Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Led Down the Garden Path

My focus in linguistics has mainly been on sociolinguistics and language change, but I've always found syntactic ambiguities pretty interesting. One type that I came across lately is the garden-path sentence.

A garden-path sentence is one where the structure (i.e., the syntax) that a person has come up with at the beginning for a sentence doesn't make sense with what comes later. I recently came across this sentence: "Without warning a deafening blast cut the howling winds apart." In this example, there are actually two possible garden paths plus the grammatically correct structure:
  1. Without warning ["warning" acts as a gerund taking "a deafening blast" as its direct object] a deafening blast... (nobody went to warn a blast)
  2. Without warning [introduction of a subordinate clause normally indicated by "that"] a deafening blast... (nobody warned that something would happen involving a deafening blast)
  3. Without warning [pause usually indicated by a comma -- "without warning" is an adverbial prepositional phrase] a deafening blast... (there was no warning, and then something happened involving a deafening blast)
Besides being ungrammatical, the first garden path doesn't make sense. How do you warn a blast? Do you go talk to it? Because of this semantic incongruity, it's rather likely that if people were led down this garden path, they would quickly reparse the sentence to get to the correct meaning. However, there is a good chance that people will be led down the second garden path because it is quite plausible pragmatically. If there was going to be a deafening blast, you would expect people to give warning. In any case though, this is still ungrammatical. The grammatical form is the third one listed. But of course, you knew that, or if you were momentarily led down the garden path, you figured it out in a second or two.

Besides the fact that these types of sentences can sometimes lead to funny or odd interpretations (the classic "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana"), the big implication is that no matter how quickly people read, people-make-sense-of-a-sentence-one-word-at-a-time.

In any case, as garden-path sentences go, this one really wasn't that bad at all. I've seen a lot worse. Like crash blossoms.

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