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Ambiguity & Garden Path Sentences

If a sentence is ambiguous, it can have more than one meaning. There are many types of ambiguity. For example, in the following sentence the word bank could mean the edge of a river, or a financial institution:

  • John went to the bank.

This is called lexical ambiguity because it is the result of one of the words having more than one possible meaning. This next sentence is syntactically ambiguous (the syntax, or grammar, can be understood in more than one way):

  • Put the box on the table in the kitchen.

Is the box already on the table, and to be put in the kitchen? Or is the box to be put on the table which is in the kitchen? From the sentence alone we cannot tell.

Try reading the following sentences. They are called garden path sentences because they are easily misunderstood (they lead you down the garden path) even though they are all grammatical! Don't worry if some of these sentences seem like nonsense at first (you have been garden pathed); they will be explained below.

  1. The prime number few.
  2. Fat people eat accumulates.
  3. The cotton clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi.
  4. Until the police arrest the drug dealers control the street.
  5. The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.
  6. When Fred eats food gets thrown.
  7. Mary gave the child the dog bit a bandaid.
  8. The girl told the story cried.
  9. I convinced her children are noisy.
  10. Helen is expecting tomorrow to be a bad day.
  11. The horse raced past the barn fell.
  12. I know the words to that song about the queen don't rhyme.
  13. She told me a little white lie will come back to haunt me.
  14. The dog that I had really loved bones.
  15. That Jill is never here hurts.
  16. The man who whistles tunes pianos.
  17. The old man the boat.
  18. Have the students who failed the exam take the supplementary.
  19. The raft floated down the river sank.
  20. We painted the wall with cracks.
  21. The tycoon sold the offshore oil tracts for a lot of money wanted to kill JR.

All of these sentences are grammatical. Did you understand them all? Unless you are a linguist who has studied syntax and garden path sentences, the answer is probably "no".

Here the sentences are clarified by adding some extra words:

  1. The prime (people) number few.
  2. (The) fat (that) people eat accumulates (in their bodies).
  3. The cotton (that) clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi.
  4. Until the police (make the) arrest, the drug dealers control the street.
  5. The man, who hunts (animals), ducks out on weekends.
  6. When Fred eats (his dinner) food gets thrown.
  7. Mary gave the child (that) the dog bit a bandaid.
  8. The girl (who was) told the story, cried.
  9. I convinced her (that) children are noisy.
  10. Helen is expecting (for) tomorrow to be a bad day.
  11. The horse (which was) raced past the barn, fell (down).
  12. I know (that) the words to that song about the queen don't rhyme.
  13. She told me (that) a little white lie will come back to haunt me.
  14. The dog that I had (as a pet) really loved bones.
  15. (The fact) that Jill is never here hurts (me).
  16. The man who whistles (all the time) tunes pianos (for a living).
  17. The old (people) man the boat.
  18. (Please) have the students who failed the exam take the supplementary.
  19. The raft (that was) floated down the river, sank.
  20. We painted the wall (that was covered) with cracks.
  21. The tycoon, (who was) sold the offshore oil tracts for a lot of money, wanted to kill JR.

Notice that there are two types of ambiguous sentence: either there is a local ambiguity (one that is cleared up once you have heard the whole sentence) or it is a global ambiguity (one that remains even after the entire sentence has been heard). Garden Path sentences normally have local ambiguity.

  • Locally ambiguous: The old train...
    "Train" could be a noun ("The old train left the station") or a verb ("The old train the young").
  • Globally ambiguous: I know more beautiful women than Julia Roberts.
    This could mean "I know women more beautiful than Julia Roberts" or "I know more beautiful women than Julia Roberts does".

Perhaps you can come up with your own ambiguous grammatical sentences that trick the brain into getting confused. We'd be interested to hear your garden path suggestions; please send them to us.

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