“The Horse Raced Past the Barn Fell”: A Guide to Garden Path Sentences

Garden path sentences

 

garden path sentence is a sentence that contains an ambiguity that leads the reader to initially assume an incorrect interpretation for the sentence, before discovering the correct interpretation for the sentence.

Essentially, when you read a garden path sentence, you start by initially assuming a certain interpretation for the sentence. However, as you continue reading, you suddenly realize that the original interpretation isn’t plausible, since it would cause the sentence to be grammatically incorrect, which causes you to get stuck. You then have to process the sentence again, before you can finally derive its correct meaning.

“The horse raced past the barn fell” is an example of a garden path sentence, whose meaning can be more clearly described when phrased as “the horse which was raced past the barn fell”.

This sentence is a garden path sentence because, when the reader begins reading it, they initially assume that “raced” is an active verb. However, once the reader reaches “fell”, they realize that “raced” must be passive, or the verb “fell” wouldn’t have a subject, and the sentence would be ungrammatical.

The reader then has to reprocess the sentence, before they are able to identify the correct interpretation for it, where the verb “raced” is passive.

People sometimes use garden path sentences in their writing without being aware that they’re doing so, which can be an issue due to the difficulties that these sentences cause to readers. As such, in the following article you will learn more about garden path sentences, and learn how you can identify and avoid them in your writing.

 

Explanation of garden path sentences

Garden path sentences contain an initial ambiguity, where a certain word or group of words can be interpreted in more than one way.

This ambiguity is called syntactic ambiguity, since it’s based on the syntax of the sentence, which can be thought of as its structure. In particular, the ambiguity in garden path sentence is a local ambiguity (also known as a temporary ambiguity), since it’s constrained to a specific part of the sentence, and ends up being resolved at some point of the reading; this is contrasted with a global ambiguity, which is ambiguity that applies to the sentence as a whole.

Accordingly, from a psycholinguistic perspective, garden path sentences are sentences in which a syntactic structure is assigned to the initial portion of a sentence, but is eventually discovered to be syntactically inconsistent with later parts of the sentence. This requires readers to resolve the local ambiguity using a disambiguation process that selects the less-preferred interpretation of the ambiguous portion.

Specifically, since readers attempt to understand the sentence as they are reading it, they tend to pick an initial interpretation for the sentence, which later on turns out to be incorrect. Once they realize that the initial interpretation doesn’t work, they become confused trying to make sense of what they’re reading.

To see this in action, consider the following example:

“After Bill drank the water proved to be poisoned.”

Generally, when people read that sentence, they first analyzed “the water” as being the object of “drank”, meaning that Bill drank the water.

However, once they reach the word “proved”, their brain realizes that the initial interpretation of the sentence doesn’t make sense (because there would be no subject for “proved”). This leads them to reanalyze the sentence, so that “after Bill drank” became an adjunct of “the water proved to be poisoned”.

Most of this linguistic processing is performed at a subconscious level. That is, while you will generally notice that you got stuck while reading a certain sentence, you won’t really know why it happened, or how your brain eventually managed to fix the issue, by reanalyzing the sentence in order to provide you with an appropriate interpretation.

Interestingly, your brain sometimes goes further in an attempt to resolve garden-path ambiguities, and performs something that is called good-enough parsing. When this happens, your brain intentionally misinterprets the text, and goes with the initial, incorrect meaning for the sentence, while ignoring the material that leads to the reanalysis.

This subconscious process saves you the trouble of getting stuck while trying to figure out the sentence’s meaning, at the expensive cost of making you misunderstand what the sentence actually means, while still slowing down your reading.

Note: garden path sentences derive their name from the saying “to lead someone down the garden path”, which means to mislead or deceive someone.

 

Garden path sentences in speech

In natural settings, garden path sentences appear primarily when it comes to written language, and almost never appear in speech.

This is because, when we talk, we generally use language in a way that makes garden path interpretations unlikely. A notable way in which we do this is by including relevant prosodic information, which refers to the intonation and rhythmic patterns of our speech. This includes, for example, the presence of pauses in places that coincide with syntactic boundaries, in such a way that these prosodic cues can help listeners identify the correct interpretation for the sentence, before they encounter the disambiguating lexical information that confuses them.

 

Examples of garden path sentences

There are many different types of garden path sentences, as we can see in the following examples:

  • “Without her contributions would be impossible”. This garden path sentence is first parsed as [without her contributions], and once the word “would” is reached, the parsing of the sentence changes to [without her][contributions would be impossible]. This sentence can be phrased more clearly as “without her, contributions would be impossible”.
  • “The old man the boat”. This garden path sentence is first parsed as [the old man], and once the second “the” is reached, the parsing of the sentence changes to [the old][man the boat], with “old” serving as a noun, rather than an adjective, and “man” serving as a verb, rather than a noun.
  • “I convinced her children are noisy”. This garden path sentence is first parsed as [I convinced her children], and once the word “are” is reached, the parsing of the sentence changes to [I convinced her][children are noisy]. This sentence can be phrased more clearly as “I convinced her that children are noisy”.
  • “The girl told the story cried”. This garden path sentence is first parsed as so that the “told the story” is initially active, and describes an action undertaken by the girl, until the word “cried” is reached, and then the parsing of the sentence changes to reflect that “told the story” is passive, and describes something that was done to the girl. This sentence can be phrased more clearly as “The girl who was told the story cried”.

Other examples of garden-path sentences include the following:

  • “The florist sent the flowers was pleased”, which means “The florist who was sent the flowers was pleased”.
  • “When Fred eats food gets thrown”, which means “When Fred eats, food gets thrown”.
  • “The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families”, which means “The complex (apartment complex/housing complex etc.) provides accommodation to married and single soldiers and their families”.
  • “When John called his old mother was happy”, which means “When John called, his old mother was happy”.
  • “While the man hunted the deer ran into the woods”, which means “While the man hunted, the deer ran into the woods”.
  • “The prime number few”, which means “The prime (people/animals, etc.) are few in number”.
  • “Wherever John walks the dog chases him”, which means “Wherever John walks, the dog chases him”.
  • “We painted the wall with cracks”, which means “We painted the walls that had cracks”.
  • “Because he always jogs a mile seems a short distance to him”, which means “Because he always jogs, a mile seems a short distance to him”.
  • “After the young Londoner had visited his parents prepared to celebrate their anniversary”, which means “After the young Londoner had visited, his parents prepared to celebrate their anniversary”.
  • “I know the words to that song about the queen don’t rhyme”, which means “I know that the words to that song about the queen don’t rhyme”.
  • “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends”, which means “The man who hunts (e.g. animals), ducks out (leaves suddenly) on weekends”
  • “The boat floated down the river sank”, which means “The boat that floated down the river sank”
  • “The man who whistles tunes pianos”, which means “The man who whistles (in general) tunes pianos](for a job/as a hobby etc.)”.
  • “The government plans to raise taxes were defeated”, which means “The government had plans to raise taxes, which were defeated”.
  • “That Jill is never here hurts”, which means “The fact that Jill is never here hurts”.
  • “The dog that I had really loved bones”, which means
  • “While I was surfing the internet went down”, which means “While I was surfing, the internet went down”.
  • “While the man was eating the pizza was still being reheated in the oven”, which means “While the man was eating, the pizza was still being reheated in the oven”.
  • “The sour drink from the ocean”, which means “The people who are sour drink from the ocean”.
  • “The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi”, which means “The cotton that clothing is made of grows in Mississippi”.
  • “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”, which means “Time flies like an arrow; [fruit flies] (the insects) like a banana”.
  • “Mary gave the child the dog bit a Band-Aid”, which means “Mary gave the child that the dog bit a Band-Aid”.
  • “She told me a little white lie will come back to haunt me”, which means “She told me that a little white lie will come back to haunt me”.
  • “Fat people eat accumulates”, which means “The fat that people eat accumulates (e.g. in their bodies)”.
  • “While Tom was washing the dishes fell on the floor”, which means “While Tom was washing, the dishes fell on the floor”.
  • “Until the police arrest the criminals control the street”, which means “Until the police (make the) arrest, the criminals control the street”.
  • “I told the girl the cat scratched Bill would help her”, which means “I told the girl that the cat scratched that Bill would help her”.

 

Identifying and fixing garden path sentences in your writing

Because garden path sentences are so difficult for readers to process, it’s important to avoid including them in your writing.

These sentences can take various forms, so there is no single formula that can be used in order to identify and fix all of them. However, most of these sentences share similar characteristics, so there is a simple process that you can follow in order to ensure that they don’t appear in your writing.

 

How to identify garden path sentences

Identifying garden path sentences is an intuitive process. Essentially, as you read through the text, try and find places where you get completely stuck when interpreting a sentence, because you find yourself having to “restart” the processing halfway through. Then, read carefully through it to see if it seems like the “restart” is a result of ambiguity, as described here.

If it is, then it’s likely a garden path sentence, and the next section will show you a few simple ways to resolve the ambiguity. If it’s not, odds are you should still fix it, since this is indicative of a problem in the text. However, in the latter case, the solutions suggested below may not help, as they’re intended specifically for solving ambiguities that result in a garden path sentence.

Note: it can sometimes be difficult to find problematic sentences in your writing, since as we saw above, our brain sometimes conducts a sort of “autocorrect” process that hides them from you. This is especially an issue if you’ve already spent a lot of time working on the text, since your brain is often more predisposed to perform an “autocorrect” on material that you’re already strongly familiar with. If you feel that you need extra tips on how to proofread your texts effectively, read this post.

 

How to fix garden path sentences

Fixing garden path sentences is, similarly to finding them, a relatively intuitive process.

Since there are many different variants of these sentences, there are also many different ways to fix them. However, all methods revolve around the same key concept: you need to remove the ambiguity that creates the garden path issue in the first place. There are a few simple ways to do this, which will work in the majority of cases, and which will save you the trouble of having to completely rephrase the sentence.

First, you can add a comma in an appropriate location. For example, instead of:

Without her contributions would be impossible.

Write:

Without her, contributions would be impossible.

You can also add a complementizer in an appropriate location. Complementizers are words such as which, that, or who, that are used in order to introduce an embedded clause within a sentence. For example, instead of:

I convinced her children are noisy.

Write:

I convinced her that children are noisy.

And instead of:

Ann warned her friends were unreliable.

Write:

Ann warned that her friends were unreliable.

Sometimes you will also need to include further minor modifications, such as adding an auxiliary verb (e.g. was). For examples, instead of:

The horse raced past the barn fell.

You would write:

The horse which was raced past the barn fell.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • garden path sentence is a sentence that contains an ambiguity that leads the reader to initially assume an incorrect interpretation for the sentence, before discovering the correct interpretation for the sentence.
  • For example, in the garden path sentence “the horse raced past the barn fell”, the reader initially assumes that “raced” is an active verb, but once the reader reaches “fell”, they realize that “raced” must be passive, or the verb “fell” wouldn’t have a subject, and the sentence would be ungrammatical.
  • Garden path sentences interrupt the reading process and confuse the reader, so it’s important to avoid them in your writing.
  • Identifying garden path sentences in your writing is an intuitive process; try to find places where you get stuck when interpreting a sentence, because you find yourself having to reprocess the sentence because your initial interpretation of it suddenly doesn’t make sense.
  • Fixing garden path sentences is also relatively simple and intuitive; the most common methods involve inserting a necessary comma or a complementizer (e.g. that, which, who), in order to resolve the problematic ambiguity.