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GMAT Sentence Correction: Means of vs. Means to

Learn these subtle distinctions for some of the trickiest GMAT Sentence Correction questions!

 

Question

First, consider this question before you read the post.

1) In a recent policy shift, the management of the county’s public senior-citizen facilities has cut staff hours as means to greater economic sustainability and has lowered the percentage of new residents it will accept whose only source of income is Social Security.

(A) to greater economic sustainability and has lowered
(B) to greater sustainability economically and has lowered
(C) of greater economic sustainability and lowering
(D) of greater sustainability economically and lowering
(E) for greater economic sustainability and the lowering of

A complete explanation of this question will come at the end of this post.

 

The Difference a Preposition Makes

One of the splits in this SC question is the opening preposition, the preposition which accompanies “means” in the stem.

This is one of the subtlest of English idioms.  First of all, “means for” is wrong 100% of the time: that’s easy.  What’s difficult is the difference between “means of” and “means to.”

When we say “X as a means of Y” suggests that X is a kind of Y.  For example, I might say:

2) Dining out only seldom is a means of saving money.

3) Hand gestures alone do not always suffice as a means of communication.

In #2, there are many ways to save money, and one of those, one kind of way to save money, is to dine out infrequently.  In #3, there are several forms of communication, and one of those, although not always the most efficient, are hand gestures.

Notice, in particular, the specific English idiom “by means of”, which means “with the use or help of.”

4) Having lost my paddles downstream, I rowed the canoe by means of a plank.

By contrast, the idiom “X as a means to Y” clearly delineates a difference between X and Y: X is a step on the way to Y, but X and Y are clearly different things, and one’s intent is to use X and thereby move past it toward Y.  In this construct, Y is the true goal, the true object of one’s intention, and X is merely a method employed to achieve this goal.

5) She adopted a no-carb diet as a means to losing weight quickly.

6) The historic town invested in a billboard along the nearby interstate as a means to increased tourism.

In #5, the no-carbs diet is not a goal in and of itself: rather, it is simply a tool, a method, but which the person in question intends to lose weight.  In #6, the billboard is not a goal in and of itself; the town’s goal is increased tourism, and the billboard is simply a method they hope will achieve this.

By no means should you assume these are the only idioms in English involving “means”, but by all means you should study this particular distinction, a possible split on more challenging Sentence Correction questions.  We want to support your understanding of GMAT SC by any means!

 

The Question Again

1) In a recent policy shift, the management of the county’s public senior-citizen facilities have cut staff hours as means to greater economic sustainability and have lowered the percentage of new residents it will accept whose only source of income is Social Security.

    (A) to greater economic sustainability and have lowered
    (B) to greater sustainability economically and have lowered
    (C) of greater economic sustainability and lowering
    (D) of greater sustainability economically and lowering
    (E) for greater economic sustainability and the lowering of

 

The Explanation

The foregoing discussion has probably helped you narrow down the choices.  “Means for” is always wrong, so (E) is out.  Here we are discussing cutting staff hours vs. greater economic sustainability.  We don’t want to suggest that cutting staff hours is a kind of greater economic sustainability.  Rather, cutting staff hours is not desirable in and of itself, but it’s a step the senior-citizen facilities are taking to reach their intended goal of greater economic sustainability.  Therefore, in this context, “means to” is correct and “means of” is incorrect.  That narrows choices down to (A) and (B).

Notice, also, the verbs “has cut” and “has lowered”/”lowering” must be in parallel, so “has lowered” is correct —- also (A) and (B) only.  The difference between them is another tricky split I have discussed in this post: http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-sentence-correction-the-power-of-al-the-adjectival-ending/.  The phrase “greater economic sustainability” tells us specifically: what kind of sustainability?  Very specifically, they want to stay financially afloat: that’s economic sustainability.  By contrast, “greater sustainability economically” means they want broader sustainability in general (financial, emotional, moral, spiritual, etc.) and they want to achieve this broad sustainability economically, that is to say, at low cost.  In context, that’s wacky.  Clearly, the word “economic”/”economically” is supposed to tell us the specific kind of sustainability, not to qualify that this broad open-ended sustainability should be achieved with cost-cutting measure.  Therefore, (A) is the best answer.

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23 Responses to GMAT Sentence Correction: Means of vs. Means to

  1. Anvesh November 18, 2017 at 10:34 pm #

    “By no means should you assume these are the only idioms in English involving “means”, but by all means you should study this particular distinction, a possible split on more challenging Sentence Correction questions. We want to support your understanding of GMAT SC by any means!” – Very creative

  2. yigal miller September 28, 2016 at 2:03 am #

    Hello,
    Can you use a verb after means to?
    People have used parables as a mean to provide a refreshing look at life

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert September 30, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

      Hi Yigal,

      Yes, this is correct, except that it should say “as a means to provide,” not “as a mean to provide.” 🙂

  3. Guragam Singh July 6, 2016 at 9:54 am #

    Hi,
    Could you explain #2 and #5 again? Isn’t dininig out a ‘tool’ as well, in order to save money?
    Thanks

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 23, 2016 at 6:55 pm #

      “Dining out” can actually be a type of thing or a tool. If you want to say dining out is the same thing as an activity seldom saves money, you would the #2 sentence: “Dining out only seldom is a means of saving money.” If you want to say that dining out is a tool that leads to the activity of seldom saving money, you could say “Dining out is seldom a means to saving money.”

      Example #5 is similarly flexible. In “She adopted a no-carb diet as a means to losing weight quickly,” adopting a no-carb diet is a tool for completing a separate act– the act of losing weight quickly. But you could also say “She adopted a no-carb diet as a means of losing weight quickly,” if you want to say that adopting a no-carb diet is a weight loss method and is thus equal to losing weight quickly.

      In GMAT questions, of course, you will see sentences that are more complicated and don’t have this kind of flexibility. Distinctions between “means of” and “means to” will be less subtle on the GMAT, and have one clearly correct answer.

  4. Kunal April 8, 2014 at 11:08 am #

    Do following two sentences convey same meaning ? Can we use ‘so as to’ or ‘in order to’ in place of ‘as a means to’ ?

    She adopted a no-carb diet as a means to losing weight quickly.
    She adopted a no-carb diet so as to lose weight quickly.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike April 8, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

      Dear Kunal,
      In this sentence, these two mean the same thing. I would hesitate to say that they always mean the same thing. I would also say: both are awkward. Since the context is informal, it would be much more direct to use the simple infinitive of purpose:
      She adopted a no-carb diet to lose weight quickly.
      The “so as to” structure in this sentence sounds unnecessarily pretentious, given the informality of the content.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Kunal April 8, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

        Mike,

        I thank you for your quick response.
        Does this mean that we can always replace “as a means to” with “infinitive of purpose” ?
        I understand that “so as to” has a formal tone. But, I am confused here, as I don’t see any purpose of “as a means to” idiom, other than just to decorate a sentence. Is it a correct assumption ?

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike April 8, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

          Dear Kumal,
          NO! You usually cannot replace “as a means to” with the infinitive of purpose; among other things, the object of “to” usually is NOT an action: it simply was in your example, but not in the sample question on this page. The “as a means to” idiom is very subtle, and it is not purely decorative. I would suggest looking for it in sophisticated reading — the NYT, the WSJ, the Economist magazine, etc. Look for it in real-life writing, and you will develop a sense for it over time.
          Mike 🙂

          • Kunal April 8, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

            Thanks, Mike.

            This will help.

            • Mike MᶜGarry
              Mike April 9, 2014 at 11:35 am #

              Kunal,
              You are quite welcome. Best of luck to you.
              Mike 🙂

  5. DB March 10, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    Thanks Mike, this is super helpful! By the way, you missed an ‘l’ in the question above, so ‘public’ looks like ‘pubic’.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike March 10, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

      Dear DB,
      I’m glad you found this helpful. Thanks for pointing out the typo: I just corrected it. That’s one of the more embarrassing single-letter omissions!
      Mike 🙂

  6. Laura February 16, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    This is really great! Can you please say more about the difference between numbers 2 and 5? I see them as exactly the same, i.e. dining out only seldom is not a goal in itself but a method of saving money. The low-carb diet is one way (or kind of) losing weight. Can you say more about the difference?

    Much thanks!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike February 16, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

      Laura,
      Understand, we are on the ground of subtle implication here, so the distinctions are not going to be black-and-white crystal clear.
      Think of it this way. If I said, “I want to save money: what should I do?”, then you might give me dozens of different suggestions, which may or may not even mention whether or not to “dine out.” A whole book on living economically might have dozens of recommendations, and may or may not mention “dining out.”
      Now, suppose I said, “I want to lose weight: what should I do?” Probably a low-carb or non-carb diet would be on almost everybody’s short list of recommendations. Any modern book on weight-loss, even if it does not advocate a low-carb or no-carb diet, would necessarily have to address those in some way only because so many people regard one or the other as a viable alternative.
      In this sense, a “no-carb diet” is “closer” to the goal of “losing weight”, and more intimately related to it, than is “not dining out,” to the goal of “saving money.”
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  7. CM January 14, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    This is one of the more helpful grammar explanations I’ve read online. Thank you. (FYI: public senior-citizen facilities)

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike January 14, 2014 at 9:51 am #

      Dear CM,
      You are more than welcome, my friend. Best of luck to you!
      Mike 🙂

  8. YMC August 14, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    Mike,
    You rock!
    Your explanations are way too good. Keep up the good work.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike August 14, 2013 at 11:21 am #

      Dear YMC,
      Thank you for your kind words. Best of luck to you!
      Mike 🙂

  9. Bushra October 3, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    It is equally confusing. I mean in the start when you said “Dining out only seldom is a means of saving money”. One possible explanation can be that saving money is a goal and not dining out is a method to achieve that goal, then why not “means to”?

    Would you please elaborate a little more on this.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike October 4, 2012 at 11:27 am #

      Dear Bushra: Understand that, as with many things in grammar, this distinction is not “mathematical” — everything in grammar involves the feel of the language, the feel of the situation in which the language is used. If I usually eat out 5 nights a week, and then, needing to save money, I don’t eat out for a week, right there, that’s more money in my pocket. There’s a kind of immediacy to it. In #6 and especially in #7, there’s not the same kind of immediacy. This gets into a gray philosophical area: in what sense is a cause the same as its effect, and in what sense are a cause and effect different? We could debate that for years. For the GMAT SC, it’s enough to have an awareness of this idiom on your radar, so that you know the criterion when it arrives in context. Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  10. veeramani July 7, 2012 at 3:24 am #

    mike,recently in web i came across 1000sc material and is it worth of doing those questions

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike July 9, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

      Veeramani: I am not too familiar with the 1000SC, but from the little that I have seen, they seem good. If something about any question or explanation seems suspect, don’t take it as gospel — ask us, or post a question on the forums.
      Mike 🙂


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