Garden Path Sentences

Curio Vol 2 | Issue 3

The man who hunts ducks out on weekends

You read these words and your instinct for linguistic properness stands on end, like hairs on a dog after lightning and before the imminent sound of crackling thunder. The sentence doesn’t sit right with you. Something feels like it is missing. And so your eyes dance across the words again, waltzing at a different speed.

The man who hunts ducks … out on weekends

Reading it slower is still not providing you with clarity. What is still missing? The word “IS” is surely hiding between words … or can there be a different way to understand this sentence?

The man who hunts … ducks out on weekends

There. It suddenly feels much more correct. Here’s the thing. You really had to think about the words you were reading, and there’s a very strong chance that it wasn’t the first way you tried to understand it.

Welcome to the Garden path sentence. A special type of sentence that is grammatically correct, but often starts in a way that leads to an erroneous interpretation.

The ambiguity lies in the fact that they often contain a word (or a phrase) that has multiple meanings. Furthermore, it is often that the ‘incorrect’ way of reading the early words in the sentence is actually an overwhelmingly more common way of those words being read together.

“Fat people eat accumulates”

Linguists have often used the Garden path sentence to illustrate that when humans read words on a page, they tend to process language one word at at time. Syntax is often the first lens in which understanding is applied, while semantics are later brought in to make sense of the words (this all occurs in a series of milliseconds by the way).

Reducing ambiguity in a Garden path sentence can be achieved with subordination. That is to say, the strategic inclusion of words such as “that”, “which”, “whom” or “for” (to name a few) can shed light on what is intended to be said, in a faster way. Oxford commas and punctuation also play a part here too. Here are some examples below:

I convinced her children are noisy
I convinced her (that) children are noisy

Mary gave the child the dog bit a bandaid
Mary gave the child (that) the dog bit, a bandaid

I told the girl the cat scratched Bill would help her
I told the girl (whom) the cat scratched (that) Bill would help her

When Mike eats food gets wasted
When Mike eats food, (it) gets wasted
When Mike eats, food gets wasted

Garden path sentences are therefore a form of wordplay, intended mostly to cause temporary confusion and bemusement in how it will be received. It is a lot less common in spoken word as inflections, tone and pauses that happen vocally are more likely to reduce misinterpretation.

But I hear you asking … why the name Garden path? The proverb “to be led down the garden path” is where this is derived from, meaning to be deceived, tricked or seduced.

Still, you are probably wondering how a walkway amongst grass and flowers could possibly equate to an unfortunate association of trickery and being misled. The etymology of this has one possible origin stemming from pre 20th-century England.

An old practice in villages was marrying the most unattractive women by tricking a groom into marrying a veiled bride, only seeing his new wife once marriage vows were exchanged. Because most weddings were held in gardens during those times, the groom would literally instead of walking down the aisle, ‘be led up the garden path’; and unfortunately being deceived.

An alternative (and perhaps gentler) theory is that the phrase refers to someone being so distracted by the natural beauty found in a garden, that they can be easily fooled.

Garden path sentences are fun to wonder about and great for comedic/bemusing intent. Those seeking to communicate understandable messages and to eliminate all forms of possible misreading would be wise to apply discretion when choosing to lead their readers down the garden path.

Curio is released weekly on Mondays. Words and Illustrations by Rob Lee.