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Learn the Most Misused Words on the GMAT

word choice matters cartoonI was reading an article recently about Harvard linguist Steven Pinker’s new book, The Sense of Style, which aims to help readers improve their use of the English language. I was intrigued, naturally, to find applications for GMAT Sentence Correction where proper diction is one of the eight major areas tested.

The article highlights 20 of the most misused words in the English language, and while I was already well-versed in most of them, a couple of them were eye-opening for me — particularly #3! You can click here to check out the article for yourself.

In any event, it’s worth expanding on Pinker’s list and exploring the most misused words you’ll encounter on GMAT Sentence Corrections, so let’s take a closer look.

GMAT Diction

Good diction means using the right words in the right ways. Often when studying for GMAT sentence correction questions, students spend most of their time focusing on identifying grammar mistakes — you know, things like faulty subject-verb agreement, pronouns that don’t agree with their antecedents, misplaced modifiers, or incorrect verb tenses. That’s valuable on the GMAT to be sure, but equally important is being able to identify effective English expression, and proper diction is part of that.

Now according to Pinker, English is a flexible, global language and doesn’t have an official governing body like, say, French. As such, there’s no definitive answer to whether you’re using a word “correctly,” that it all comes down to personal taste or context.

Be that as it may, there are definitive standards for what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to certain words on the GMAT, so let’s take a closer look at the most important ones you should know.

But first, a sample GMAT sentence correction question testing diction (hint: check out #20 in the article about Pinker!):

Rome’s great intellectual achievements laid in organizing the Empire, but Greece’s had laid in mathematical and philosophical breakthroughs.

(A) laid in organizing the Empire, but Greece’s had laid
(B) laid in the organization of the Empire, but Greece’s had lain
(C) laid in organizing the Empire, whereas Greece’s had lain
(D) lay in organizing the Empire, whereas Greece’s had lain
(E) lay in the organization of the Empire, whereas Greece’s had laid

What’s the answer? Post your thoughts in the “Comments” area below. We’ll revisit this question at the end of this article. But now let’s take a closer look at key diction word choices you should know for the GMAT.

Diction Review: Commonly Misused Words on the GMAT

Affect vs. Effect

Affect is a verb meaning “to influence.” Example: The injury to our star player will greatly affect our team chemistry.

Effect is a noun meaning “result.” Example: The long-term effect of the new anti-depressant drug is not yet known.

Effect is also a verb meaning “to bring about.” Example: A good leader seeks to effect hard work and loyalty from his compatriots.

Better vs. Best

Better is used when comparing two things. Example: [When comparing John and Sally] John is the better singer.

Best is used when comparing three or more things. Example: Phil is the best gymnast in the state.

Between vs. Among

Use between to discuss two things. Example: Ultimately the election came down to a choice between a Republican and a Democrat.

Use among to discuss three or more things. Example: Four of the students in my school were among the finalists for the prestigious scholarship.

Differs from vs. Differ with

Differ from is used when discussing characteristics. Example: Colombian Spanish differs from the Spanish spoken in Spain.

Use differ with to convey the idea of disagreement. Example: I differed with my boss on the future direction of the company, and ultimately I believe that’s why I was fired.

Beware! Signs you see in everyday life may not be grammatically correct.

Beware! Signs you see in everyday life may not be grammatically correct.

Fewer vs. Less

Fewer refers to things that can be counted (e.g. people, chairs, incidents). Example: There are fewer participants in our weight loss contest this month than right after the new year.

Less refers to things that cannot be counted (e.g. money, water, sand). Example: There’s less rice today because of the severe drought last year. (Note: “Rice” is considered uncountable, however “grains of rice” would be considered countable. Thus an alternative sentence might read: There are fewer grains of rice on my plate than on my brother’s.)

For more tips and examples, see our article on Countable vs. Uncountable Nouns.

If vs. Whether

Use if to express one possibility, especially conditional statements. Example: There a great chance of getting out of jury duty if you tell the judge you’re married to a lawyer.

Use whether to express two (or more) possibilities. Example: Winning usually comes down to whether you execute on the fundamentals. (The implied “whether or not” creates two possibilities.)

Instead of vs. Rather than

The meaning of instead of and rather than are virtually indistinguishable. Rather, your usage choice should come down to grammatical context.

Instead of is a compound preposition, and thus the object of the preposition must be a noun. Example: Sandra decided to take the GMAT instead of the GRE. Note: You wouldn’t say, Peter biked to work instead of drove.

Rather than can compare nouns or verbs. As such it’s more likely to be correct, so when in doubt on the GMAT, go with rather than. Example: Peter biked to work rather than drove.

Lie vs. Lay

As discussed in the Pinker article, lie means “to recline.” Example: Ever the sluggard, my do-nothing boyfriend just lies around on the couch all day. Conjugation: Present = lie, Past = lay, Perfect Participle = lain, Present Participle = lying.

Lay means “to set down.” Example: He lays the book on the table. Conjugation: Present = lay, Past = laid, Perfect Participle = laid, Present Participle = laying.

Note: Lie is an intransitive verb, which means that it doesn’t require a direct object to complete its meaning, whereas lay is a transitive verb and thus requires a direct object.

Phenomena vs. Phenomenon

The difference between phenomena and phenomenon has less to do with diction and more to do with correctly recognizing singular vs. plural nouns. The nuances of this topic are covered in detail in our GMAT Sentence Correction course, specifically in the subject-verb agreement lesson, but for now it’s helpful to know phenomena/phenomenon, which is the “challenging” one that appears most on the GMAT.

Phenomenon is singular. Example: The phenomenon of public education is another example of democracy in America.

Phenomena is plural. Example: The phenomena of public demonstrations are another example of democracy in America.

Sample Problem Explained

With your GMAT diction review complete, especially the difference between lay and lie, how did you do on the sample GMAT verbal question above?

The verb “to lie” means “to recline,” but metaphorically, is also means “to be located.” That’s clearly the definition necessary for both usages of the verb in the underlined portion of this sentence. For the first instance of the verb, the past tense of “to lie” is lay. Thus we can eliminate answer choices A, B, and C. For the second instance of the verb, the past participle is lain. Thus the correct answer is D.

Still confused? Any other burning GMAT diction questions weighing you down? Post them in the “Comments” area below or e-mail me personally at [email protected]. Study hard!