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"Garden path" sentences and the SAT/ACT English
  • Calendar Feb 26, 2020
  • User Jared Wells
  • Category In Uncategorized
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The old man the boat.

Does that look like a complete sentence to you? Probably not.

Surprisingly, it is!

This sentence is an example of something that linguists call a “garden path sentence”. It’s a sentence that, as you read, you feel like you understand where it is going, but seemingly leads to a dead end. They rely on your preconceived ideas about what the structure and purpose of a sentence will be as you read it. In order to understand it, you need to re-trace your steps and figure out where you were misled.

You might look at that sentence and say something like, “It’s just two things. It’s like saying ‘Tree table.’ is a complete sentence.” Good! You're on the right track.

Let’s take a look at it more closely:

The old man the boat.

First, we need to understand that every sentence needs two parts: a predicate (the part of the sentence containing the verb) and the subject (the noun or pronoun that is doing the predicate). This sentence seems to be missing a predicate: there is no action!

Of course, if there is no verb (no action), it isn’t a complete sentence. But I just told you that is, in fact, a complete sentence. So what gives?

Thing is, while some garden path sentences can be easily figured out by “retracing your steps", others can tough to untangle without a strong understanding of your parts of speech and what is needed to create a complete sentence. Garden path sentences often rely on a word being understood by the reader as one part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc) or part of sentence (subject, object) but meant by the writer to be a something else.

Have you figured it out yet?

“The old” is the subject (older people, as a group)
“man” is the verb (that is, they run the boat, as in “man your battlestations!”)

Garden path sentences are a great way to test your mastery of the parts of speech and parts of the sentence. Here are a few more to puzzle over, with some hints below. See if you can understand the meaning and the source of the ambiguity, and rewrite the sentence more clearly.

The horse raced past the barn fell.
The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.
Fat people eat accumulates.
I convinced her children are noisy
The prime number few.

What is the subject of “fell”? Read about past participles.
What is the subject of “grows”?
What part of speech is “fat”? What is the subject of accumulates?
What part of speech is “her”? What is the subject of “are noisy”?
What is the verb in this sentence?

Crash Blossoms

There is one place that garden path sentences are much more likely to appear, and that is in newspaper headlines. With their emphasis on brief, sharp sentences, newspaper headlines often leave out articles, conjunctions, and punctuation. This can lead to misunderstood headlines!

The name “Crash Blossoms” comes from an infamous headline

Which led readers to ask: what the heck is a “crash blossom”!

Answer: It’s a garden path headline!

The problem with this sentence? Our mind tends to assume that words that are close together are related. So we assume that “crash” is (somehow?) modifying a noun, “blossoms”. The writer’s intention, though, was to say that the violinist is blossoming.

Here are a few famous ones. See if you can figure out their meaning, and more importantly, what the source of the confusion is, and how you would re-write it! And yes, these are all REAL headlines!

Chinese cooking fat heads for Holland.
Man found dead after Levittown fire killed self.
Lawyer for bear sprayed suspect in package theft alleges vigilantism, entrapment.
Efforts meant to help workers squeeze South Africa's poorest.
Baby born after crash kills parents.

There are some important takeaways from the existence of garden path sentences:

  • It goes to show how mastery of the English language can aid understanding, and how misuse of it can lead to confusion, especially when a word (and there are many of them) can have multiple meanings.
  • They are a great example of the trouble you can get into when you make unquestioned assumptions. Certainly, if we had to consciously think about the part of speech of every word that we wrote and heard, it would slow things down significantly. But it’s also good to be reminded that when we do get lost, we can reorient ourself by asking questions.
  • Getting a good proofreader can make a huge difference in the clarity of your writing.

Looking for support in SAT/ACT prep (or good proof-reading?) Give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email!


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