Awesome Sentences (Part II of II)

posted by John

Before we get started I just want to remind everyone: Club sandwiches, not seals.

My first Awesome Sentences post was about recursion and processing capacity. Our language faculty can create infinitely long sentences using things like embedding, but our brains can only understand so many nested sentences at once. This led to some cool and confusing sentences:

  • Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight.
  • The girl the cake the baker the owner fired baked hit screamed.

But the capacity of our language processing system isn’t the only thing that leads to crazy sentences. In the public service announcement with which I began the post, we see an example of another very interesting processing effect. The sentence is reminding you that if you’re going to club something, make it a sandwich, not a seal. When you read it, however, you see ‘club’ used in a familiar sense—as in, a club sandwich—before you realize it’s being used (very punnily) as a verb. The pun comes about because you have to go back and reassess the meaning of what you read before, even though you thought you already knew. Let’s look at a few more.

What if I said the following sentences to you:

  1. The horse raced past the barn fell.
  2. The old man the boat.
  3. The lady returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.

Would you believe me if I told you that these are all grammatical English sentences? If you wouldn’t, you should, because they are. Each of them employs a similar trick to the one used in “Club sandwiches, not seals,” and they have even been given a special name by linguists: “garden path” sentences.  How did they earn this name? By leading the listener down what he or she thinks is a certain ‘path’ that the sentence will take, and then all of a sudden turning into something entirely different (ok, so the name doesn’t make absolute sense, but at least the part about being led down a path does).

In the first sentence, “The horse raced past the barn fell,” we start off with what looks like the most basic syntactic structure of English. This would be the intransitive sentence, “The horse raced.” To it we add another common syntactic feature—the prepositional phrase “past the barn.” So far, our brain thinks it is looking at a run-of-the-mill intransitive sentence with an attached prepositional phrase. However, when we get to the final word, “fell,” we realize that what we initially thought was an intransitive sentence is actually something entirely different. Instead, we should have understood, “The horse that was raced past the barn [by the rider] fell.”

The problem is that by the time we get to ‘fell,’ we have already processed the sentence as what we initially thought it was going to be. Thus our brain does not accept the last word as a coherent addition to the utterance.

So what does this mean? It means that when we hear a sentence, our brain is immediately applying the most likely interpretation of the words and structure it is seeing and then making predictions about what is likely to come next. Simply put, we process on the fly, not as a whole. This is a sort of efficiency mechanism, designed to speed up processing and boost the overall utility of language. It backfires, however, when the “garden path” down which we are being led suddenly takes an unexpected turn, and the initial interpretation is shown to be incorrect. By the time we get to it, our brains have already ruled out “fell” as an appropriate final word for the sentence.

Thus, in the second sentence “The old man the boat,” we begin with a common noun phrase modified by an adjective—“the old man.” We immediately process it as such, and now we are looking for the most likely thing to come next: a verb. This means that when we get to “the boat,” which is decidedly not a verb, the sentence stops making sense.

What we don’t realize on our first try is that “the old,” (as in old people) is the subject, and that “man” (as in operate) is the verb.  If we had, we would know that “the boat” is simply a direct object. But because our brain expects to find a verb following the noun phrase “the old man,” we get confused. Only after this happens do we go back and reinterpret the sentence holistically: “Old people operate the boat.”

The same thing occurs in the third sentence, “The lady returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.” By now, you know you should look for the trick, and you’ve recognized that the sentence means “The lady who was returned to her house cleaned the kitchen.”

But for many people, the first time they read it, they think it is missing an “and” between “house” and “cleaned.” They interpret “The lady returned to her house” as they are first reading it. Because subordinate clauses (The lady [who was returned to her house]) are less common than simple intransitive sentences, they think they are seeing “the lady returned,” not “the lady [who was returned].” Thus when they reach “cleaned the kitchen,” it appears that the main verb has already come (“return”), and something goes awry.

These are classic examples of “garden path” sentences. If you can come up with any novel ones, or if you have any other awesome sentences for us, leave a comment. And remember, the complex cool sentences can lead people to is like an obsession—so be careful!