By Jacqueline Schaalje Henry Burrows
At last, a fun subject!.
Has it happened to you that you read a sentence and you thought: Heck, this sentence has no meaning? But then you read the sentence again, and a miracle happens: the pieces fall into place. And suddenly the sentence does make sense.
For instance, what do you make of this?
The old man the ship.
Doesn’t look like a sentence?
But it is. Just read “man” like a verb. “Man” as a verb means to do a job.
So actually the syntax is confusing here. This could happen to you more when you are reading English than when you’re reading in your own language. Or it could also happen less. When you’re sometimes confused about the meaning of an English sentence, it means that you already know quite a lot of English. If your English were terrible, you’d be confused all the time. Right?
Room for Confusion as English is Complex
As English is a flexible, rich language with multiple meanings for lots of words, there is room for confusion. These garden path sentences will confuse you even if your English is perfect and/or you are a linguistics teacher.
What causes the confusion?
Let’s look at a classic example, by Groucho Marx, a famous comedian:
Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.
Yup, this is a garden path sentence.
Garden path sentences are sentences that make a reader think they are incorrect, when they are actually correct. However, they can still be funny and absurd, like the one Marx served up. The joke is created by taking the word “outside,” and then contrasting it with inside in its literal meaning. Whereas in the first part, “outside” is not meant literally but it’s an adverb meaning except.
The term garden path sentence comes from the expression “to be led down the garden path,” which means to be fooled, to be taken into the wrong direction.
Different Reasons for You to Think a Sentence is Incorrect
There can be different reasons for you to think (at first reading) that the sentence is wrong. The second part of the sentence may fit badly with the first. Why could it fit badly? Well, for instance when there seems to be a parallel situation, but there is no real parallel.
Here is another, also classic example of that:
Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.
The first part of the sentence reads like a cliché about how fast time passes. “Flies” is a verb here. But in the second part of the sentence “flies” is a noun. Fruit flies are those tiny bugs that like to sit on your fruit, especially when the weather gets warmer.
And there’s a second thing that leads us astray (= fools us): “Like” is a preposition in the first part of the sentence; however, in the second part it is a verb.
So garden path sentences are often caused by confusion about the literal and figurative meaning of words, and when there is confusion about the word class of certain words in the sentence. When you interpret a word wrongly, you will end your reading of the sentence feeling that what you read was very odd. Possibly you will feel that what you’ve read was not a sentence.
Here is an example of that:
The management plans to cut vacation days are rejected.
You can read this in two ways, but only one is correct.
You can read “plans” as a verb. But then the sentence will not work out, as there is another verb at the end of the sentence: are rejected. Now try reading the sentence again while taking “plans” as a noun.
Now does the sentence make sense?
Here is another example where a word exists in two word classes. The word “cake” can mean a cake that you eat (it’s a noun) and it can also be a verb, which means stick or glue.
So you could have a garden path sentence that reads like this:
Cake in your mouth doesn’t cake on your face.
If you assume that the second cake is a noun too, this sentence will be gibberish.
Hint: Even after reading the sentence properly, it still is pretty nonsensical.
Here’s another example I found on the internet:
The horse raced past the barn fell.
What causes the confusion? The word “raced” is responsible. You’d think at first reading that it means “race” in the past, because mostly in English sentences you’d expect a verb following the subject. Read more about word order here.
But in this sentence, “raced” is not a verb. It’s an adjective. It describes what kind of horse it was, not what the horse did.
Here is a similar example:
The magician tricked into tricking his audience collapsed.
Can you decide what word class “tricked” belongs to? Is it a verb in the past or an adjective?
Again, like in the example with the horse sentence, you’ll probably assume “tricked” is a verb, but when that doesn’t work out, you’ll have to conclude it’s an adjective.
Here’s a nice garden path sentence from a quiz about linguistics:
The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.
The question was: is this a good sentence?
Yup, it is.
You should simply read it like this, that the cotton is made of cotton, and the rest will work out. (Grows means crops.)
Of course when you’re writing something and you want to be perfectly clear, you wouldn’t write such a sentence. You would rewrite it to:
The cotton for clothing grows in Mississippi.
The cotton that is grown for clothing comes from Mississippi.
Clothing is made from cotton that is grown in Mississippi.
All these rewrites are a lot clearer than the original.
So what I’d like you to do is — except from having fun with the garden path sentences in this article — whilst you’re writing, think whether you haven’t written any ambiguous sentences. You don’t want to write any garden path sentences unintentionally. A way to solve this problem is to use words in writing that you are absolutely sure of its meaning. Never ever use words whose meaning is not a 100% clear to you!
Now try the quiz. In this quiz you will see a number of sentences. Your job is to decide whether it’s a garden path sentence or not a sentence at all.
Guess what? This quiz is hard again. I promise, my next article will be easy.
Click here to do this quiz online.
Is this a garden path sentence or not a sentence at all?
1 As much as I like you, you’re not like me.
2 Although I like you, you not like me.
3 The batter batted batter, but the butter better.
4 As Saturday follows Friday, as long as we live.
5 The fire grilled the cook but the cook didn’t grill.
6 The fallen burn their wings to better land.
7 The coffee brewed was fresh, but the fish.
8 Since she was four she could read. But since she was four she couldn’t read much.
9 The old creep towards death, and the young creeps run.
10 The old count their losses, and the young count lost weight.
Have any questions about this? Send me an email, to firstname.lastname@example.org.