Up the Garden Path

Up my garden path.

Up my garden path.

My mind today has been on garden paths. That is, on a garden next to a path: the flower bed next to my new front walk, which had been overgrown with grass and weeds and now is clearly defined, weeded, and mulched.

In honor of that garden path, let’s consider the most famous garden path in psychology, a garden path sentence:

The horse raced past the barn fell.

If you haven’t encountered that sentence before, it should strike you as ungrammatical. (The WordPress spell checker is certainly unhappy about it). You should do a small double-take at “fell”, which seems tacked on and out of place. But in fact, “fell” is the main verb of the sentence. Think of it like this:

The horse fell.

Which horse?

The horse that was raced past the barn.

Oh, the horse raced past the barn fell. Not the horse lazing in the meadow.

In that context, the sentence is perfectly grammatical, and I have encountered it so many times in my linguistic studies and teaching that I have to remind myself how strange it appears at first. It is the classic garden path sentence, so called because we are “led up the garden path” (English idiom, meaning “misled”) as we hear raced. We are so used to horses racing that we automatically assign raced as the main verb, the action that the horse will be doing, when in reality it’s just a descriptor and fell is where the real action is.

If you’re still not convinced, compare it to this sentence:

The horse fed lots of oats fell.

Even though to feed has the same potential double meaning as to race, this sentence probably didn’t lead you down any garden paths. Oh, it might have tried with all its might to entice you into those secluded gardens away from the rest of the party, but it should have failed miserably. Why? Because horses do not typically proffer choice morsels of food to other people, so we do not interpret fed as a main verb describing what this horse is up to, but as a description of the horse’s diet.

Garden path sentences are very cool because they create first-person proof that we process sentences word by word, as we hear them. We don’t wait until the end of the sentence to decide what syntactic structure should be used; we assign grammatical roles as we hear each word, because there are relatively few times we’ll be wrong and it allows us to interpret what someone is saying that much faster.

Oddly enough, garden path sentences aren’t the only horticultural phrase in linguistics. The diagrams we use to make sense of sentence structure are called “trees“. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if certain historical linguists also spent a lot of days in the garden.

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