A garden path sentence is one that is exceptionally hard for the reader to parse. English is especially prone to this because it is an analytical language and so many words can be many different parts of speech. I read that as a person reads a sentence, he builds up a likely meaning for each word and a meaning for the whole sentence word by word, then if a "disambiguating word" appears that changes the meaning, he switches to the new meaning and continues. When the disambiguating word is far away from the ambiguous word, the sentence can be very difficult to understand.

The classic garden path sentence, as far as I am aware, is "The horse raced past the barn fell." The ambiguous word is raced and the disambiguating word is fell. For those who don't think this is a perfectly grammatical sentence, the meaning is the same as "The horse [that was] raced past the barn fell." Or perhaps more clearly using a different word, "The horse driven past the barn fell."

Before I ask my question, since these things are so cool (to me, anyway), here are a few more examples:

  • The old man the boats.
  • While Anna dressed the baby spit up on the bed.
  • The man returned to his house was happy.
  • Fat people eat accumulates.
  • She told me a little white lie will come back to haunt me.
  • We painted the wall with cracks.

The Question – My Own Garden Path Sentence

After enjoying these and many other garden path sentences I read about, I invented one of my own. Recently I told it to a friend, but he didn't really get my example garden path sentences (the horse, the old, and Anna) and argued that they and mine were not correct grammar. So I submit it to you for your analysis:

The men run through the arches screamed.

As explanation, the men were stabbed in the feet, possibly as a form of torture.

I swear I had several others I invented five to ten years ago, but I can't remember them. Perhaps I will invent some new ones.

Is that sentence correct grammar? As well as the others?

Feel free to edit my grammar. No comment necessary.

  • Chomsky's famous 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously' is totally grammatical. But I'd knock a mark off if such nonsense appeared in any essay not showing that grammaticality and acceptability are not exactly synonymous. Orwell's Sixth is surely the master rule (avoid the obviously grotesque), and Gricean Maxims come a close second (including avoid lack of clarity / avoid perversity) in normal usages. Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 20:03
  • @EdwinAshworth I'm pretty sure that no one is suggesting submitting garden path sentences as scholarly work intended to communicate well. They are more playthings for those who enjoy fiddling with language.
    – ErikE
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 0:13

6 Answers 6


Here is how the example sentences are grammatical:

  • The old man the boats.
    The old [people] [man/serve on] the boats

  • While Anna dressed the baby spit up on the bed.
    While Anna [got] dressed, the baby spit up on the bed.

  • The man returned to his house was happy.
    The man [who was returned to his house] was happy.

  • Fat people eat accumulates.
    [The fat that people eat] accumulates

  • She told me a little white lie will come back to haunt me.
    She told me [that] [a little white lie will come back to haunt me].

  • We painted the wall with cracks.
    We painted the wall [that has] cracks.

  • 3
    Obvious conclusion: removing words increases ambiguity?
    – Benjol
    Commented Sep 27, 2010 at 7:17
  • Thanks nohat, though I personally understand how these sentences are grammatical. I was trying to figure out how to explain to my friend (who is an accomplished Spanish-English translator for the military) that the usage of "raced" in the horse example is correct. He argued that just because the word can be used in that way sometimes doesn't make that particular sentence correct.
    – ErikE
    Commented Sep 27, 2010 at 16:15
  • 5
    @Emtucifor: Sounds like you and your friend need to agree on what you are using for the definition of "correct". Syntactically, everything formally checks out, as Nohat was describing. Definition-wise, the words are using established meanings. Empirically, I and others are able to parse the proper meaning of the sentence. What other measure can one use to determine "correctness"?
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Sep 27, 2010 at 17:51
  • 2
    And: Here's a possible way to explain it to your logically challenged friend. Put the sentence together as it works grammatically: "The horse fell." Explain to him that "raced past the barn" is an adjectival phrase, grammatically equivalent to any single adjective; for example, "The black horse fell." And try this imaginary conversation, too, if necessary: "The horse fell." "Which horse?" "The one that was raced past the barn." Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 3:03
  • 1
    @Dai here "the old" as a noun means "old people". It is an example of synecdoche. See it defined in the dictionary for the noun sense of "old" (#26): dictionary.com/browse/old?s=t
    – nohat
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 1:06

One of your examples is punctuated idiosyncratically:

While Anna dressed the baby spit up on the bed.

I've always been taught and I've always taught that adverbial clauses starting a sentence need to be followed by a comma:

While Anna dressed, the baby spit up on the bed.

This isn't mere disambiguation. Rather, the comma grants that clause -- "While Anna dressed" -- its capacity to modify the verb in the independent clause "the baby spit up on the bed." It's the grammatical way of saying, When did the spitting happen, you ask? Well let me give you something to modify that verb. Omitting the comma signals that "While Anna..." will be a noun clause: "While Anna dressed the baby [...was when the doorbell rang]." In this one case, the reeling "garden path" feeling of realizing that the verb "spit" doesn't fit with the noun phrase in front of it is legitimate and caused not by the reader's hasty assumptions but by punctuation that is grammatically uncommon.

Your other examples, though, are wonderful, as they play on grammatically common patterns formed with unexpected combinations.

  • I can't argue with your analysis.
    – ErikE
    Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 15:45

All the sentences are grammatically correct, including your own.

You could make the meaning clearer by adding punctuation, but this might spoil the fun. For example:

The men, run through the arches, screamed.

  • 2
    I find the commas awkward, actually.
    – ErikE
    Commented Sep 26, 2010 at 8:29
  • 8
    To my ear, the commas change the meaning slightly. With the commas, it parses more as 'The men, having been run through the arches, screamed', whereas without I hear 'The men, who were run through the arches, screamed'.
    – wyatt
    Commented Sep 27, 2010 at 2:29
  • 4
    Actually, when I read the 'run through the arches' sentence, I interpreted it this way: The men [who were made to] run [through/underneath] the arches screamed.
    – Jim
    Commented Feb 23, 2012 at 6:35

I think you are missing something very important here: you're not using any punctuation at all, and that can make a big difference. If you write "While Anna dressed the baby spit up on the bed." your sentence is confusing, but if you write "While Anna dressed, the baby spit up on the bed." with a comma after "dressed", then it becomes an easy to undestand and correct sentence. Punctuation is important for grammar, so, if you don't use any punctuation in your sentences, they're gramatically wrong. There are no difficult to understand sentences, there are only wrongly written sentences.

  • 1
    The particular sentence you chose to dissect is admittedly weak as a garden path sentence, due to being improved by a comma. However, it is grammatically correct! Also, consider "the old man the boats." It is perfectly grammatical and can't be improved with any punctuation. So I think you are missing something very important here: your claim that my sentences are ungrammatical is just plain wrong.
    – ErikE
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 21:44
  • Plus, see James Clawson's answer: your answer copies his but adds no extra value. Last point: you are confusing grammatical with clear. They are not the same. No one will argue that garden path sentences are hard to parse. That is why they have a special name in the first place! You are missing the point.
    – ErikE
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 21:45

Coming back to these after a while, I am not sure they are all technically correct. The fifth should be either 'She told me a little white lie would come back...' or 'She tells me a little white lie will come back...' Similarly, the past tense of spit is spat, so the second is wrong (unless spit up is an unchanging idiom; I don't know it). But the correct versions would also be garden path sentences, so this may be academic.


As the question in the OP is essentially 'Is that sentence correct grammar? As well as the others?', the answer would be 'Yes.'

Being grammatically correct is not always sufficient for a sentence to be comprehensible or even make any sense. This is what I think is the issue between the friends.

You insist it is grammatically correct. Your friend says it fails to make sense to him. The two things are not the same.

Obviously, you need to leave aside simple grammar and focus on semantics to explain how the sentences do make sense, after all.

  • 1
    Consider also a sentence like "Every morning, I read the nursery advertisements and saw a few boards." When spoken, there's no ambiguity. But in writing, there are two equally good ways of parsing. Until something identifies whether the sentence is in the present or past tense, there's no way to resolve what is or was done to the boards.
    – supercat
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 3:32

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