Garden path sentences, or “When the old man the boat, the young duck the oars.”

Native speakers of a language usually don’t have too much difficulty understanding what other native speakers are saying. That’s why grammar is so cool (to people like me). When you read the words in this sentence, your brain processes the syntax in real time, and everything makes sense. Sure, you might need to go back and reread a word or sentence every now and again if you get lost or distracted, but for the most part, reading is a pretty seamless exercise for the average literate person on the internet. Our brains just know when the syntax of a sentence works. Likewise, our brain gets hung up when the grammar is off. For an example, look at the following sentence:

horse raced

No doubt you probably had to go back and reread that sentence a couple of times to try to make sense of it. Most of you probably still can’t make it work. Your brain is telling you something’s not right. When your brain started reading the sentence, it assumed a horse was racing past a barn, but by the time you got to the end, your brain saw the barn falling. Your brain tells you that the syntax can’t make both of those things work. What the heck is going on? Is there such a thing as a “barn fell” that the horse ran past? No? Then clearly the sentence is just plain wrong, right?

Actually, the sentence is correct. Your reading of it was incorrect. This is a trick of parsing–your brain’s analysis of how the syntax in a sentence should work. It’s like an optical illusion but with linguistics. In elementary school, you probably learned that complete sentences have a subject and a predicate. The subject is the person or thing doing something, and the predicate is what the subject is or does (it usually begins with the verb).

wombat slept

You experience tells you that ‘raced’ is the verb in our awkward sentence, so your brain reads “raced past the barn” as the predicate.

horse raced 02

This is where the parsing gets messed up, because it seems like you have another subject and verb stuck in there (“the barn fell”), but your brain knows that “the barn” can’t be BOTH part of an adverb phrase–“past the barn”–AND the subject of another clause–“The barn fell.” It just doesn’t work. Even if you have no idea what an adverb phrase is, you know it sounds wrong.

Here’s the trick: ‘raced’ is not the verb here; ‘fell’ is.

horse raced 03

Again, your brain is probably telling you, “No. That still makes no sense. Stop listening to this man, and thank your lucky stars your kid isn’t in his Language Arts class.”

Hear me out. Your brain is probably still telling you that ‘raced’ is a verb. It’s not. Well, not technically. It’s a special verb form called a participle, and it functions as an adjective (a describing word) here. The phrase “raced past the barn” is telling us which horse fell, believe it or not. The trick of the sentence relies on the less common use of the word ‘raced’ to describe something that participated in a race. Which horse fell? The one “raced past the barn.” Think of it alternatively as “The horse [that was] raced past the barn fell.”

Still not making sense? It takes some mental gymnastics to really get it. Try substituting another participle to describe the horse instead of ‘raced’:

horse raced 04

Making any more sense yet? ‘Covered’ and ‘raced’ function the same way here to tell us which horse fell–the one “covered in mud” or the one “raced past the barn.”

There are many sentences like this. In fact, we’ve got a name for them: garden path sentences. They trick your brain into parsing the sentence incorrectly at first, so you have to go back to parse the syntax again.

See if you can understand these correctly on the first attempt:

  • The old man the boat.
  • Fat people eat accumulates.
  • The cotton clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi.
  • I convinced her children are noisy.
  • Mary gave the child the dog bit a band-aid.
  • The girl told the story cried.
  • The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.

Having trouble parsing these? Check out the explanations of these sentences here.

What other examples of garden path sentences have you got?

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