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Mind tricks

Today’s entry is longer. But to make up for it, it’s really fun.

Read these sentences:

  • The old man the boat.
  • When Fred eats food gets thrown.
  • The prime number few.
  • Fat people eat accumulates.
  • The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.

That was fun, wasn’t it? You start reading then realize you made a bad choice of meaning and have to mentally roll back to re-read again. These are called garden path sentences because they lead you down the wrong path.

They play with ambiguity to make you pick the most common – but in that case, wrong – meaning of a word, usually reinforced by hints on the previous n-gram.

Ok, let me explain more carefully what I mean.

An n-gram is a set of n pieces (in this case, words) in which you can divide something. For example, from “the old man the boat” you can extract the following 2-grams: “the old”, “old man”, “man the”, “the boat”. N-grams are used a lot by linguists to scan text for words that tend to show up together, and make predictions about what may come next.

Your brain does the same. I’m pretty sure in most cases in your life that you saw the 3-gram “the old man”, the word man was being a noun (modified by old). And almost never it happened to be a verb, of which “the old” was the subject. So your brain went forward with the first hypothesis, misguided as it was in that case. But it was still the logical, per probable, choice.

Most of the garden path sentences I’ve come across are in English (and there are more than the ones I opened this article with). But In some forums I stumbled upon two very clever Spanish sentences that even for me, a native, were hard to parse:

  • A causa de la alta tasa media hace un año una orden judicial
  • Al establecer una suma razonable de ganancia fija cada vendedor un precio acorde

In other languages, the garden path sentences are of the ‘simple’ kind, which is not so fun. They don’t really find you lost in the middle of a sentence with a wrong grammar tree and nowhere to go, like the ‘complex’ ones that we’ve seen until now do. They take you to the end and then the reason why you reevaluate it’s because they made no semantic sense; the syntax was also correct with the assumptions you made. As an example, this one in French that only works when spoken:

  • J’aime manger épicé, mais pas en même temps

You can also find ‘simple’ garden path sentences in their respective languages on the German and Dutch Wikipedias.


Try this sentence:

  • More people have been to Paris than I have.

Perfectly fine, isn’t it?

Read it again!

More than you have what? Been to Paris? More people have been to Paris than you have been to Paris? This is my favourite by far, because instead of making no sense in the first pass, it makes perfect sense in all passes though it doesn’t!

This is not a garden path sentence, even if sometimes they get lumped together. Some scholars called them pseudo-elliptical structures, because they use ellipsis to skip parts and create the illusion that it makes sense, you just need to feel what’s missing. But there is no missing part that could make it make sense!

It’s actually pretty easy to construct sentences like this. Some danish researchers even used them to study what parts of the brain are responsible for filling ellipsed parts of sentences, and you can check the exact examples they used, in both Danish and English (they translate pretty well).

Originally published in The blind mouse.