Garden path sentence

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A garden path sentence, such as "The old man the boat" (meaning "Old people are the crew of the boat"), is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader's most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end or yields a clearly unintended meaning. "Garden path" refers to the saying "to be led down [or up] the garden path", meaning to be deceived, tricked, or seduced.

Such a sentence leads the reader toward a seemingly familiar meaning that is actually not the one intended. It is a special type of sentence that creates a momentarily ambiguous interpretation because it contains a word or phrase that can be interpreted in multiple ways, causing the reader to begin to believe that a phrase will mean one thing when in reality it means something else. When read, the sentence seems ungrammatical, makes almost no sense, and often requires rereading so that its meaning may be fully understood after careful parsing.


Readers tend to parse a sentence by trying to add new words to a phrase as long as possible until the phrase being read no longer makes sense. This fact demonstrates that when analyzing a sentence, readers pay attention to syntax first, building meaning one chunk at a time based on our own experiences, and then semantics are brought in later to make sense of the words that were just read. 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 down which they have been led. Garden path sentences are less common in spoken communication because the prosodic qualities of speech (such as the stress and the tone of voice) often serve to resolve ambiguities in the written text. This phenomenon is important in theoretical linguistics, and is discussed at length by literary theorist Stanley Fish.

Simple ambiguity does not produce a garden path sentence; rather, there must be an overwhelmingly more common meaning associated with the early words in a sentence than is involved in a correct understanding. Confusion mainly arises because the reader attempts to understand the sentence as it is being read, assigning roles to words that they usually fall under. Whether a sentence is misleading can thus be a matter of degree, and will depend on the idiolect of the reader or listener, who may be more or less familiar with particular word meanings.

There are two types of garden paths. The first involves a local ambiguity, meaning that it can be clarified within the sentence, often with punctuation or the addition of a word, as in the sentence "The old train the young fight." Adding a semicolon reads: "The old train; the young fight", and the meaning is more clearly read. The other type of garden path is globally ambiguous because the meaning remains unclear irrespective of the number of times one reads the sentence, as long there is no context given, such as "The cat was found by the shed by the gardener". This sentence could be interpreted to mean either that the shed was by the gardener or that the gardener found the cat by the shed. Without context, the meaning cannot be determined, even though the sentence seems to make sense when first read. Garden paths are much more easily understood when spoken because vocal inflections and tones often clarify meaning.


  • "The old man the boat."
    • The first three words lead the reader to parse old man as a noun phrase, where old is an adjective and man is a noun. The second the, however, disrupts this parsing, because one noun phrase does not normally follow another with nothing to connect the two. Instead, the proper parsing is The old [noun phrase] man [verb] the boat [noun phrase], or in other words, Old people take places working on the boat.
  • "The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families."
    • Like the previous sentence, the initial parse is to read the complex houses as a noun phrase, but the complex houses married does not make semantic sense (houses do not marry) and the complex houses married and single makes no sense at all (after married and..., the expectation is another verb to form a compound predicate). The correct parsing is The complex [noun phrase] houses [verb] married and single soldiers [noun phrase] and their families [noun phrase]. Rephrased, the sentence could be rewritten as There are both married and single soldiers, and the families of those soldiers, living in the complex.
  • "The horse raced past the barn fell."
    • This sentence relies on the ambiguity in English between the passive participle and past tense. Since raced is usually encountered as an active verb, the initial parsing of this sentence is the horse (noun phrase and subject) raced (active past-tense verb) past the barn (prepositional phrase), but this parsing cannot make sense of the word fell at the end of the sentence. The proper parsing is The horse (noun phrase) raced past the barn (participle phrase) fell (verb). More explicitly this sentence can be written as The horse that was raced past the barn fell, where that was raced past the barn tells the reader which horse is under discussion.
  • "I, for one, like Roman numerals."
    • In this sentence, the reader is led to interpret the "I" as the subject expressing their fondness of [object]. When the reader then realises that the object of interest is Roman numerals, "for one" is suddenly interpreted as a direct translation of "I", as opposed to a description of themselves, and "like" goes from verb to article.


When reading a sentence, readers will analyze the words and phrases they see and make inferences about the sentence’s grammatical structure and meaning in a process called parsing. Generally, readers will parse the sentence chunks at a time and will try to interpret the meaning of the sentence at each interval. As readers are given more information they make an assumption of the contents and meaning of the whole sentence. With each new portion of the sentence encountered, they will try to make that part make sense with the sentence structures that they have already interpreted and their assumption about the rest of the sentence. The garden path sentence effect occurs when the sentence has a phrase or word with an ambiguous meaning that the reader interprets in a certain way, and when they read the whole sentence there is a difference in what has been read and what was expected. The reader must then read and evaluate the sentence again to understand its meaning. The sentence may be parsed and interpreted in different ways due to the influence of pragmatics, semantics, or other factors describing the extralinguistic context.[1]

Parsing strategies[edit]

Various strategies can be used when parsing a sentence, and there is much debate over which parsing strategy humans use. Differences in parsing strategies can be seen from the effects of a reader attempting to parse a part of a sentence that is ambiguous in its syntax or meaning. For this reason, garden path sentences are often studied as a way to test which strategy humans use.[2] Two debated parsing strategies that humans are thought to use are serial and parallel parsing.


Serial parsing means that the reader makes one interpretation of the ambiguity, and continues to parse the sentence in the context of the interpretation. The reader will continue to use their initial interpretation as reference for future parsing until disambiguating information is given.[3]


Parallel parsing means that the reader generates multiple interpretations of the sentence and stores them until disambiguating information is given, at which point only the correct interpretation is maintained.[3]

Reanalysis of a garden path sentence[edit]

When ambiguous nouns appear, they can function as both the object of the first item or the subject of the second item. In that case the former use is preferred. It is also found that the reanalysis of a garden path sentence gets more and more difficult with the length of the ambiguous phrase.[4]

Recovery strategies[edit]

A research paper published by Meseguer, Carreiras and Clifton (2002) stated that intensive eye movements are observed when people are recovering from a mild garden path sentence. They proposed that people use two strategies, both of which are consistent with the selective reanalysis process described by Frazier and Rayner in 1982. According to them, the readers predominantly use two alternative strategies to recover from mild garden path sentences.

  1. The more common one includes the regression of eyes from the first disambiguation directly to the main verb of the sentence. Then the readers reread the remaining of the sentence, fixating their eyes to the next region and the adverb (the beginning of the ambiguous part of the sentence).
  2. The second and least used strategy includes the regression from the first disambiguation directly to the adverb.[5]

Partial reanalysis[edit]

Partial reanalysis occurs when analysis is not complete. Frequently, when people can make even a little bit of sense of the later sentence, they stop analyzing further so the former part of the sentence still remains in memory and does not get discarded from it.

Therefore, the original misinterpretation of the sentence remains even after the reanalysis is done; hence participant’s final interpretations are often incorrect.[6]

Brain processing in computation[edit]

One way to determine the brain processes involved is the use of brain electrophysiology. Brain electrophysiology is used to study the impact of disfluencies[clarification needed] in sentence processing by the brain, which specifically use event-related potentials (ERPs). ERPs are voltages generated by the brain that can be measured through a device placed on the scalp. It is also observed that specific components of the ERPs can be associated with the activation of different and specific linguistic processes of the brain.[7] Within ERPs, P600 is the most important component. Its activation occurs when the parser comes across a syntactic violation such as The broker persuaded to sell the stock[8] or when the parser synthesizes an unsatisfactory disambiguation on an ambiguous string of words such as The Doctor Charged the patient was lying.[9] Hence the activation of P600 marks the parser's attempt to revise the sentence's structural mis-match or ambiguity. However it is also observed that the activation of P600 may be low or completely absent if the parser is asked to pay attention only to the semantic aspects of a sentence either through an explicit instruction[10] or through the use of specific words as a way to force a semantic analysis of the sentence.[11] The result of yet another study conducted by Osterhout in 1997 reveal that the activation of P600 varies with the parser's own attentions to the syntactic violations of the sentence.[12]

The effects of disfluency[edit]

Disfluent sentences have a direct effect on the way a sentence structure is built in the parser's mind. Depending on its location within a sentence, a disfluency either aids in the computation of a sentence or forces the parser to linger on the sentence for a longer period of time. It is observed that the more an individual lingers on an incorrect parse, the more it is likely that the sentence will end up being interpreted incorrectly.[13] It also appears[clarification needed] that the presence of a disfluency in a sentence—caused by filled and long silent parses—does not elicit the P600. Instead, it elicits another ERP component, N400, which gets activated when people try to integrate a new word into the preceding sentence's context.[13]

See also[edit]

Similar phenomena[edit]




  1. ^ Reisberg, D. (2010). Cognition: Exploring the science of the mind. (4 ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  2. ^ Hickok, Gregory (1993). "Parallel parsing: Evidence from reactivation in garden-path sentences". Journal of Psycholinguistic Research Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. 22 (2): 239–250. doi:10.1007/BF01067832. ISSN 0090-6905. Retrieved 16 November 2012. 
  3. ^ a b Meng, Michael; Bader, Markus (2000). "Ungrammaticality detection and garden path strength: Evidence for serial parsing". Language and Cognitive Processes. 15 (6): 615–666. doi:10.1080/016909600750040580. Retrieved 16 November 2012. 
  4. ^ Ferreria, F.; Henderson, J. (1991). "Recovery from misanalyses of garden-path sentences". Journal of Memory and Language. 30 (6): 725–745. doi:10.1016/0749-596x(91)90034-h. 
  5. ^ Meseguer, E., Carreiras, M., & Clifton, C. (2002). Overt reanalysis strategies and eye movements during the reading of mild garden path sentences. Published in partnership with the Psychonomic Society, 30(4), 551-561.
  6. ^ Patson, N. D.; Darowski, E. S.; Moon, N.; Ferreria, F. (2009). "Lingering misinterpretations in garden-path sentences: Evidence from a paraphrasing task". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 35 (1): 280–285. doi:10.1037/a0014276. 
  7. ^ Osterhout, L., McLaughlin, J., Kim, A., Greenwald, R., & Inoue, K. (2004). Sentences in the brain: Event-related potentials as real-time reflects of sentence comprehension and language learning. In M. Carreiras & C. Clifton, Jr. (Eds.), The on-line study of sentence comprehension: Eyetracking ERP and beyond. Psychology Press.
  8. ^ Osterhout, L.; Holcomb, P. (1992). "Event-related brain potentials elicited by syntactic anomaly". Journal of Memory and Language. 31: 785–804. doi:10.1016/0749-596x(92)90039-z. 
  9. ^ Osterhout, L.; Holcomb, P. J.; Swinney, D. A. (1994). "Brain potentials elicited by garden-path sentences: Evidence of the application of verb information during parsing". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 20: 786–803. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.20.4.786. 
  10. ^ Hahne, A.; Friederici, A. D. (2002). "Differential task effects on semantic and syntactic processes as revealed by ERPs". Cognitive Brain Research. 13: 339–356. doi:10.1016/s0926-6410(01)00127-6. 
  11. ^ Gunter, T. C.; Friederici, A. D.; Schriefers, H. (2000). "Syntactic gender and semantic expectancy: ERPs reveal early autonomy and late interaction". Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 12: 556–568. doi:10.1162/089892900562336. 
  12. ^ Osterhout, L. (1997), "On the brain response to syntactic anomalies: Manipulations of word position and word class reveal individual differences", Brain & Language, 59: 494–522, doi:10.1006/brln.1997.1793, PMID 9299074 
  13. ^ a b Maxfield, Nathan D.; Justine M. Lyon; Elaine R. Silliman (November 2009). "Disfluencies along the garden path: Brain electrophysiological evidence of disrupted sentence processing". Brain and Language. 111 (2): 86–100. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2009.08.003. 

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