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GMAT English vs. Regular English

Posted in Test Prep on July 1, 2010 by

Sometimes reading a GMAT Reading Comp passage is like poring through the OED

Jonathan Bethune is a Content Developer at Knewton, where his grammar skills and ESL knowledge help students with their GMAT prep.

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” ~ Charles Mingus

In William Zinsser’s 1976 classic book On Writing Well, there is a section wherein the author discusses the problem of pompous language. He explains that, because of social convention, we are often expected to put on airs of eloquence with unnecessarily verbose speech. The example that most sticks out in my mind is that of the dentist. To his patient, he says, “Are you experiencing any discomfort?” yet were he working on his son’s teeth, he would simply say, “Does it hurt?”

Professional and academic life present us with numerous similar situations, moments where we fear that the simpler phrase would cast us in a bad light. Indeed there may be no surer sign of adulthood than having acquired the ability to say very little with a whole lot of words.

In this regard, the GMAT is in a league of its own. The language you find in Critical reasoning and Reading comprehension passages is often more excruciating than even the most inept dentist’s drill.

Consider the following:

The modern multinational corporation is described as having originated when the owner-managers of nineteenth-century British firms carrying on international trade were replaced by teams of salaried managers organized into hierarchies. Increases in the volume of transactions in such firms are commonly believed to have necessitated this structural change. Nineteenth-century inventions like the steamship and the telegraph, by facilitating coordination of managerial activities, are described as key factors. Sixteenth= and seventeenth-century chartered trading companies, despite the international scope of their activities, are usually considered irrelevant to this discussion: the volume of their transactions is assumed to have been too low and the communications and transport of their day too primitive to make comparisons with modern multinationals interesting.

That’s four sentences from an RC passage. If you can smoothly read through that and grasp its essential points in one pass, then you just might be the Chosen One, my friend. GMAT passages are designed specifically to slow you down and make you go back and re-read. Strong, effective prose writing glides comfortably into your brain, with wings of clear declarative sentences, and gusts of active voice constructions to aid its flight. GMAT English, like a hateful linguistics textbook, attempts to confound with every line.

Outside of the most esoteric of technical manuals, no publication of record would tolerate a paragraph like the one above. It is chock full of stamina-draining constructions and is offensively garrulous. Consider the passive constructions: “The modern multinational corporation is described as having,” and “Increases in the volume of transactions in such firms are commonly believed” and “facilitating coordination of managerial activities, are described as key factors,” and “despite the international scope of their activities, are usually considered irrelevant.” ‘Is described’ by whom? ‘Commonly believed’ by whom? ‘Key factors’ according to whom? ‘Considered irrelevant’ by whom? It’s spooky how all these things are being described and believed by an invisible Illuminati.

Passive constructions hurt the readability of your writing. Another issue is sentence length. Surveys show that, on average, people consider a sentence to be “difficult” if it has more than 21 words. The passage above has an average sentence length of 29 words, and I could find worse on the GMAT easily. Average word length and difficulty (a word’s difficulty is generally defined by how frequently it appears in print) also affect readability. GMAT passages love long chains of verbals and abstract nouns.

Why not say “making managers more efficient” instead of “facilitating coordination of managerial activities”? Or how about “People thought that more trade caused this change” instead of “Increases in the volume of transactions in such firms are commonly believed to have necessitated this structural change”? “Such firms,” “structural,” “volume,” and “commonly,” are all unnecessary or implied, and reworking the sentence gives us an agent performing an action (no more spooky passive voice) while cutting 32 syllables down to 8, effectively a 75% off sale!

Any decent writers out there can catch other sinister phrases within this particular excerpt. The point is not to say that we should all strive to always write as simply as possible. Sometimes complex language is necessary for the sake of precision and sophistication, and my 75% reduction is a bit extreme. Nevertheless you should understand that GMAT English and normal human being English are very different.

Non-native English speakers should be aware that traditional ESL courses and readings will not prepare them for a GMAT RC passage. Even reading a newspaper or textbook may not be enough. The best option, for native and non-native speakers alike, is to see and experience as many GMAT passages as possible, thus a good prep course is imperative.

I could recommend one if you’d like.