Grammar vs Meaning
- March 30, 2017
- Posted by: gmatdudes
- Category: Strategies and Tips
Should we sacrifice meaning in order to get a correct sentence or sacrifice grammar in order to preserve meaning?
By Clipper Ledgard
When dealing with a sentence correction question, most students and teachers focus on grammar, relegating meaning to a less important factor. However, some examples such as the one in the article Modifiers: Grammar and Meaning, which can be found in this site, show us that focusing on meaning can be even more effective than focusing on grammar.
Focusing on grammar can also lead to neglecting the meaning. By strictly following the rules and guidelines for effective writing, we may get an error free sentence that does not reflect the original meaning. In this case, we could relax some of the guidelines for effective writing, but not the rules, so that the original meaning is preserved.
We know that a sentence correction question tests the correctness of a sentence. The correct answer choice must be grammatically correct – it must follow the rules of standard written English – and convey the author’s intended idea; these two points are necessary. Other points, such as clarity and conciseness, although not necessary, are also important; an effective sentence should avoid awkwardness, redundancy and ambiguity.
So, when we attack a sentence correction question, we should focus equally on both grammar and meaning. In addition, we must bear in mind that the author’s intended meaning should be reflected in original sentence. Therefore, in order to preserve the original meaning, we may need to be a bit flexible – yet not incorrect – about grammar and usage.
Sometimes, the meaning in the original sentence is unclear or incorrect. In this case, we must try to guess what the author wanted to say. Take a look at this example:
According to a recent study of home buyers, the location of a house correlates more with its price than with its quality of construction.
A) the location of a house correlates more with its price than with
B) the location of a house correlates more with its price as does
C) the location of a house correlates more with its price than does
D) the price of a house correlates more to its location than does
E) the location of a house correlates more to its price than to
The original sentence tells us that the price of a home affects the location more than the quality of its construction affects its location. While this could be true, the sentence does not make much sense, so we can assume that the author did not mean to say so. Therefore, we are allowed to change the original meaning; the resulting sentence, however, must reflect the author’s intended meaning: The location of a home affects the price more than the quality of its construction affects the price. Only answer choice C is grammatically correct and has this meaning.
Most of the times, however, the meaning of the original sentence is clear and logical, so we should not change the original meaning; thus we focus on grammar. Let’s analyze the following example.
Technological advancements affect all aspects of human development but their repercussions affect the flora, fauna, and geology of the planet as well.
A) Technological advancements affect all aspects of human development but their repercussions affect the flora, fauna
B) Technological advancements are affecting all aspects of human development but have repercussions that reach into the flora, fauna
C) Technology advancements are affecting all aspects of human development but have repercussions that reach into the fauna, flora
D) Technological advancements are affecting all aspects of human development but have repercussions that can reach into the fauna, flora
E) Technology advancements affect all aspects of human development but have repercussions that reach into the flora, fauna
We can find several splits:
Between “technology” and “technological,” we should select the adjective technological, so we should eliminate C and E
We should eliminate A, because it joins two independent clauses without a comma and because it uses the ambiguous pronoun “their”, which may refer to “advancements”, but also to “aspects”. We can also eliminate D because “can” changes the meaning of the original sentence.
This leaves us with choice B, which is the official answer.
However, choice B replaces the original verb in present simple “affect” with the verb in present progressive “are affecting”. This difference in tenses changes the original meaning: the original sentence means that the advancements “always” affect…, while choice B means that the advancements “are affecting” these days, not always.
So B does not convey the original meaning, meaning that is clear and logical. Then what answer should we choose? What is our priority, grammar or meaning?
If we understand that meaning is essential, we need to look back at the grammar. The use of language creates the grammar, so grammar may change overtime, and different authorities may have opposite opinions about the correct usage of language. Let´s reconsider the split between “technology” and “technological”. The sentence requires an adjective here, so we selected “technology”. On second thought, however, many expressions use nouns as adjectives – TV programs, drama series, etc. – we can even find the expression ”technology advances“ on the web – https://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2014/12/the-10-best-technology-advances-of-2014.html .
In conclusion, if we want to avoid a change in meaning, we can look for a grammar point that is arguable. It can be about usage, or it can be a redundancy or an ambiguity that does not interfere with the meaning of the sentence and is not grammatically incorrect.