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March 08, 2010

Knewton: What Not to Not Do with Multiple or Complex Negations on the GMAT

My blog's sponsor and GMAT content provider has provided me with the following post on the verbal section. If you have not done so, consider taking a free trial of Knewton GMAT.


It’s Wordy, It’s Awkward, It’s… Correct!

What Not to Not Do with Multiple or Complex Negations on the GMAT

Alex Sarlin is a Content Developer at Knewton where he helps students with their GMAT prep.

The GMAT has a limited bag of tricks up its sleeve to disguise incorrect answer choices. Think of the test-makers as politicians caught in a fib; they can exaggerate (extreme answer choices), skirt the subject (irrelevant answer choices), twist the truth further (distortions), or draw dubious inferences to throw you off their scent. In the end, though, any politician will tell you that the most efficient way to get away with a lie is to simply confuse your accuser into submission. The GMAT usually does this by using negation and reversals in unexpected and mystifying ways.
Negations are words that reverse the meaning of a sentence. They include adverbs and adjectives, such as not, cannot, unlike, or without, and verbs that negate their subjects, such as neglect, deny, reverse, refuse, or counteract. Negations can make parsing sentences into a nightmare, especially during the GMAT, when reading quickly is a key skill. Dealing with negations and reversals effectively is doubly important for non-native English speakers, for whom unraveling complicated sentences is sometimes even more difficult.

Consider the following statement:
Employees with children are just as responsible as those without children.
That makes sense. Now, let's throw in a reversal such as you would see on the GMAT:
An employee with children at home is no more likely to neglect his or her work duties than is an employee without children at home.
It's already getting a bit ugly and difficult to parse, but after a moment, we can recognize that “no more likely to neglect his or her work duties” means the same thing as “just as responsible” does. Let's add a few more twists:
Unlike the inconclusive results of research conducted on employees with and without disabled older relatives, the results of one recent study found that employees with children at home are no more likely to neglect their work duties than are employees without children at home; however, the same cannot be said for such employees' attentiveness to housekeeping duties.
Wow, that's a mouthful! There are many, many negations and reversals in this sentence, all of which are there to make the core meaning of the sentence difficult to spot.
Never fear! There are methods to handle negation and reversals on the GMAT that are sure to make it less stressful.

1. Train yourself not only to notice, but to physically feel any negation words that pop up in an argument, passage, or answer choice.
Did you notice the “not only” at the beginning of the last sentence? We hope so. By “feel,” we mean that you should train your brain to be on high alert as soon as you spot a negation; when you read “The CEO denied the charges that his management style had sunk the company's financial situation, but not that it was responsible for the rise in employee morale,” that very first “denied” should color the way you read the entire rest of the sentence; everything after that point is being denied, and any further reversals must fit into that framework as well.

2. When multiple negations appear in a sentence, they can, but don't always, cancel one another out.
a. Unlike Renaissance scientists, early Medieval scientists were not expected to perform impartial experiments.
b. The new vaccine could not decrease the rate of infection among the antelope population.
In (a) above, the negations cancel one another out; we can be sure that Renaissance scientists were expected to perform impartial experiments. In (b), though, we cannot know whether the vaccine increased the rate of infection or whether the rate of infection stayed exactly the same. "Not decrease" does not necessarily mean "increase"... but it could! Think logically! Furthermore, incorrect answer choices often play on this double negation trick; if (b) was in an argument, the GMAT would be likely to offer an incorrect answer choice that states “The rate of infection among the antelope population has increased since the introduction of the vaccine.” This is not necessarily true, and would be an invalid inference and an incorrect answer.

3. Let yourself be a ping-pong ball.
The worst thing you can do is to plow through negations without noticing that they are there; instead, let them bounce your understanding of the sentence around freely, back and forth, until the meaning becomes clear. Practice on this sentence, which has no less than seven negation words or reversals:
Although neither a lack of iron nor a lack of vitamin B12 is a guaranteed predictor of anemia, a condition in which the body does not have enough red blood cells, both of these deficiencies may, in the absence of other countervailing measures, cause the condition.

4. Don't be afraid to re-read sentences with complex negations and to rephrase them in your own words.
An extra few seconds of reading is always better than choosing an incorrect answer. Speaking complex sentences out loud helps many test-takers as well (but not too loudly; mind the others in the room!).
Good luck, and one last piece of advice from us at Knewton:
Never forget to avoid ignoring negations!

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