Diction on the GMAT Sentence Correction

First, a few practice sentences

1) The publication of Joyce‘s Ulysses was blocked on grounds of obscenity by the courts in the United States, but he published it in Paris in which there were less restricted novel contents.

    (A) he published it in Paris in which there were less restricted novel contents
    (B) he published the novel in Paris which had less restricted novel contents
    (C) Joyce published it in Paris where the content of novels was less restricted
    (D) Joyce published it in Paris where there were less restrictions for the contents of novels
    (E) Joyce published this novel in Paris in which there were less restrictions for the contents of such novels

2) The vice-president of engineering argued that the biggest advantage of the proposed alloy for the designs of the new fuselage would lay in not its unusually light weight but in its superior resistance to the corrosive influence of the elements.

    (A) would lay in not its
    (B) would lie not in its
    (C) will lie in not their
    (D) will lay not in its
    (E) would lay in not their

3) Deaths by drowning at the state beach have increased by 35% this year, due not to having less lifeguards but to dramatic changes in ocean currents.

    (A) due not to having less lifeguards but to
    (B) due not to having fewer lifeguards but
    (C) because of not having less lifeguards but
    (D) because it had not less lifeguards but
    (E) not because it had fewer lifeguards but because it saw

Full explanations to these will follow this article.



One of the topics the GMAT tests on Sentence Correction is Diction.  What is Diction? Diction concerns the proper use of individual words.  Whereas idioms primarily concern combinations of words (e.g. what verb goes with what preposition), diction concerns the specific usage of individual words.  You see, some words in the English language are badly abused in ordinary colloquial conversation.  The great arch-purist T.S. Eliot complained that words “decay with imprecision.”

For example, the word “nice” represents a diction battle that the purists lost and that the ignorant masses won.  Originally, the word “nice” meant “exacting in standards or requirements” or “characterized by, or demanding, a high degree of precision.”  Almost a century ago, if a scientific paper was described as having “nice measurements”, that was high technical praise for the rigorous quality and precision of the measurements.  Somehow, the very untechnical, unrigorous masses retain the connotation of praise, but reduce the word to its current meaning — a weak, bland, casual expression of vague agreeability and approval.  From a purist’s point of view, this is a dead word, a word that has died a terribly distasteful death.  In a quixotic gesture, some dictionaries will still list the former definition of “nice”, but in practice, no one uses the word that way anymore.  You will not see “nice” on the GMAT.

This is a battle that the purists have lost.  Other battles are much more current, and pit the wide usage in formal language against the wide usage in casual language and in the popular media.  These are the Diction issues you will see on the GMAT.  Some of these include

= less vs. fewer

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= lie vs. lay

= due to vs. because vs. because of

= listing examples: “like/” vs. “such as”

One can see a Diction mistake involving the first split at almost supermarket in the United States — inevitably, some express lane will have a benighted sign such as “10 items or less.”  The battle continues.

Check out those links if the precise usage of those words in not crystal clear to you.



If this article, or the linked articles, gave you any “aha” into the questions at the top, then take another look at those questions before reading this article.   If you have any questions about this topic, please let us know in the comment section.


Practice questions explanations

1) Split #1a: pronoun agreement.  Who is the “he” in the underlined section?  Presumably, James Joyce.  The problem is: Joyce’s name appears only in the possessive, which cannot be a proper antecedent for a pronoun.  If we want to discuss James Joyce in the underlined section, we need to mention him again by name.  (A) & (B) make this agreement error and must be incorrect.

Split #1b: pronoun agreement.  Unlike the pronoun “he”, the pronoun “it” has a very clear antecedent: the book Ulysses.  We could say “the novel”, or we could just use the pronoun.  Either is correct.

Split #2: “in which” vs. “where”.  Paris is a physical location, so we can use either “in which” or “where” to modify it.  This is a false split.  Either is correct.

Split #3: the combination of words “less restricted novel contents” is very awkward — a clump of words like this would not be correct on the GMAT.   This provides another reason why (A) & (B) are unacceptable.

Split #4: “less” vs. “fewer”.  Choices (D) & (E) talk about “restrictions”, which are countable.  For a countable plural, we would need to say “fewer restrictions”, not “less restrictions.”  Choices (D) & (E) use the latter, so both are incorrect.   Also, (E) seems to be competing in a contest for most awkwardly long & wordy — it is a turgid trainwreck, completely unacceptable.

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

2) Split #1: “would” vs. “will”.  The word “will” denotes the unambiguous factual future: “X will happen.”  The word “would” indicates the subjunctive, which signals a tentative prediction or hypothetical assertion: “X would happen.”  Which is correct here?  Well, the new alloy is “proposed”, so it may be tentative, or perhaps the proposal was fully approved already and the use of the alloy is not in doubt.  We don’t have enough information to decide between these two.  We cannot eliminate answer choices based on this split.

Split #2: lie vs. lay.  We are talking about the where the biggest advantage “is located” — the verb that means “to be located” is “to lie.”  The word “to lay” is absolutely incorrect in this context, so choices (A) & (D) & (E) are all incorrect.

Split #3: the common word in parallelism.  We are using the parallel structure not P but Q.  Both P & Q are prepositional phrases in parallel, phrases following the preposition “in”.  Here, we need to follow the “once outside or twice inside” rule.   We could either have the preposition “in” appear once, outside the parallel structure, applying equally to both terms — in not P but Q — or it could appear inside the parallel structure twice, once in front of each term — not in P but in Q.  Notice that the second part, after the underlined section, has the preposition: “in its superior resistance …”  Therefore, “once outside” is not an option here: we must go with the “twice inside” plan.  This means, in the underlined section, the word “in” must follow the word “not” — only (B) & (D) get this correct, and the others must be incorrect because they have the wrong order.

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Split #4: pronoun.  What has the “unusually light weight”?  Either the alloy, the physical material, or the fuselage, the physical product — both are singular.  The only plural noun is “designs” — designs are ideas, so they don’t have physical weight.  The pronoun at the end of the underlined section must be the singular “its”, not the plural “their.” Choices (C) & (E) make this mistake and are incorrect.

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

3) Split #1: less vs. fewer.  Lifeguards are eminently countable.  You can only have a positive integer number of functioning lifeguards on any beach.   For countable nouns, we need to use “fewer”, not “less”.  The phrase “fewer lifeguards” is correct, “less lifeguards” is completely wrong: choices (A) & (C) & (D) make this mistake.

Split #2: problems with due to. The word “due” is an adjective, and as such, it can only modify a noun, most typically the noun it touches.  First of all, it clearly doesn’t modify “year”, the noun it touches.  More to the point, what the sentence is trying to do is identify the cause for an entire action, so we need adverbial phrase or clause to modify the entire independent clause.   The word “due” can’t do that, and (A) & (B) make this Diction mistake.

Split #3: logical problem.  The original sentence implies — yes, there were fewer lifeguards, but that’s not what caused the increase in drownings: rather, it was the dramatic change in ocean currents.   Choices (C) & (D) change the meaning, suggesting that there were not fewer lifeguards. This implies a scenario factually different from the one given in the prompt, so these are incorrect.

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


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