Up the garden path

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned an experiment that found that people have a good try at predicting what a speaker is about to say, and this makes it easier for us to keep up with the rapid pace of conversation.

I also mentioned the mental stumbling blocks caused by hearing something that we haven’t predicted.  This is demonstrated by a particular kind of structure called a ‘garden path’ sentence.   The way that these sentences are written intentionally misleads the reader or listener, or ‘leads them up the garden path’.  Unusual phrasing and parsing (dividing up the sentence) make the audience expect or predict something different from what they end up hearing.

A good example of a garden path sentence is “The girl told the story cried.”  We expect the girl to be the one telling the story, but it turns out that she was the listener.  Writing the sentence using “the girl who was told” gets rid of any ambiguity, but takes all the fun out of it.

A few of the better ones that I’ve seen:

  1. We painted the wall with cracks.
  2. When Fred eats food gets thrown.
  3. The prime number few.
  4. Fat people eat accumulates.
  5. The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.
  6. The old man the boat.
  7. The man whistling tunes pianos.
  8.  The dog that I had really loved bones.

I don’t think they’re too hard to work out, so I’m not going to post the less-ambiguous versions.  Leave a comment if you need the answers, though!