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Garden Path Sentences

While reading Pinker’s The Language Instinct I met the phrase, “garden path sentences”. Such sentences are so called because they lead the listener up the garden path to an incorrect parsing. Perhaps the term is standard among well-educated persons. I, of course, had never seen it before. Pinker remarks that garden path sentences are one of the hallmarks of bad writing.

In his book he gives some examples. For most people the following sentences look as though they were incorrect. In fact each is grammatically correct and each has a clear meaning.

  1. The horse raced past the barn fell.
  2. The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.
  3. The cotton clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi.
  4. The prime number few.
  5. Fat people eat accumulates.
  6. The tycoon sold the offshore oil tracts for a lot of money wanted to kill JR.

None of these sentences has random words tacked on; none of them are sentence fragments stitched together; none of them are incomplete. I “got” most of them but not all. You can probably do better.

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This page was last updated February 20, 1998.