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While Nancy was dressing the baby played in the garden.

I'm not sure where the first clause ends! After baby or after dressing?

Please, suggest some way I can improve that sentence.

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To "improve" it, it must be changed. My first suggestion was to add a comma after dressing. If, as you suggest is possible, the clause could end after 'baby', the only way I can make any sense of that is if it is interpreted as 'While <some song> played in the garden'. Even then it is not really a complete sentence. So, seriously, even if your first reading interpreted the clause ending after 'baby' the next few words should cause you to re-interpret, and there should be no question as to where the clause ought to end. –  Jim Aug 27 '12 at 20:32
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@Jim I'm not a native of English language, but I would add 'herself' after 'dressing'. But now the question is if the sentence "While Nancy was dressing herself the baby played in the garden" has a native English fragrance. –  Elberich Schneider Aug 27 '12 at 20:41
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@ChrétienChevalier_ I see your question but, no, no native speaker would introduce 'herself' in that sentence. –  Jim Aug 27 '12 at 20:43
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No; "dressing herself" is not exactly incorrect, but it's not idiomatic; "dressing" all by itself implies that its herself she's dressing. Also: that many people punctuate badly is not a valid excuse for not punctuating at all! –  StoneyB Aug 27 '12 at 20:46
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@ChrétienChevalier You are quite incorrect about never drawing conclusions based on the presence or absence of punctuation. Sometimes careful punctuation is absolutely imprescindible for signalling correct meaning. –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 20:50

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This is known as a garden path sentence, because it is written (perhaps deliberately) to mislead you about its clause structure. The actual structure of the sentence is:

[While Nancy was dressing] [the baby played in the garden.]

The problem is that it's very easy to parse the sentence this way, especially on first read:

[While Nancy was dressing the baby] played in the garden. (Huh?!)

This can be fixed by adding a comma after dressing, or by rewording the whole thing:

While Nancy was dressing, the baby played in the garden.

The baby played in the garden while Nancy was dressing.

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Yes: it's easily parsed by asking "What is the subject of the verb played?" It's either "the baby" or something called "When Nancy was dressing the baby". –  Andrew Leach Aug 27 '12 at 20:45
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It's not a good garden-path sentence, because it is malformed without the comma. A good one is not susceptible to such fixes, like throwing the baby out the window a new toy. –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 20:47
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OP might appreciate an explanation here of why it's called a "garden path" sentence, which is not very clear in the article linked to. –  StoneyB Aug 27 '12 at 20:48
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@tchrist: We'd say: 'He threw the baby a new toy out of the window,' in the UK. Wouldn't this order be far more natural in the US too? [Ignoring, of course, the fact that out is used prepositionally in the US whilst out of is the corresponding preposition required in the UK.] If one wants a true garden path sentence: The snow swept past the statue of Neptune has buried the hedgehog. –  Edwin Ashworth Aug 27 '12 at 22:11
    
@EdwinAshworth There is a baby in the hallway, and there is a baby out the window. If you throw the one who’s out the window a new toy, then you garden-path. –  tchrist Aug 27 '12 at 23:17

This is why we have punctuation. Write either

While Nancy was dressing, the baby played in the garden.

or

"While Nancy was Dressing the Baby" played in the garden.

depending on which one you actually mean.

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+1 for clearly distinguishing both plausible meanings using nothing but punctuation (and all without mentioning garden path sentences! :) –  FumbleFingers Aug 28 '12 at 1:43

A request was seconded for an explanation of garden-path sentences that was better than Wikipedia's. Since I am here, I'll give it a go. It looks like Wikipedia's explanation might assume too much background, so I'll take it more slowly.

Garden path sentences are interesting because they usually trick people on the first reading, which gives you (if you're a scientist) a way to test how people process (and reprocess) speech or writing in real-time. Here's how to build a garden-path like the one above (there are other types):

  1. Think of a verb like kill that can act in both of the following ways.

    (a) It can sometimes take only one overt argument, the subject. For example, drink and kill work because you can say Gertrude drank and The poison killed. However, gave and met do not work because it sounds bad to say only Claudius gave and Hamlet met; you want another argument for those sentences.

    (b) It can sometimes take (at least) two overt arguments, a subject and (direct) object. For example, drink and kill work because you can say Gertrude drank the poison and The poison killed Gertrude. However, die does not work because you can't say Gertrude died the poison.

  2. Take your special verb and think of an object that it shows up with very, very frequently. For example, some water might be a good choice for drink, and time might be a good choice for kill.

  3. Add a subject to your phrase: Ophelia drank some water and Hamlet killed time.

  4. Add to the beginning of your sentence an adverb that will make your sentence an adverbial clause about time. That means, say, While Ophelia drank some water and After Hamlet killed time. The key here is that a phrase like this can be added onto another sentence as a dependent or subordinate clause.

  5. Now, you've done it. Since you chose the verb so that it can take or not take the direct object, you can reinterpret the sentence to not take the direct object. You can do this by making the direct object instead the subject of some verb that you now add onto the end: While Ophelia drank some water slowly overcame her and After Hamlet killed time too quickly passed.

So now When Ophelia drank can be an adverbial clause attached to Some water slowly overcame her. And After Hamlet killed can be an adverbial clause attached to Time too quickly passed.

If you were to wait until you got to the end of a sentence to start building a picture of its meaning in your head, then these wouldn't be a problem. If, instead, you start building up a picture of the meaning of a sentence before you get to the end, then sentences like these will lead you "down the garden path" to building a wrong picture because of your tendency to interpret the second noun (or noun phrase) as the direct object of the verb because they so frequently go together that way -- and our brains are very good at making and using such statistical analyses.

If the two structures and main tricks are not clear now, leave a comment, and I'll edit. It might help to see a tree.

It turns out that humans do process language incrementally as it is received (which isn't hard to believe from experience). Also, the difficulty in successfully making a correction in a case like this increases the longer that the wrong picture has been stored in your head.

So While Bill raced the horse fell should be easier to correct than is While Bill hunted the deer that was drinking from a bubbling brook burped.

It also turns out that people don't even necessarily correct their mistakes completely. People can read While Anna dressed the baby spit up on the bed and end up concluding that the baby spit up on the bed and Anna dressed the baby, because they didn't totally fix/delete the original mistake.

As for tchrist's disappointment with this kind of trickery, another favorite is The horse raced past the barn fell. This is in the article, but I think it's worth repeating. Here, the trick is omitting words so that The horse that was raced... and The horse that raced... become the same: The horse raced....

Also, if you want to read more about this stuff (I know/recall relatively nothing myself), try these:

The last two are about kids. They are not difficult reads but do assume a good deal more background than I did here. But you can always start them and ask questions here if you get stuck.

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Perhaps the idiomatic "garden path" bit needs explanation too. "Leading up [or down] the garden path" means to take a pleasant walk to a deceptive conclusion. Free Dictionary –  Andrew Leach Aug 28 '12 at 7:29

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