Garden path sentence
A garden path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence
Sentence (linguistics)
In the field of linguistics, a sentence is an expression in natural language, and often defined to indicate a grammatical unit consisting of one or more words that generally bear minimal syntactic relation to the words that precede or follow it...

 that starts in such a way that the readers' most likely interpretation will be incorrect; they are lured into an improper parse that turns out to be a dead end. Garden path sentences are used in psycholinguistics
Psycholinguistics or psychology of language is the study of the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, comprehend and produce language. Initial forays into psycholinguistics were largely philosophical ventures, due mainly to a lack of cohesive data on how the...

 to illustrate the fact that when they read, human beings process language one word at a time. "Garden path" refers to the saying "to be led down the garden path", meaning "to be misled". According to one current psycholinguistic theory, as a person reads a garden path sentence, the reader builds up a structure of meaning one word at a time. At some point, it becomes clear to the reader that the next word or phrase cannot be incorporated into the structure built up thus far: it is inconsistent with the path they have been led down. Garden path sentences are less common in spoken communication because the prosodic qualities of speech
Speech is the human faculty of speaking.It may also refer to:* Public speaking, the process of speaking to a group of people* Manner of articulation, how the body parts involved in making speech are manipulated...

 (such as the stress and the tone of voice) often serve to resolve ambiguities in the written text.

This phenomenon is discussed at length by Stanley Fish
Stanley Fish
Stanley Eugene Fish is an American literary theorist and legal scholar. He was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island...

 in his book Surprised by Sin. He argues that the incremental parsing of sentences one is reading needs to be addressed by literary theorists. He also covers this topic in several essays from his book Is there a text in this Class?

By language type

Garden path sentences mostly appear in analytic languages, where word order is heavily relied upon to establish the grammatical case
Grammatical case
In grammar, the case of a noun or pronoun is an inflectional form that indicates its grammatical function in a phrase, clause, or sentence. For example, a pronoun may play the role of subject , of direct object , or of possessor...

 and function in a sentence. Fusional languages, which establish grammatical function in a sentence through inflection
In grammar, inflection or inflexion is the modification of a word to express different grammatical categories such as tense, grammatical mood, grammatical voice, aspect, person, number, gender and case...

 and other types of relational synthesis mostly avoid this type of ambiguity because the relationship of a word to the surrounding words is marked by the way the word is modified.


  • The horse raced past the barn fell.
    The reader usually starts to parse
    In computer science and linguistics, parsing, or, more formally, syntactic analysis, is the process of analyzing a text, made of a sequence of tokens , to determine its grammatical structure with respect to a given formal grammar...

     this as an ordinary active
    Active voice
    Active voice is a grammatical voice common in many of the world's languages. It is the unmarked voice for clauses featuring a transitive verb in nominative–accusative languages, including English and most other Indo-European languages....

    Intransitive verb
    In grammar, an intransitive verb is a verb that has no object. This differs from a transitive verb, which takes one or more objects. Both classes of verb are related to the concept of the transitivity of a verb....

     sentence, but stumbles when reaching the word "fell." At this point, the reader is forced to backtrack and look for other possible structures. It may take some rereading to realize that "raced past the barn" is in fact a reduced relative clause
    Reduced relative clause
    A reduced relative clause is a relative clause that is not marked by an overt complementizer . Reduced relative clauses often give rise to ambiguity or garden path effects, and have been a common topic of psycholinguistic study, especially in the field of sentence processing.-Description:Relative...

     with a passive
    Passive voice
    Passive voice is a grammatical voice common in many of the world's languages. Passive is used in a clause whose subject expresses the theme or patient of the main verb. That is, the subject undergoes an action or has its state changed. A sentence whose theme is marked as grammatical subject is...

    In linguistics, a participle is a word that shares some characteristics of both verbs and adjectives. It can be used in compound verb tenses or voices , or as a modifier...

    , implying that "fell" is the main verb. The correct reading is then: "The horse – (that was) raced past the barn – fell."
    This sentence can be parsed in other ways as well: A British reader accustomed to "fell" being a noun (meaning "mountain") may reach the end and still treat "raced" as the verb and "barn fell" as "the fell by or at the barn
    A barn is an agricultural building used for storage and as a covered workplace. It may sometimes be used to house livestock or to store farming vehicles and equipment...

    ". Fell is also an adjective that means "dreadful" or "wicked". Chiefly archaically and poetically adjectives may follow their noun leading to the somewhat nonsensical, "The horse raced past the dreadful barn."
    The example hinges on the ambiguity of the lexical category
    Lexical category
    In grammar, a part of speech is a linguistic category of words , which is generally defined by the syntactic or morphological behaviour of the lexical item in question. Common linguistic categories include noun and verb, among others...

     of the word "raced": it can be either a past-tense verb or a passive participle. Compare to an unambiguous sentence with the same syntactic structure: The car driven past the barn crashed. Unlike "raced," the verb "driven" is unambiguously passive, thus eliminating the garden path reading.

Occasionally, a second phrase causes the reinterpretation of meaning:
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana
    Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana
    "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana," is a saying, often interpreted humorously, that is used in linguistics as an example of a garden path sentence and syntactic ambiguity, and in word play as an example of punning, double entendre, and antanaclasis.A fairly common variant is,...


Other examples of garden path sentences are:
Sentence Initial likely partial parse Final parse
The old man the boat. The man, who is old... The boat is manned by the old.
The man whistling tunes pianos. The man who is whistling melodies... The whistling man tunes pianos.
The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi. The clothing, which is made of cotton, is made of... The cotton that clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.
The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families. The houses (meaning buildings or families), which are complicated, got married to... Single and married soldiers and their families are housed in the complex.
The author wrote the novel was likely to be a best-seller. The author composed the novel... The author wrote that the novel in question was likely to be a best-seller.
The tomcat curled up on the cushion seemed friendly. The tomcat curled itself up on the cushion... The tomcat that was curled up on the cushion seemed friendly.
The man returned to his house was happy. The man came back to his house... Returned to his house, the man was happy.
The government plans to raise taxes were defeated. The government is planning to raise taxes... The government's plans to raise taxes were defeated.
The sour drink from the ocean. The drink that was sour... Those that are sour drink from the ocean.

See also

  • Ambiguity
    Ambiguity of words or phrases is the ability to express more than one interpretation. It is distinct from vagueness, which is a statement about the lack of precision contained or available in the information.Context may play a role in resolving ambiguity...

  • Backtracking
    Backtracking is a general algorithm for finding all solutions to some computational problem, that incrementally builds candidates to the solutions, and abandons each partial candidate c as soon as it determines that c cannot possibly be completed to a valid solution.The classic textbook example...

  • Crash blossom – garden path headlines
  • Dangling modifier
    Dangling modifier
    A dangling modifier, a specific case of which is the dangling participle, is an error in sentence structure whereby a grammatical modifier is associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all. For example, a writer may have meant to modify the subject, but word...

  • List of linguistic example sentences
  • Natural language processing
    Natural language processing
    Natural language processing is a field of computer science and linguistics concerned with the interactions between computers and human languages; it began as a branch of artificial intelligence....

  • Paraprosdokian
    A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax...

  • Syntactic ambiguity
    Syntactic ambiguity
    Syntactic ambiguity is a property of sentences which may be reasonably interpreted in more than one way, or reasonably interpreted to mean more than one thing...

  • Transderivational search
    Transderivational search
    Transderivational search is a psychological and cybernetics term, meaning when a search is being conducted for a fuzzy match across a broad field. In computing the equivalent function can be performed using content-addressable memory.Unlike usual searches, which look for literal Transderivational...

External links

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