Garden-path Sentence

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Waterfowl Hunter In Boat With Yellow Rusty Lab
The man who hunts ducks out on the weekends.  Mitch Kezar / Design Pics

In psycholinguistics, a garden-path sentence is a sentence that is temporarily ambiguous or confusing because it contains a word group which appears to be compatible with more than one structural analysis. Also called a syntactic garden-path sentence.

"This would not happen if the interpretation of a sentence was deferred until it had been heard or read in its entirety, but because we try to process the sentences as we perceive them word by word, we are 'led down the garden path'" (Mary Smyth).

According to Frederick Luis Aldama, a garden-path sentence is often brought about by "tricking readers into reading nouns as adjectives and vice versa, and leaving out definite and indefinite articles that would otherwise guide the reader to a correct interpretation" (Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts, 2010).

Examples and Observations

  • "[An] illustration of our efforts to make sense of sentences continuously as we hear (or read) them is provided by sentences like the following:
    4. The man pushed through the door fell.
    5. I told the girl the cat scratched Bill would help her.
    6. The old dog the footsteps of the young. In these sentences, there is a strong tendency to construe the early portion in a way which the later portion shows to be incorrect."
    (Mary M. Smyth, Cognition in Action. Psychology Press, 1994) 
  • "Ricky knew the answer to the question was yes, but wouldn't speak the word out loud."
    (John Katzenbach, The Analyst. Random House, 2002)
  • "The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi."
    "The florist sent the bouquet of flowers was very flattered."
    (in Sentence Comprehension: The Integration of Habits and Rules, by D. J. Townsend and T. G. Bever. MIT, 2001)
  • "One example of a garden-path sentence is: 'Because he always jogs a mile seems a short distance to him.' When reading this sentence one first wants to continue the phrase 'Because he always jogs' by adding 'a mile' to the phrase, but when reading further one realizes that the words 'a mile' are the beginning of a new phrase. This shows that we parse a sentence by trying to add new words to a phrase as long as possible. . . . According to this approach we use syntax first to parse a sentence and semantics is later on used to make sense of the sentence."
    (M. W. Eysenck and M. T. Keane, Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook. Taylor & Francis, 2005)

Reading Comprehension and Garden-Path Sentences

"[C]omprehension is better when relative pronouns (e.g., that, which, whom) are used to signal the start of a phrase than when they are omitted (Fodor & Garrett, 1967). Consider the sentence, 'The barge floated down the river sank.' Such a sentence is often called a garden path sentence because its construction leads the reader to interpret the word floated as the verb for the sentence, but this interpretation must be revised when the word sank is encountered. Changing the sentence to read 'The barge that floated down the river sank' eliminates this ambiguity. However, not all garden path sentences can be remedied in this way. For instance, consider the sentence, 'The man who whistled tunes pianos.' This sentence will be read more slowly and comprehended less well than the equivalent sentence, 'The whistling man tunes pianos,' in which the word tunes is unambiguously a verb."
(Robert W. Proctor and Trisha Van Zandt, Human Factors in Simple and Complex Systems, 2nd ed. CRC Press, 2008)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Garden-path Sentence." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Garden-path Sentence. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Garden-path Sentence." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).