how to process. If we can deal with it, we deal with it and cross off any answer choices that use the version that we decided was incorrect. If we don’t know how to deal with a particular split, then we shouldn’t even try. Instead, we should immediately look for something else that we do know how to do.

Educated guessing

Hopefully, the above process will get us down to just one answer choice; this doesn’t always happen, of course. As a result, we also need to study how to make an educated guess, so that we will know what to do when we do have to guess on a problem. For example, generally speaking, in a split between “like” and “such as,” the latter form, such as, is more commonly a part of the right answer. Generally speaking, in a split between “being” and some other form that expresses the same meaning, some other form is more commonly part of the right answer. If we can put an action noun in “regular” noun form rather than gerund form, then that is also somewhat more likely to be correct. These are not actual rules – we will not always get the question right by following these guessing procedures. But we can increase the odds that we might guess right.

Go back to a bunch of SC problems you’ve already done from one category (e.g., modifiers). Identify some splits and develop some hypotheses about how and why you would guess between those splits if you weren’t sure of the rule. Then try to apply that thinking to new SC problems in future in order to see whether your guessing strategy is valid. If it isn’t working, abandon that hypothesis and try another. (This is also something you can discuss on the forums with the experts and your fellow students.)