garden pathing

From Chris Waigl on Facebook:

Garden path alert. After reading this for the first three times, I was left with an extraneous “appear to have been a loan”. Got it the fourth time.

Both McDonnells, who now face years in prison, were acquitted of lesser charges of making false statements on loan applications, while Ms. McDonnell was convicted on a charge she alone faced, of obstructing a grand jury investigation by trying to make a gift of $20,000 worth of designer dresses and shoes appear to have been a loan. (link to NYT)

At first (second and third), Chris understood that Ms. McDonnell was convicted of trying to make a $20,000 gift of dresses and shoes (to some person or organization). She thought the sentence was finished – but then it went on!

A classic garden path sentence, to use the term of art (in linguistics and the psychology of language) that has been around since 1970 and has often been used on Language Log and this blog.

Here’s the Wikipedia explanation:

A garden path sentence 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. Garden path sentences are used in psycholinguistics to illustrate the fact that when human beings read, they process language one word at a time. “Garden path” refers to the saying “to be led down [or up] the garden path”, meaning “to be misled”.

The textbook example is The horse raced past the barn fell, from Thomas G. Bever’s “The cognitive basis for linguistic structures”, in J.R. Hayes (ed.), Cognition and the development of language (Wiley, 1970), pp. 279–362. Wikipedia on this example:

Most readers initially parse this as a basic noun phrase followed by the ordinary active intransitive verb “raced” and the prepositional phrase “past the barn”, but stumble when reaching the word “fell”. At this point, the reader is forced to backtrack and look for other possible structures. It may take some rereading to realize that “raced past the barn” is in fact a reduced relative clause with a passive participle, implying that “fell” is the main verb. The correct reading is then “The horse — (that was) raced past the barn — fell.”

Or you can get a shorter and more entertaining account from the Dinosaur Comics of 11/25/03:

3 Responses to “garden pathing”

  1. javava2012 Says:

    Arnold, A tad early, but happy birthday, guy! You are both entertaining and educational — often at the same time. I really enjoy your blog. Doug Harris

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    When I started to write up this example, I was sure we’d had some basic discussion of the phenomenon (as opposed to merely alluding to it) on Language Log or this blog, but I didn’t find any in a search on either site, so it was Back to Bever and the raced horse. (Tom and I were in grad school together, by the way, oh so long ago.) The Dinosaur Comics was a lucky find.

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