Garden-path sentence

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A garden path sentence leads a parser initially to an incorrect interpretation. This is often due to the components having multiple meanings, with the grammatical parse being significantly less frequent than the misinterpretation.


  • The horse ran past the barn fell.
  • The horse ran past the barn *[fell].
The initial parse of this sentence interprets ran as the matrix verb, which leads the human parser to read fell as in an ungrammatical position. Because of the frequency bias toward ran being a matrix verb rather than an embedded participle, which is a rare structure, the parser struggles to include fell in the sentence.
  • The horse that was being run past the barn later fell down.
The correct parse of this sentence has an embedded clause, which is an uncommon and difficult structure. In this interpretation, the parser must first be aware that the participle is not the matrix verb, else be able to backtrack. However, the infrequency of embedded participles makes this construction very difficult to recognize, thus leading to a garden path effect.
  • The old man the boat.
  • The man who is old *[the boat].
The initial parse of this sentence does not find a verb at all, thus making the interpretation ungrammatical. This is due to man having a relatively low frequency as a verb, especially in comparison to its nominal counterpart.
  • The elderly people control the boat.
The correct parse of this sentence uses The old as an NP and man as the verb. The garden path effect is due to the infrequency of the components in their various forms as compared to the incorrect interpretation, which uses the high-frequency counterparts.
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