Ever read a sentence to yourself that just doesn’t seem to sound right? If so, then there’s a good chance you’re dealing with a “garden path” sentence, which is a sentence that is grammatically correct, but due to the way it’s divided and structured, can seem ungrammatical or nonsensical.
“‘Garden-path sentences’ are so-called because as we listen (or read) them, we are actively interpreting the sentence word-by-word, and building an interpretation by considering each word as it arrives,” says Ailis Cournane, Professor of Linguistics at New York University. “Basically, we don’t wait to understand a sentence until it is done, so our brains are predicting what comes next and building structure as we hear or read it.”
This means we are usually relying on experience (and our own predictions) to understand the sentences we’re reading, even if their meaning isn’t always what we assumed.
Take a sentence like “The old man the boat.” Your brain sees the first three words and assumes the subject of the sentence is an old man. Instead, the sentence is about a group of people, “the old,” and their control of the boat, demonstrated with the verb “to man.”
20 Examples of Garden-Path Sentences
These are probably going to trip you up, or at least give you pause.
- The horse raced past the barn fell.
- The old man the boat.
- The florist sent the flowers was pleased.
- The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.
- The sour drink from the ocean.
- Have the students who failed the exam take the supplementary.
- We painted the wall with cracks.
- The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.
- The raft floated down the river sank.
- When Fred eats food gets thrown.
- Mary gave the child the dog bit a Band-Aid.
- The girl told the story cried.
- I convinced her children are noisy.
- Helen is expecting tomorrow to be a bad day.
- Fat people eat accumulates.
- I know the words to that song about the queen don’t rhyme.
- She told me a little white lie will come back to haunt me.
- The dog that I had really loved bones.
- That Jill is never here hurts.
- The man who whistles tunes pianos.
Why do we read these tricky sentences predictively in the first place?
“Garden-path sentences are not unlike predictive text,” Cournane says. “Sometimes we predict wrongly and get puzzled. Sentence structures in our language allow us to predict and structure what categories of words follow others, and are part of our tacit knowledge as speakers of a language.”
More simply put: Garden-path sentences are those that we erroneously predict ahead, because as Cournane explains, “We erroneously build structure for the relationships between the words we hear and read because we rely on the more common (or syntactically simple) structures we know.”
Translation: Most of the time you can interpret a sentence’s meaning before finishing it, but sometimes, you can’t. And that’s the making of a garden-path sentence.