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Can you spot the meaning error?

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Can you spot the meaning error?  [#permalink]

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New post 18 Mar 2015, 19:41
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Can you Spot the Meaning Error?


- From the Manhattan GMAT Blog

Sentence Correction tests grammar, yes, but it also tests meaning. In fact, a decent chunk of grammar actually revolves around meaning in the first place.

Try this GMATPrep® problem from the free exams and then we’ll talk about it.

* “In the mid-1920s the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company was the scene of an intensive series of experiments that would investigate changes in working conditions as to their effects on workers’ performance.

“(A) that would investigate changes in working conditions as to their effects on workers’ performance

“(B) investigating the effects that changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance

“(C) for investigating what the effects on workers’ performance are that changes in working conditions would cause

“(D) that investigated changes in working conditions’ effects on workers’ performance

“(E) to investigate what the effects changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance”

What did you think? I did give away that this problem tests meaning; did you spot any meaning issues?

The first step on SC is to glance at the start of the underline (even before you read the sentence). The underline starts halfway through on the word that. The word that can signal issues with modifiers or with the underlying sentence structure, so keep these possibilities in mind as you move to the next step, reading the sentence.

Did you like the original sentence or did you think there was something wrong with it?

In fact, the original has a meaning issue! We have a starting point. The sentence talks about something that happened nearly 100 years ago, so it doesn’t make sense to say that these experiments would investigate something. The place was the scene of the experiments conducted at that time in the past.

You can use would properly in certain past conditions: She would have eaten the fish if she hadn’t been allergic. If she ate fish, she would have an allergic reaction. The test results showed that feeding her fish would cause an allergic reaction.

You can’t, then, just cross off any other answers that also contain would; you’ll have to read to figure out the meaning.

Answers (B), (D), and (E) all use would, but they don’t say would investigate. Instead, all three talk about what effects changes in working conditions would cause or would have.

This usage is acceptable because the information is conveying a cause-effect relationship: changes cause effects. By definition, the effects have to happen later than the changes. The word would can be used to indicate a “future in the past” meaning, similar to the example The test results showed that feeding her fish would cause an allergic reaction.

Hmm, that starting point allowed the elimination of only one answer, (A). Back to the drawing board. What next?

If you noticed anything else about the original sentence that you didn’t like, try that next. Otherwise, scan the answers vertically to spot differences and tackle one of those differences. Let’s follow the latter path next.


The opening of each answer is as follows:

The Hawthorne Works was the scene of a series of experiments…

(A) that would investigate…

(B) investigating…

(C) for investigating…

(D) that investigated…

(E) to investigate…

Idiom time. It’s acceptable to say a series of experiments that did something or a series of experiments investigating something.

It isn’t acceptable to say a series of experiments for investigating something. If you wanted to convey that kind of meaning, you’d need to say something similar to a series of experiments designed to investigate something. You can also drop the word designed and go straight into to investigate.

Okay, (A) and (C) down, three to go. What next?

Here’s where it gets a bit messy. The remaining portions of the choices differ enough that you can’t compare a single word or a couple of words. Now you have to look at an entire chunk of each sentence.

Here are (B), (D), and (E) again. What are these things trying to say?

“(B) investigating the effects that changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance

“(D) that investigated changes in working conditions’ effects on workers’ performance

“(E) to investigate what the effects changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance”

Something like: when there were changes in working conditions, what effects would there be on performance?

Do all three options convey this logically and unambiguously?

As it turns out, no. Take a look at answer (D). Strip out the modifiers:

“(D) that investigated changes in working conditions’ effects on workers’ performance”

(D) that investigated changes in effects on performance

This choice doesn’t talk about changes in the conditions. It talks about changes in the effects. It doesn’t make any sense to jump straight to the effects—you change the input (conditions) to see how the output then changes. Very tricky!

Answers (B) and (E) are very close. The only differences are towards the beginning.

“(B) investigating the effects that changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance

“(E) to investigate what the effects changes in working conditions would have on workers’ performance”

This last one is the trickiest of all. Consider these two examples:

New York was the scene of a study investigating the theft.

New York was the scene of a study to investigate what the theft.

You probably knew immediately that the second sentence is wrong. Why? Once you toss in the word what, you need a clause (a verb) to go with theft: New York was the scene of a study to investigate what the theft then led to in future.

Choice (E) uses the word what, but this choice doesn’t make the effects portion a clause. The verb would have applies to changes. You could say something like “to investigate what the effects on workers’ performance are when there are changes in working conditions.” That sentence is a little clunky, but it does contain the necessary verb. (Notice that answer (C) also uses the word what and that one does talk about what the effects are.)

That takes us down to one answer, (B). This answer uses an acceptable idiom (a series of experiments investigating…) and conveys the appropriate meaning (they were investigating the effects that resulted from changes in working conditions).

In my opinion, the test writers purposely used would investigate incorrectly in (A) hoping that people would then automatically eliminate other answers because they also use what seems to be a similar, incorrect verb structure. Conveniently, the correct answer contains would have, so anyone doing this will have just crossed off the correct answer. That leaves answer (D), which seems just fine if you don’t notice that the meaning is illogical (and that choice is written confusingly enough that it would be easy to overlook the meaning issue).

The correct answer is (B).

Key Takeaways: Meaning in SC


(1) Always go for the low-hanging fruit first: anything that you know how to tackle easily and confidently. This will help you to narrow down the answers before you have to get to the toughest stuff, making it easier (though not easy!) for you to try to strip out the trickiest traps.

(2) When answers change as much as the ones in this example do, you are probably looking at a Structure, Modifier, Meaning, or Parallelism issue (or multiple issues intertwined). You’ll likely have to compare entire chunks of the answers, not just a few words at a time.

(3) When you do have to compare chunks, first get the meaning straight in your head: what is the sentence actually trying to convey? Be on the lookout for choices that twist the meaning in an illogical or ambiguous way; you can cross these off.
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Re: Can you spot the meaning error?  [#permalink]

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New post 18 Mar 2015, 23:27
Hi Souvik,

What a wonderful explanation that was!!!! There are few things pointed out here which did not come to my mind while solving this one. Thank You.
I have one question, I rejected option A because it was not clear that what the experiments are investigating.
"... investigate changes in working conditions as to their effects on workers’ performance ....": Are they investigating the changes in working conditions or their effects, or both ??!!!!
Honestly, i could not understand the use of "As To" phrase. Is it a correct usage?? If it is what it means in this sentence.
Please reply.

Thanks again for the post.
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Re: Can you spot the meaning error?  [#permalink]

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New post 20 Mar 2015, 15:33
wonderful explanation Souvik. :-D
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Re: Can you spot the meaning error?  [#permalink]

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New post 26 Mar 2019, 08:06
Wonderful style of working,
Wonderful style here
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Re: Can you spot the meaning error?   [#permalink] 26 Mar 2019, 08:06
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