On the GMAT sentence corrections, an “idiom” is a recognized grammatical construction that is a rule simply because of tradition. The idiom constitutes the ultimate tautology: we say something a certain way because, well, that’s how we say it.
On the test, most of the idioms you will face involve preposition usage. Why do I listen “to” the radio instead of listen “at” the radio? We say “listen to” because that is how English speakers have said it for hundreds of years. We like it that way, and we are not willing to change.
For some test-takers, idiom errors can be the easiest to spot on the exam. To these test-takers, an idiom error sticks out like a sore thumb. When they read something like “listen at the radio,” they hear dissonance. The only way to restore grammatical harmony is to replace the grating “at” with the soothing “to.” Balance is restored.
English as second language
Not everybody thinks this way. For many who learned English as a second language, and even for those who have a purely logical--as opposed to intuitive--understanding of language, idiom errors are extremely difficult to detect. After all, there is no logical explanation for why we say “listen to” instead of “listen at.”
Even if you think you know English idioms like the back of your hand, take a glance at the following list idiomatic expressions, many of which test preposition usage. You may find that you’ve been saying something incorrectly all this time (gasp!).
as great as
as good as
as good as
or better than
a debate over
a dispute over
in danger of
not only..but also
While most of the word pairs in the list above will be obvious to you, try to find those with which you are not so familiar. Even better, if you find a preposition that sounds weird to you or even wrong, practice writing sentences with its correct usage and use the phrase in everyday speech. The more familiar these constructions become, the easier it will be to identify when they are being used incorrectly.
Here are a few examples to exercise your new idiom savvy:
1. I am preoccupied about my studies.
2. She had a fondness toward dolls when she was little.
3. The GMAT consists in three main sections.
1. I am preoccupied with my studies.
2. She had a fondness for dolls when she was little.
3. The GMAT consists of three sections.
Remember, the key to spotting idioms is asking yourself if a certain expression--often a prepositional phrase--can be said another way. Once you discover a better expression, you’ll realize that there may be an idiomatic error.
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