“The horse raced past the barn fell”: Avoid Garden Path Sentences in Your Writing

Garden path sentences

 

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 possible, which causes you to get stuck. You then have to process the sentence again, before you can finally derive its correct meaning.

For example, let’s look at the sentence in the title of this post: “the horse raced past the barn fell”. When you started reading it, you probably assumed that the verb “raced” is active, rather than passive, as it usually is. However, once you got to “fell”, you realized (intuitively) that your initial interpretation doesn’t make sense for some reason (because if “raced” is active, then “fell” doesn’t have a subject). You then had to reprocess the sentence, before you were able to reach the correct interpretation, where the verb “raced” is passive. This annoying reanalysis is the result of a garden path structure, which sometimes appears in people’s writing.

The following article will show you where garden path sentences occur, why it’s important to avoid them, and how to identify and fix them in your writing.

 

The nature of garden path sentences

The name of this phenomenon comes from the saying “to lead someone down the garden path”, which means to mislead or deceive someone. Garden path sentences can appear in a variety of situations, as in the following examples:

  • Without her contributions would be impossible.
  • The old man the boat.
  • I convinced her children are noisy.
  • The girl told the story cried.

All of these sentences contain an initial ambiguity, where a certain word or group of words can be interpreted in more than one way. Since readers attempt to understand the sentence as they are reading it, they will 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.

Consider the following example:

  • After Bill drank the water proved to be poisoned.

Odds are that when you read the sentence, you first analyzed “the water” as the object of “drank”, meaning that Bill drank the water. However, once you reached the verb “proved”, your brain realized that the initial interpretation of the sentence doesn’t make sense (because there would be no subject for “proved”). This lead you to reanalyze the sentence, so that “after Bill drank” became an adjunct of “the water proved to be poisoned”.

Of course, all of this linguistic processing was performed mostly at a subconscious level. That is, you knew that you got stuck reading the sentence, but you didn’t really know why it happened, or how your brain eventually managed to fix the issue.

Interestingly, your brain sometimes goes further in an attempt to resolve garden-path ambiguities, and performs something 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 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.

I won’t go into the mechanisms behind the linguistic processing involved, since it’s complicated, technical, and still not fully understood by researchers. However, a discussion of these mechanisms isn’t necessary for the intuitive understanding of how such sentences occur, and how they affect you. If you want to dive into the research literature yourself, here are a few relevant papers on the topic, in addition to those linked so far in the article:

 

Identifying and fixing garden path sentences in your writing

Because these sentences are so difficult for readers to process, it’s important to ensure that they don’t occur in your writing. Otherwise, you risk confusing your audience, and ruining the flow of the text.

Since garden path sentences can occur in a variety of situations, there is no single formula which can be used to identify and fix 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.

 

Identifying 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 an 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.

(Note that it can sometimes be difficult to find problematic sentences in your writing if you’ve already spent a lot of time working on the text, since your brain might perform a sort of “autocorrect” on material that you’re already familiar with. This post contains some helpful tips on how to proofread your text in such cases.)

 

Fixing garden path sentences

Fixing garden path sentences is, like finding them, also fairly intuitive. Again, 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 which creates the issue in the first place. Fortunately, there are a few simple ways to do this, without having to rephrase the whole thing.

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

  • Without her contributions would be impossible.

You can write:

  • Without her, contributions would be impossible.

You could also add a complementizer in an appropriate location. These 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.

As you can see, despite the grammar-related terminology used in the explanation, identifying and fixing garden path sentences in your writing is a pretty straightforward and intuitive process. This is also why these sentences almost never appear in speech: when we talk, we generally employ intonational cues and use more conventional structures, both of which prevent these ambiguities from occurring in the first place.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A garden path sentence is a sentence which contains an ambiguity that leads the reader to initially assume an incorrect interpretation for the sentence, as they’re reading it.
  • For example, in “the horse raced past the barn fell”, the reader initially assumes that “raced” is an active verb. Once the reader reaches “fell”, they realize that “raced” must be passive, otherwise “fell” wouldn’t have a subject, and the sentence would be ungrammatical.
  • This reanalysis is cognitively-difficult to perform, and greatly interrupts the reading process.
  • Identifying these 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 “restart” the processing halfway through due to an initial ambiguity.
  • Fixing these sentences is also 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.