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GMAT Idioms: Three Sophisticated Idioms

UPDATE: You can find this blog and others about idioms in our new GMAT Idiom eBook!

First, a few practice GMAT Sentence Correction questions for warm-up.

1) Had the United States allowed the California Republic to remain independent after the Bear Flag Revolt rather than annexing it with military force, this “California nation” might have become the wealthiest nation in North America.

  1. Had the United States allowed the California Republic to remain independent after the Bear Flag Revolt rather than annexing it with military force, this “California nation” might have become
  2. With the United States annexing the California Republic after the Bear Flag Revolt instead of allowing it to remain independent, this “California nation” didn’t become
  3. The United States annexed the California Republic after the Bear Flag Revolt and didn’t allow it to remain independent, to prevent it to become
  4. The United States didn’t allow the California Republic to remain independent after the Bear Flag Revolt, it annexed it with military force instead, and this “California nation” didn’t become
  5. The United States, by not allowing the California Republic to remain independent after the Bear Flag Revolt and, instead, by annexing it, it prevented this “California nation” from becoming

2) Compared to Bach’s astonishing output of music each year over his relatively long life, Brahms, ever the perfectionist, destroyed many of his compositions and only published those few that met his high standards.

  1. Compared to Bach’s astonishing output of music each year over his relatively long life, Brahms, ever the perfectionist, destroyed many of his compositions and only published those few that
  2. Compared to Bach’s astonishing output of music each year over his relatively long life, Brahms’ compositions, many destroyed because of his perfection, and only those few published
  3. Bach had an astonishing output of music each year over his relatively long life, but Brahms, always a perfectionist, destroying many of his compositions and only publishing those few that
  4. In contrast to Bach having had an astonishing output of music each year over his relatively long life, Brahms, always a perfectionist, destroyed many of his compositions and only published those few that
  5. Whereas Bach had an astonishing output of music each year over his relatively long life, Brahms, ever the perfectionist, destroyed many of his compositions and published only those few that

3) While many people believe either lead or gold is the densest naturally occurring element, osmium, due to a pattern of density among the elements, holds this distinction, and they call it “Lathanide contraction.”

  1. osmium, due to a pattern of density among the elements, holds this distinction, and they call it
  2. it is osmium that holds this distinction, because of a pattern of density among the elements known as
  3. osmium, holding this distinction, because of a pattern of density with the elements known as
  4. osmium, holding this distinction, for a pattern of density in the elements is known as
  5. osmium, which holds this distinction, because a pattern of density among the elements is known as

 

Sophisticated idioms

This post discusses three relatively sophisticated idioms.  All three are relatively uncommon in colloquial speech, so some native speakers might not have heard them.   They are characteristic of formal language, and thus each is “fair game” for the GMAT Sentence Correction questions.   Here are the idioms:

Whereas X, Y

Had A done X rather than doing Y

It is A that does X/ that is B

I will discuss each separately.

 

Contrast

The “whereas” is similar in meaning to “while.” The word “whereas” almost always comes at the beginning of a sentence.   It is a subordinate conjunction, which means it will be followed by one full [noun + verb] clause, and after that we will need another full [noun + verb] clause for the main clause of the sentence.  The full structure is “whereas” [clause #1], [clause #2].  These two clauses should be in parallel, and they should contrast one other in some essential way.

4) Whereas California contains the highest point in the lower 48 states, Alaska contains the highest in North America.

5) Whereas most professional sports, such as American football and basketball and soccer, are played against a clock, baseball is free of the influence of clock.

 

Hypothetical language

The next idiom is used to present not what is true, but rather what would be true under alternate hypothetical conditions.  Suppose actor A, in real life, did action Y.  That’s what really happened.  Then we would say, “Had A done X rather than Y …”, to imagine a world different from the factual world we share, a world in which A did X instead of Y; the goal of the structure is to analyze the consequences in this alternate world.  The grammatical form “Had A done X rather than Y …” is similar to an “if” clause: we need an independent main clause to follow that will state the consequence in this hypothetical world.  Because this is all hypothetical, the verb of the main independent clause should be in the subjunctive.

Also, notice: if X and Y are nouns that take the same verb, we can just have a noun in the Y place.  BUT, if two different verbs are needed, the “done X” place is taken by the first verb (in the subjunctive) and the Y place is taken by a gerund phrase involving the second verb.

6) Had Columbus sailed south rather than east, what would he have discovered?

7) Had the Kuomintang defeated Mao rather than retreating to Taiwan, China as a whole would have been a capitalist ally of the United States, and the Soviet Union would have fallen much sooner.

8) Had General Lee consolidated his gains in the south after his victory a Chancellorsville, rather than crossing the Potomac and invading the Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Confederacy could have held out much longer, perhaps fighting to a stalemate.

 

Emphatic language

The final idiom, rarely used, is appropriate only when extraordinary emphasis is needed.  The difference between (a) A does X, and (b) It is A that does X is subtle: both communicate the same factual information, but the latter emphasizes, perhaps contrary to expectations, the significant role that A has at the actor or subject in the sentence.  This structure is not appropriate for conveying an ordinary fact.  It is only appropriate when the context requires unique emphasis on the identity of the subject.

9) In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many ministers of the Nation of Islam were identified as radicals, but it was the skilled orator Malcolm X that drew the most FBI attention.

10) Paris is rich in historical and artistic treasures, but it is the Eiffel Tower that most tourists want to see.

 

Summary

If you had any flashes of realization while reading, you may want to give the practice questions at the top a second look before reading the solutions below.  Know the idioms given in bold in this post.  As always with idioms, read, read, read!   Search for the idioms in this post in context.  You understand English best when you understand it in context.

 

Practice Question Explanations

1) Choice (A) follows the exact pattern of the idiom discussed in this blog — first verb (“Had … allowed“) in the subjunctive and second (“annexing“) as a gerund, and the independent clause after the comma is in the subjunctive.  This is quite promising.

Choice (B) uses the preposition “with” as a quasi-subordinate conjunction, with the construction “with” [noun][participial phrase].  The GMAT considers this incorrect 100% of the time.  Also, the independent clause after the comma is in the indicative mood, giving the mistaken impression that the “California nation” actually existed.  (B) is not correct.

Choice (C), up to the comma, is promising — a factual statement of what the US did and didn’t do, and the infinitive of purpose in the second half is fine, but unfortunately, this choices makes an idiom mistake.  The idiom with “to prevent” is “to prevent A from doing X“, NOT “to prevent A to do X.”  Because of this idiom mistake, (C) is not correct.

Choice (D) is an example of false parallelism, putting the three verbs of the sentence into the grammatical relationship of parallelism without considering their logical connection.  Everything is in the indicative, so the hypothetical nature of the “California nation” is lost.   Perhaps  most significantly, this makes a major pronoun mistake: “it annexed it” — a repeated pronoun for two different antecedents.  (D) is not correct.

Choice (E) has makes double subject mistake — “The US [long modifier] it prevented …”  Either “the US” or “it” has to be the subject of “prevented” — both cannot be the subject simultaneously.  Also, ” … annexing it, it prevented …” — this choice makes the same kind of repeated pronoun mistake found in (D)(E) is also not correct.

The only possible answer is (A).

2) Split #1: position of the word “only” — which is correct? (a) “only published those few“, or (b) “published only those few“?  The latter correctly say that, in contrast to the large number Brahms destroyed, only a few were published.  In the former, the adverb “only” applies illogically to the verb “published” — as if Brahms might have done some action more serious than publishing but instead settled on “only” publishing them.  That makes no sense.  Each choice in which “only” precedes the verb is wrong.  Choices (A) & (C) & (D) make this mistake.

Split #2a: comparisons.  Choice (A) compares Bach’s music to Brahms the person, a faulty comparison.  Choice (B) correctly compares Bach’s music to Brahms music.   Choice (D) correctly contrasts Bach the person with Brahms the person.

Split #3: the  missing verb mistake.  In choice (B), there’s no verb in the entire sentence.  Choice (C) attempts a “but” construction, and before the “but” is a bonafide independent clause, but after the word “but”, there’s no verb to make that second half another independent clause.   Both (B) & (C) make this mistake.

Split #4: “always the perfectionist” vs. “ever the perfectionist.”  This is a false split.  Both are perfectly fine.

Split #5: too much after a preposition.  The “in contrast to” structure ends in preposition, and that preposition can take a single noun, as well as a gerund or a substantive clause.   The GMAT, though, does not like the construction [preposition][noun][participial phrase] — if you want to talk about that much action, use subordinate clause with a full [noun]+[verb] structure.  Choice (D) makes this mistake, “in contrast to Bach” + a long participial clause.  The GMAT would not find that acceptable.   Choice (D) is incorrect.

For all these reasons, (E) is the only possible answer.

3) Choice (A) illogically suggests that osmium itself, the very existence of the element itself, is “due to a pattern of density among the elements“.  Furthermore, the final three words of (A) are a disaster — “they call it” —- (a) who is “they”?  This pronoun has no antecedent in the sentence; (b) the antecedent of “it” is grammatically ambiguous — it could be osmium, or the pattern, or the distinction.  (A) is incorrect.

Choice (B) uses the emphatic construction discussed in this post — appropriate, because osmium is contrary to many peoples’ expectations on this question.   The rest is grammatically correct.  This is a promising choice.

The section before the underlined section is a subordinate clause beginning with “while”, so the independent clause, the main clause of the sentence, must come in the underlined section.  Choice (C) has no verb, and thus would create a sentence with no verb.  This is the  missing verb mistake(C) is incorrect.

Choice (D) has an odd construction.  After the initial subordinate clause, it has a noun + modifier “osmium, holding this distinction”, then a conjunction and an independent clause.  This has the effect of leaving “osmium” as a free-floating noun in the sentence, not part of any clause.   Furthermore, the “for” clause would introduce an explanation, but here, it illogically suggests that what the pattern is called, not the pattern itself, is the explanation of osmium’s properties.  (D) is incorrect.

Choice (E), like choice (C), has no verb, and thereby creates a sentence with no main verb.   Furthermore, the “because” clause suggests illogically that what the pattern is called, not the pattern itself, is the explanation of osmium’s properties.  (E) is incorrect.

The only possible answer is (B).

 

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

14 Responses to GMAT Idioms: Three Sophisticated Idioms

  1. Martin August 6, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Hi Mike,

    I have a question regarding the structure “Had A done X rather than Y”.

    When we use the [gerund] after the “rather than”, aren´t we introducing a parallelism problem? We are putting in parallel “done X” (a verb in the past participle) with “Y” (a gerund).

    Please could you clarify whether my understanding is wrong?

    Thank you!

    Rodrigo

    • Mike
      Mike August 6, 2014 at 10:30 am #

      Dear Martin (or Rodrigo?)
      This is an enormously subtle point, a point you absolutely 100% do not need to know for the GMAT. Yes, technically, if we have [VERB]“rather than”[GERUND], that’s not perfect parallelism, but in this context, it’s an acceptable variation. Again, this is not something you need to understand. This is something leagues beyond what the GMAT SC would ever expect you to know.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  2. Adwait May 11, 2014 at 5:08 am #

    Q1.- B
    I didn’t get you..Can it be more english:)

    • Mike
      Mike May 11, 2014 at 11:07 am #

      Dear Adwait
      When you need to describe an action, the GMAT wants you to use a conjunction (because, while, since, …) with [noun] + [verb]. On the GMAT, “with” + [noun] + [participle] is not appropriate for discussing an action.
      Also, subjunctive mood is used for talking about hypothetical or contrary-to-fact (“If I were a king“). The indicative mood is used for factual statements — almost every sentence in this blog article is in the indicative. See:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-grammar-the-subjunctive-tense/
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  3. Tuan December 31, 2013 at 12:23 am #

    Hi Mike,
    I have one small concern about question 2. In that question, you have suggested that comparison structure utilised in B sentence is correct. However, when I read the whole sentence, I personally feel that comparing between “Bach’s astonishing output of music” with “Brahms’ compositions” is not really compatible, clear and of perfect logical meaning. Rather than that, in my opinion, a phrase like “Brahms’ modest collection of published compositions” would be more suitable and make sense. Another way is possibly to use “Compared to Bach’s compositions which are carefully stored and widely published ….., Brahms’ compositions”. So that is my concern. Please give me your idea.
    P/S: I really really appreciate your time and effort put in these wonderful lessons. I found this website on GMATclub forum 2 days ago and from there I do not need to touch any other SC resources, whether of Manhattan or of Kaplan Premier. SC lessons posted on this website should be all I need for my GMAT prep. Thank you very much.

    • Mike
      Mike December 31, 2013 at 7:41 am #

      Dear Tuan,
      Two nouns in parallel do not need to be modified in exactly the same way. Yes, parallel modification helps to underscore the parallelism, and at times, that is rhetorically desirable, but it’s not always necessary. Fundamentally, “Bach’s astonishing output of music” is a bunch of music, and “Brahms’ compositions” are another bunch of music, so that fits the basic requirement for parallelism — they are members of the same logical category. This would be perfectly acceptable parallelism on the GMAT, if everything else about (B) were correct. Does this make sense?
      Thank you for your kind words. I’m very glad you are finding this site helpful.
      Mike :-)

  4. panos82000 December 18, 2013 at 4:19 am #

    Hi!

    in the 3rd question the answer is B.
    However it does not follow the pattern: because + noun + verb. We are missing the verb!

    How is that?

    • Mike
      Mike December 18, 2013 at 5:55 am #

      Dear panos82000,
      That option, instead of using the subordinate conjunction “because”, uses the compound preposition “because of”. This is a very important distinction. See:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-idiom-because-vs-because-of/
      Mike :-)

      • panos82000 December 18, 2013 at 6:16 am #

        Hi Mike,

        thank you so much. It really helped!

        Panos

        • Mike
          Mike December 18, 2013 at 8:49 am #

          Panos,
          You are quite welcome, my friend. Best of luck to you!
          Mike :-)

  5. blueseas August 27, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

    great article…

    thanks a lot..:)

    • Mike
      Mike August 28, 2013 at 9:40 am #

      Dear Blue Seas,
      I’m glad you liked it. Best of luck to you!
      Mike :-)

  6. Jian Xu July 17, 2013 at 12:21 am #

    For the first practice question, the pronoun “it” in answer D), E) also very questionable.

    • Mike
      Mike July 17, 2013 at 9:26 am #

      Dear Jian,
      YES! As I explain in the solutions, choices (D) & (E) of that first question make a classic GMAT pronoun mistake, a total trainwreck. It’s good that you caught that.
      Mike :-)


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