Tag Archives: garden-path sentence

#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.


Filed under Romance, writer, writing

#amwriting: squinting modifiers

Squinting ModifiersThis week we are going to look at two structural errors that introduce ambiguity into our narrative.

First up is the hilariously named squinting modifier.  Who thinks up these things? The first time I came across that expression, I thought it was a joke. However, in the world of writing, a “squinting modifier” is simply a type of misplaced modifier. According to Neal at Literal Minded, the term can be traced back to George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric, published in 1776.

It is a common error that can be difficult for the author to spot in their work because the author’s mind sees what was intended, not how it appears to an unbiased eye.

This structural error introduces ambiguity:  it seems to qualify the words both before and after it.

  • Students who skip classes rarely are reprimanded.

Does this mean students who rarely skip classes are reprimanded? Or, perhaps those students are rarely reprimanded.

Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, offers this example:

  • Children who laugh rarely are shy.

Is the author talking about children laughing rarely, or rarely being shy?

ambiguityMisplaced modifiers (frequently adverbs) make our work unclear, or “ambiguous.” The best way to avoid that ambiguity is to move the modifier so that your meaning is clear, or completely reword the sentence.

  • Children who laugh are rarely shy.
  • Students who skip class are rarely reprimanded.

When you introduce a large number of modifiers into your work you run the risk of

  • Introducing passivity to your narrative
  • Unintentionally introducing ambiguity

If you haven’t figured it out by now, there is an easy way to identify adverbs. Most, but not all, end in the letters “ly.” Knowing this makes it fairly easy to identify adverbs in sentences.

As I said, not all adverbs end in “ly.” Some frequency adverbs, do not follow this rule.

  • always
  • never
  • often
  • sometimes
  • seldom

Still, knowing that ‘ly’ at the end of a word indicates an adverb will help you avoid overusing them.

You may wonder why we want to limit the modifiers in our prose—and it’s a good question. How we use modifiers is part of the voice of our work.

If we are writing genre fiction (i.e. romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy) your prospective readers will not endure fluffed up prose written for the beauty of the words. They want lean prose, with an active voice, and to achieve that active phrasing, we cut back on the “ly” modifiers. Instead of telling you how the scene looks, an active voice shows you what the protagonist sees.

Telling: The night was hot and damp. Darren entered the alley, which was awfully dark and smelly. “Rafe?” he asked quietly.

“Over here,” said Rafe. He was all raggedy and dirty.

Showing: Darren entered the alley, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. The odors of overripe privies and decomposing garbage lingered in the humid air, along with the reek of despair. “Rafe?” he whispered.

A pile of rags stirred and a familiar voice said, “Over here.”

When we use active phrasing, we are better able to convey atmosphere.

Adverbs ending in “ly” are often called “adverbs of manner.” Despite the rants of some self-proclaimed gurus in certain writing forums, these words have a place in active prose, and anyone who says they don’t is not fully informed.

This is where it becomes a matter of style and the author’s voice. We choose our words deliberately to convey the story the way we see it, precisely placing modifiers to achieve a certain effect.

Perhaps you are trying to convey a character’s lack of conviction regarding his plan of action: Rafe is a down-on-his-luck confidence man, a reformed scam-artist drawn in to do a job only he has the skills for.

“I’m fairly sure this will be safe.” Rafe crossed his fingers for luck. “It’s not that much dynamite.”

Several authors I know well would never use the word “fairly” because its an indecisive word. That indecisiveness is what I want to convey. This is the difference in our “voices.”

The way I see it: Rafe could say “I’m almost sure” but to me, that phrasing feels clunky and obvious–it does show his doubt. But, in  my opinion, what it doesn’t convey is Rafe’s desire to sell his reluctant partner the plan he has little confidence in. He has to convince Darren to go along with it because they have no other option. Rafe is a conman, trying to reform. He has an important reason to not just lie about it, so he wants to be as truthful as he can be and still sell Darren on the plan.

Writing involves words of all kinds and using them properly.

Adverbs are a powerful seasoning to add to your prose–be sparing and make the best use of them. Those you do use should go unnoticed in the narrative.

Your readers will thank you.

List of common adverbs


Filed under Publishing, Self Publishing, writer, writing