This article was written by Veritas Prep's Director of Academic Programs, Brian Galvin. For more GMAT tips and strategies, visit the Veritas Prep blog.
As the GMAT rewards pattern recognition, it’s only natural that a GMAT instructor would start to notice compelling patterns as they emerge in the classroom and on the GMAT-themed forums around the internet. And one pattern stands out and should serve as a major warning particularly for those with high quant scores and low verbal scores:
Maybe the #1 mistake that high quant scorers (and let’s just say it, non-native English speakers) make on the verbal section is this – they are too narrow when it comes to parallel structure.
Now, parallel structure is certainly something that the GMAT tests, so it should be something that you look to apply on Sentence Correction questions. But parallel structure has its limits, and those with highly-quantitative mindsets and who study Sentence Correction more clinically than logically tend to struggle because their view on parallel structure becomes too technical and absolute. Consider a few examples of discussions that students have propagated on the forums:
“How is this sentence parallel? One is a simple noun (threat) and the other has an adjective (declining sales)?”
“I don’t see how this is a valid comparison, as it compares a past-tense event with a future-tense event. The tenses are not parallel!”
“How can a complex gerund be parallel to a simple gerund?!”
And the answer is essentially that parallelism is important, but it’s a lot more general than most test-takers realize. For example, these sentences are absolutely correct:
1) While dressing for the client meeting, Steve had to choose between a sweater or a collared shirt.
Even though the second item in the comparison has an adjective (“collared”) and the first does not, the comparison is between two nouns. And since the fact that the shirt is collared may be important to the discussion (it wasn’t between a sweater and a t-shirt or a tank top, but rather a “nice shirt”), the meaning of the sentence is a lot stronger if that adjective is there. “Noun to Noun-with-Adjective” is perfectly acceptable. What wouldn’t be parallel is comparing a noun to a verb:
“Steve had to choose between a sweater and wearing a collared shirt”
There, one is an object (sweater) and the other is an action (wearing…), and that’s where the sentence would not be parallel.
2) In order to break the world record at next summer’s World Championships, Yohan Blake will need to run faster than fellow Jamaican Usain Bolt ran at last year’s Olympics.
Here, one event is clearly in the future (next summer’s…) and one is clearly in the past (last year’s…), so the comparison is perfectly parallel in comparing (future) verb to (past) verb. With “today” as the reference point, it’s the only way to logically convey the order of events – you can’t get the verbs in the same tense, but you don’t need to. What wouldn’t be parallel is:
“In order to break the world record at next summer’s World Championships, Yohan Blake will need to run faster than Usain Bolt’s time from last year’s Olympics.”
This is illogical because it’s comparing Blake’s speed to Bolt’s finish time – the two items being compared aren’t in the same form.
3) New theories propose that catastrophic impacts of asteroids and comets may have caused reversals in the Earth's magnetic field, the onset of ice ages, the splitting apart of continents 80 million years ago, and great volcanic eruptions.
This sentence comes directly out of the Official Guide for GMAT Review, and it’s correct. The nouns in the list – “reversals”, “the onset”, “the splitting”, and “eruptions” - are all nouns and all parallel, even though some have a definite article (“the”) and others do not. The reason for that is that some would take on a tweaked meaning if they had an article (“the reversals in the Earth’s magnetic field” would make it seem as though all reversals trace back to those impacts, and not just some reversals) while others require an article to really stand as a noun (“onset of ice ages” really needs an article).
So hopefully you’ve seen that having too narrow a focus on parallelism can be detrimental to your score, and if you’re a high quant scorer and/or a non-native English speaker, you’re particularly prone to this slightly misguided focus. But what can you do?
1) Start your parallelism search with a broad focus (“can you logically compare these items?” “is this a list of nouns or a list of verbs?”), and only narrow it when you’re forced to – when you can’t see any other differences between answer choices.
2) Look for the more-binary types of errors first. Subject-verb agreement and pronoun agreement, for example, are completely binary; it’s either singular or it’s plural. Modifiers are a lot more binary. Parallelism isn’t quite as basic, so it’s a decision to save for a little bit later. Often you can eliminate one or two of the “gray area” parallelism choices based on a pronoun or a verb somewhere else in the sentence, and avoid making that tricky decision altogether.
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