Knewton Support/GMAT Sentence Correction/SC Strategy & Class Questions

Ambiguous meanings

Academics Team
posted this on June 20, 2011 12:41 PM

Student Question: 

I am a little bit confused by ambiguity with pronoun agreements and 

For example comparisons: 
"Grades for this semester are much lower than last semester" 
Apparently there is ambiguity because grades could be compared to 
semester. However, I have seen that such ambiguity is ruled out in 
other cases because such a comparison doesn't make sense.

For example pronouns: 
"When Norma and her husband read an article about Florida's adorable 
manatees, they promised each other that they would one day go to 
Florida and see one." 
Apparently "they" is not ambiguous and I believe this is the case 
because it doesn't make sense when it refers to manatees.

So my question is, does meaning matter when it comes to comparisons 
and pronoun agreement? If it is obvious that the sentence doesn't make 
sense when manatees go to Florida, can I dismiss this choice? I feel 
the Gmat isn't 100% clear on these two issues.





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Academics Team
Knewton, Inc.

Great question!  

The answer differs for comparisons and pronouns, however.  The GMAT is much stricter with comparisons than with pronouns.  Even though it makes no sense to compare grades to a semester, the very structure of that sentence indicates that grades and semesters are the two entities being compared by this sentence.  And that is incorrect, no matter how illogical the comparison may seem.  If we changed the sentence to say, "Grades for this semester are much lower than grades for last semester," we'd be comparing grades to grades and the sentence would be fixed.  But if a comparison is set up wrong--if it doesn't make sense structurally--the logic and/or meaning doesn't matter.  On the GMAT, we MUST compare appropriate entities to one another; if we do not, the sentence is wrong.  End of story.

Pronouns are a different story.  Pronoun ambiguity is not about structure, it's about vagueness.  A sentence has an ambiguous pronoun when a pronoun has more than one possible antecedent.  Like in your example, where 'they' could be referring to 'Norma and her husband' or to 'manatees.'  BUT--and this is the key difference--when dealing with an ambiguous pronoun, we DO take meaning and logic into account.  If there's a sentence--like the one about the husband and wife and the manatees--which contains a pronoun that theoretically has more than one possible antecedent, that's not enough to make that sentence wrong.  We first have to check the logic of the sentence; if only one of the antecedents is logically possible, then the pronoun is not vague, and the sentence is fine.  The sentence you used as an example works this way, as does the following sentence:

"The three mechanics in matching leather jackets worked on three motorcycles all weekend, but only one of them was built from reclaimed parts."

The pronoun 'them' in this sentence can theoretically refer to 'mechanics', 'jackets', or 'motorcycles', but it only makes logical sense for a motorcycle to be built from reclaimed parts.  As such, the pronoun in this sentence is not vague.

And here's an example of a sentence where the pronoun IS vague:

"John and Billy were caught stealing bread, but, after a round of interrogation, the cops let him go."

In this case, 'him' could be John or Billy, and there's no logical reason why it should be one or the other, so this pronoun IS vague, and this sentence, as a result, is incorrect.

Hope this helps!

Jason S
Knewton Verbal Expert 

June 20, 2011 12:56 PM