Saturday, July 4, 2009

Garden path sentences

I came across a headline recently that momentarily stumped me: "Judge accused of sex crimes impeached". This was because I automatically parsed this as "a certain judge has been accused of sex crimes", but then I came across "impeached" and had to fit it in somewhere". This happened because I initially interpreted "accused of sex crimes" as a verb phrase, whereas semantically it functions as a relative clause modifying "judge". These types of sentences, where we assign an initial interpretation and then have to revise it when we get to the end, are often referred to as "garden path" sentences, because we get led down a figurative garden path before getting to the actual meaning. A classic oft-repeated example is "The horse raced past the barn fell". Can't make sense of it? Try "The horse that was raced past the barn fell". (This doesn't work for everyone, because for some people racing a horse past a barn just doesn't feel right semantico-syntactically.) We initially think this is going to be just "The horse raced past the barn", with racing as the action the horse is performing, but when we get to the end we realize that actually the horse is falling, not racing, and "raced past the barn" is a relative clause modifying "the horse".

5 comments:

Faldone said...

So what's supposed to be the correct interpretation of this sentence about the judge? I read it as saying that a certain judge, who was accused of sex crimes, was impeached. I can't see any other meaning lurking in there. Am I missing something?

Ryan said...

Faldone is right. Where is the initial-throw-off meaning?

linguistlessons said...

The initial parsing isn't a meaning of the whole sentence, but rather the online interpretation you're putting together as you're reading the sentence: "judge accused of sex crimes", i.e., "a certain judge has been accused of sex crimes". But then you get to the "impeached" and realize that rather than "a certain judge has been accused of sex crimes", those first five words indicate "a certain judge, who has been accused of sex crimes, ...".

Olive Green said...

I get it--it seems at first that there are two verbs (passive, with the helping verb dropped), as though I said, "Karin went to the store bought some milk."

Another possible interpretation is that we could think the verb was active and that the judge did the action of accusing.

linguafrancablog said...

I thought of this post when I read this CNN headline on my Google homepage just now: "Fort Hood shooting investigators appeal for help". I parsed the first four words together before I looked at the rest… and it was disturbing.