The garden-path sentence #amwriting

As NaNoWriMo winds down, I am preparing to face a manuscript full of wandering, garbled sentences. These are the products of my fingers not being able to keep up with my brain. I might know what that sentence means, but my editor won’t. My job in December is to be alert and watch for ambiguous phrasings.

MyWritingLife2021About garden-path sentences, via Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

(The term) 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.” [1]

In this case, confusion arises because we attempt to understand sentences as we are reading them. The “garden-path sentence” begins by taking you toward a particular destination. Midway through, it takes a turn for the bizarre.

There are two types of garden-path sentences.  The first is a “local ambiguity,” meaning it can be cleared up easily with the addition of a word or punctuation, such as:

“The raft floated down the river sank.” Add one word to make it clear: “The raft that floated down the river sank.”

“We told the man the dog bit a medic could help him.” Add two words for clarity: “We told the man whom the dog bit that a medic could help him.”

Wikipedia offers this example: “The old train the young fight.” Adding a comma 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.”

The other type of garden-path sentence is “globally ambiguous” because the meaning stays unclear no matter how many times you reread it when it is taken out of context.

A sentence should be understandable even when removed from its context. Wikipedia offers the sentence: “The cat was found by the shed by the gardener.”

Hydrangea_cropped_July_11_2017_copyright_cjjasperson_2017 copyWhen I have asked a beta reader to read a section of my work, they sometimes flag a paragraph as unclear. It might make perfect sense to me, but if I am the only one who understands it, it’s time to tear that paragraph down to see if each sentence can stand on its own.

Sara’s missing cat was found by the shed by the gardener. Mittens was frightened and hungry but safe.

Let’s break that paragraph down sentence by sentence:

  • Sara’s missing cat was found by the shed by the gardener.
  • Mittens was frightened and hungry but safe.

The first sentence is passive and ambiguous, open to interpretation. Was the cat by the shed? Or was the shed by the gardener? Or were the cat and the gardener both next to the shed?

Once I’ve taken it out of context, it’s easy to see why the reader didn’t understand it.

Usually, a simple rewording to make my phrasing more active is all that is required.

The gardener found Sara’s cat near the shed. Mittens was frightened and hungry but safe.

Often, a new author has been criticized for using the relative pronoun ‘that’ too freely. Thin-skinned and bleeding profusely, they will go to any length to avoid using the word that, which can lead to awkwardly phrased sentences.

Relative pronouns have a fundamental place in English. While it’s easy to turn them into crutch words, they are essential words that make nouns specific.

  • That dog bites, so watch out.
  • Harry Potter was the boy who lived.

The way to resolve the garden-path sentence is to:

  • Insert a relative pronoun (such as “that” or “who”) for clarity.
  • Insert proper punctuation for clarity.
  • Reword the sentence to make the prose active.

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, which throws the reader out of the story.

Clementines_Astoria_White_Hydrangea2019I don’t want to introduce vagueness into my work. Just because I like what I wrote doesn’t mean it has to stay in the finished product. Maybe I don’t see that it’s confusing, but my friends who read my raw manuscripts will.

Every time I participate in NaNoWriMo and then take that manuscript through revisions, my first draft skills become a little stronger. I write stronger sentences in my first drafts and have to make fewer changes, which feels like a victory.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Garden-path sentence,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 28

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