Tag Archives: ambiguity in writing

#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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