#amwriting: The Garden Path

Plum Trees in Blossom, Pissaro 1894 via Wikimedia Commons

Plum Trees in Blossom, Pissaro 1894 via Wikimedia Commons

Today we are looking at the second of two creatively named structural errors that can introduce ambiguity to our work. On Monday we looked closely at “squinting modifiers” and today we are walking the “garden path sentence.”

Most of us are aware that many times a sentence is made stronger by the elimination of relative pronouns, such as that, which, and whom. Often, these words are understood and are therefore unneeded.

However, overzealous new authors recovering from a severe ego-bruising at the hands of a writing group sometimes get a little crazy and slash every instance of the “offending word” from their narrative. Such a knee-jerk reaction is ridiculous and can create the “garden-path sentence.”

Spring Hedges in Bauerngarten, Heinrich Vogeler 1913 via Wikimedia Commons

Spring Hedges in Bauerngarten, Heinrich Vogeler 1913 via Wikimedia Commons

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

“A garden path sentence, such as “The old man the boat,” is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end or unintended.

“Garden path” refers to the saying “to be led down the garden path,” meaning to be deceived, tricked, or seduced.

After reading, the sentence seems ungrammatical and makes almost no sense, requiring rereading to fully understand its meaning after careful parsing.”

pac-man jpgIn this case, confusion arises because we read like Pac-Man eats: one word at a time, as fast as we can, following the line. We attempt to understand sentences as we are reading them. The “garden-path sentence” begins by taking you toward a particular destination, but midway through it takes a turn for the bizarre.

Disambiguation memeThere are two types of garden path sentences.  The first is “locally ambiguous,” meaning that it can be cleared up with minimal changes to the sentence. Many times the addition of a word or punctuation will resolve the issue:

  • “The raft floated down the river sank.”
  • “The raft that floated down the river sank.”
  •  “We told the man the dog bit a medic could help him.”
  • “We told the man whom the dog bit that a medic could help him.”

Wikipedia offers the sentence: “The old train the young fight.”

  • When you add a comma it reads: “The old train, the young fight.” The addition of the comma makes sense of the words.
  • One could also argue that the sentence means “The old train the young to fight.

ambiguityThe other type of garden path sentence is “globally ambiguous” because when it is taken out of context the meaning is still unclear no matter how many times you reread it . It requires a complete rewording.

A sentence should always be understandable. Context is extremely important to the meaning of an ambiguously phrased sentence. What happens to a sentence when you take it out of context? It has to stand alone, and still make sense.

Again, Wikipedia offers an example of confusion: “The cat was found by the shed by the gardener.”  This sentence is open to several interpretations. Perhaps the cat was by the shed, or the shed was by the gardener, or both the cat and the gardener were next to the shed. When this sentence is isolated from its paragraph and taken out of context, the meaning is unclear.

Consider a more active phrasing and reword the sentence to say “The gardener found the cat near the shed.”

The way to resolve the garden-path sentence is to

  • Insert a relative pronoun (such as “that”) for clarity.
  • Insert proper punctuation for clarity.
  • Reword the sentence to make the meaning clear.
 The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons


The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons

Readers want to read without bumps and hiccups. Anytime they have to stop and reread something you risk losing them. Sentences that are ambiguous stop the eye.

We never want to introduce haziness into our work, and because we wrote it, we sometimes don’t see that it is confusing. If you have asked a beta reader to read a section of your work, and he flags a portion as being unclear, don’t just look at it and wonder why he can’t understand what seems so clear to you.

You must “parse” it. Tear that passage down to its component parts and find out what it is that the reader doesn’t understand. When you take the offending sentences out of their context, you can see if they will stand on their own. If they don’t, a simple rewording may be all that is needed.

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6 Comments

Filed under Romance, writer, writing

6 responses to “#amwriting: The Garden Path

  1. Stephen Swartz

    Next semester I shall simply require my students to read these blog posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Stephen–I learn as I go. When I am reading a book with passages that make no sense, I try to figure out why and then I blog about it. Indies who try to go the cheap route are my fodder. It pays to hire an editor!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stephen Swartz

        I’ve had several grammar classes at various levels but you still manage to explain things in a more easy-going manner and with Olympian clarity than the textbooks or professors I encountered.

        Like

  2. Stephen Swartz

    I was an editor of non-fiction, scientific texts at one point in my storied career.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good advice, as usual. One thing I find interesting about the example used, “The old man the boat,” is the density of word use in this sentence. I’d say it’s more often the case among my writing students that sentences suffer from a lack of density (a propensity to use more words than a sentence requires). Can we have a lesson about that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Scott-but then I’d have to lay bare my Achilles Heel–wordiness to the extreme! I tend use way too many words, and am trying to trim that down. But you can always tell what I am learning by what I am blogging about!

      Like

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