The Origins of Garden Path Sentences

Read that title again. It is a complete, grammatically-correct English sentence. Do you understand it? How about these (all, like the title sentence, originally found here or here?

• The prime number few.
• The florist sent the flowers was pleased.
• Fat people eat accumulates.
• When Fred eats food gets thrown.
• The author wrote the novel was likely to be a best-seller.
• The cotton clothing is made of grows in Mississippi.
• The sour drink from the ocean.
• The tycoon sold the offshore oil tracts for a lot of money wanted to kill JR.
• Mary gave the child the dog bit a bandaid.

What Is A Garden Path Sentence?

Each of these is a garden path sentence, which Wikipedia defines as “a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect.” Basically, a garden path sentence takes advantage of ambiguity in the language to make you think, at the beginning, that the sentence is going to mean one thing – but because the sentence means something else, when you get to the end, you can’t understand the sentence and probably need to reread it.

For instance, the title of this post could be paraphrased as follows: “You know the horse that was raced past the barn? That horse fell.” Go back and reread the title. Now that you understand the meaning, it makes more sense, right?


Here are some paraphrases of the other garden path sentences listed above.

• There are few prime individuals.
• The florist who was sent the flowers was pleased.
• When people eat fat, that fat accumulates.
• Food gets thrown when Fred eats.
• The author wrote that the novel was likely to be a best-seller.
• In Mississippi grows the cotton of which clothing is made.
• Sour people drink water from the ocean.
• The tycoon was sold the offshore oil tracts for a lot of money, and he also wanted to kill JR.
• Mary gave a bandaid to the child who was bitten by the dog.

Garden path sentences are of special interest to linguists because, for one thing, their ability to confuse people makes certain suggestions about how people process language (read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct to learn more). As a writer – unless, for some reason, you are specifically trying to confuse your reader – you should avoid garden path sentences, because the confusion can distract your reader from your intended meaning. Making sure you don’t misplace your modifiers can help, as can getting a friend to read over your work so you can catch any ambiguities during revision.

Also, though, garden path sentences are just kind of funny. If you enjoyed making sense of the sentences above, feel free to follow the links to their sources to read even more, and keep an eye out – garden path sentences appear more often than you might think.