Garden-path lede sentence of the day

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In response to my (admittedly feeble) garden-path post a couple of days ago, Tim Leonard writes:

Ha!  That’s not a garden-path sentence.  This is a garden path sentence:

“Police in Washington state captured a schizophrenic killer who had escaped during an outing from the mental hospital where he had been committed to a state fair.”

Source: Dean Schabner, “Escaped Insane Killer Captured After Four-Day Manhunt“, ABC News, 9/20/2009.

And for lagniappe, I don’t think we’ve previously noted the “That’s not a ___, this/that is a ___” phrasal template, which (I think) originated with this passage in the movie Crocodile Dundee:



40 Comments

  1. Ray Girvan said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    Mr Bates: Just look at the profile there.
    Senatot Taliaferro: Point it out on the map with your stick.
    Mr Bates: That is not a profile, sir. This is a profile [indicating].
    – Investigation of Panama canal matters: Hearings before the Committee on interoceanic canals of the United States Senate in the matter of the Senate resolution adopted January 9, 1906, providing for an investigation of matters relating to the Panama canal, etc.[Jan. 11, 1906-Feb. 12, 1907] – Google Books

    that is not a house, this is a house
    – Meaningful art education, Issue 85, Mildred M. Landis, 1951

    that is not virtue … why, this is virtue
    – Body and Soul: A Course of Lectures Delivered in the Trance State, J. Clegg Wright, 1902

    But anything made like that is not a ship. This,” he rose to his feet, a brown walnut of a man. and stamped over to the hull, “this is a ship
    – Analog, 1981

  2. Zwicky Arnold said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    On the “that’s not a X…” template: I mentioned it in a list of unblogged snowclones in a posting (of 11/11/06) here. It made it into the Snowclone Database on 12/10/07, here, with a note: “Most people connect this with Dundee’s line in Crocodile Dundee (1986)”.

  3. Simon Spero said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    Moving from the “psychology of language” to the “psychology of linguists“, is this a garden path sentence?

    (1) The horse raced past the barn.

  4. Faldone said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    [I]s this a garden path sentence?

    (1) The horse raced past the barn.

    Not yet.

  5. oliver said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    I need some help with negation scope. Let’s look at a sentence:

    [1] It is better not to run and watch.

    Does the “not” have scope over just “run”, or does it have scope over both “run” and “watch”?

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    [I]s this a garden path sentence?
    (1) The horse raced past the barn.

    Only if the barn was in the middle of a garden.

  7. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    I’m a sucker for garden path sentences (in that I always get stuck halfway through them), but I didn’t have any trouble parsing that one. “The horse raced past the barn fell” always gets me though.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    “Most people connect this with Dundee’s line in Crocodile Dundee

    Possibly with an overlay of Wolf Creek (2005), whose villain Mick – a dark inversion of Dundee – used it verbatim with a nastily different spin.

  9. N said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    I think the sentence you were going for is:

    (1) The horse raced past the barn fell.

    It always gets me. But you parse it like so:

    The horse, which was raced past the barn, fell.

  10. Gabriel said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    I assume the ambiguous word is ‘state’? Maybe it’s because I’m from Washington State, but I had to read this several times before I even realized what the alternative reading was.

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Damn, I see someone at the Snowclones Database has already referenced the Simpsons “knifey-spoony” gag. Oh well.

  12. ø said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    This seems to me to be an atypical example of a garden path sentence. If you stopped before the final four-word phrase, you would have an easy to parse sentence meaning just what you think it means. You haven’t actually gone down the wrong path until you hit that last phrase.

  13. Simon Spero said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

    @N:

    “The horse raced past the barn fell” is almost lexicalised :-) I was wondering how many people reading this blog have to reanalyse “fell” isn’t present.

    I don’t expect anyone else refers to Robins as “undetached penguin parts” though.

  14. Chris said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    @Gabriel: The alternative reading interprets “committed to a state fair” as a unit. The intended reading separates “from… committed” and “to a state fair”, both of which modify “outing”.

    Although it’s also true that you could interpret “state” as a verb and be expecting to hear what police in Washington stated, as early as the fourth word. (I guess that would be the alternative alternative reading?) So it’s actually a double garden-path sentence.

  15. John Lawler said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    @oliver
    > [1] It is better not to run and watch.
    > Does the “not” have scope over just “run”, or does it have scope over both “run” and “watch”?

    The answer is “Yes”. That’s the problem. This is an attachment ambiguity, very common. But not a garden path sentence.

    For those (also) enthralled by g-p Ss, I offer this syntax problem on the topic.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    For those (also) enthralled by g-p Ss, I offer this syntax problem on the topic.

    Two of the sentences you give are simply badly punctuated and would be clear with commas after the subordinate clauses (4 & 6).

    Many of the others suffer from the problem that defining relative clauses don’t take commas.

    There is also the question of very long subjects; one’s not supposed to put a comma between the subject and the verb but I’d be tempted to in a couple of cases.

  17. carissa said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    I have a lede sentence-related question: does anyone else find the sentence “Pearl Jam reassess itself on ‘Backspacer'” totally mind-blowing? I understand the convention that bands and teams take plural-number verbs, but who decided they get singular reflexive pronouns? “It reassess itself” and “they reassess itself” are both horrible for everyone—aren’t they?

  18. carissa said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    (Found here.)

  19. Stephen Jones said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    I think the answer lies in the number of sibilants in reassess.

    Pearl Jam shoot itself in the foot.
    would be strange, but I had to read your example three times to see the problem.

  20. Faldone said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    I need some help with negation scope. Let’s look at a sentence:

    [1] It is better not to run and watch.

    Does the “not” have scope over just “run”, or does it have scope over both “run” and “watch”?

    Well, let’s see.

    1. *It is better watch.

    2. *It is better not watch.

    3. It is better not to watch.

    If the original sentence means anything other than “It is better not to run and not to watch” then it is poorly written. I would say it is not ambiguous.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    @carissa, the most obvious problem is that if “Pearl Jam” is taken as singular the phrase should have been “reassesses itself.” It looks like there may have been an editing glitch when the teaser was adapted from a sentence in the full article that was something like blah blah blah can make a band reassess itself. I think the usage of a marked-as-singular verb may tend to block or at least inhibit a marked-as-plural pronoun for the subject of that verb within the same clause. So you can say “If Congress raises its own pay, we’ll vote them out of office,” but perhaps “*If Congress raises their own pay” is a harder sell just like “reassess itself,” without any need to hypothesize additional complications for reflexives.

  22. Jair said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    From the show “Flight of the Concords”:

    (A mugger pulls out a knife on Jermaine and Bret)
    Jemaine: That’s not a knife.
    Bret: It is a knife.
    Jemaine: Oh, it is a knife. (They run)

  23. Andrew said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    I agree with ø above that this is an atypical example of a garden path sentence. Strangely, I saw a similar example this morning in the Metro (though googling suggests it was in fact in several British papers); ‘Actress Joanna Lumley learned to plough on a farm where poet Robert Burns lived yesterday’.

  24. John Lawler said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    @Stephen Jones:
    >Two of the sentences you give are simply badly punctuated and would be clear with commas after the subordinate clauses (4 & 6)
    >Many of the others suffer from the problem that defining relative clauses don’t take commas.

    Punctuation is a part of the writing system, not of the language, and certainly not of syntax. However, commas, in particular, are considered by some (including me) to be useful in representing the intonation intended by the author.
    I.e, they would be disambiguated if spoken. Take a look at the instructions at the end of the problem. You’d get a B so far, and it’d be an A if you could consistently distinguish the writing system from the actual language.

  25. Peter Taylor said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    Without prior context of horses racing different routes, I find “(The horse) raced past (the barn fell)” to be the natural interpretation, and any other parsing of that sentence to be marked.

    @John Lawler: How is example 4 from your document supposed to be parsed? Am I supposed to take “the police arrest” as a noun phrase and “control” as historic present?

  26. John Lawler said,

    September 21, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    @ Peter Taylor: (4) Until the police arrest the drug dealers control the street.

    Yes, though ‘historical present’ usually just means ‘generic’. As with many of these, comma intonation (mid-low-high-mid) between arrest and the drug dealers makes it unambiguous.

  27. Stephen Jones said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 3:13 am

    Number (4) should be parsed ‘Until the police arrest the drug dealers, control the street.’

    ‘control is an imperative and the beginning of the sentence is a subordinate clause of time.

    No (6) is ‘When Fred eats, food gets thrown.’

    Few if any garden path sentences provide a problem when spoken because of the intonation and clustering of the phrases. So by and large it’s a problem in writing. And it’s only in these two places where the standard rule of when to use commas makes the disambiguation clear.

  28. outeast said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 3:17 am

    Peter Taylor:
    I find “(The horse) raced past (the barn fell)” to be the natural interpretation

    So how on earth do you interpret ‘the barn fell’? As the Black Barn On The Moor Where Strangers Fear To Tread?

  29. Peter Taylor said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 3:28 am

    The hill which has a barn on it.

  30. outeast said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 6:17 am

    Interesting – I don’t think I’d ever have thought to parse it like that!

    I can imagine a name like ‘Barn Fell’, but that would require capitalization (and likely not an article), like Devonshire Fell and Cribyn Fell.

    I get the same feeling if you substitute ‘hill’ for ‘fell’ – which should force the sentence into an unambiguous reading along the lines you suggest. With capitals and no article, it’s OK (The horse raced past Barn Hill) but ‘the horse raced past the barn hill’ looks close to nonsense to my eye.

    But anyway: how would you parse the very similar (if slightly less misleading) ‘The horse raced through the woods fell’?

  31. Faldone said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 6:24 am

    The hill which has a barn on it.

    This would be a reasonable explanation for anyone for whom the word fell, meaning ‘hill’, were a part of the normal vocabulary. I would suggest that this is a fairly small percentage of the English speaking world. The rest of us struggle mightily with the idea of the barn fell being a meaningful NP.

  32. Peter Taylor said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 7:38 am

    I find “The horse raced through the woods fell” to be marked. It cries out to me for a “which was” to be inserted or, better, a defining relative clause which doesn’t use the passive voice. At a stretch I can imagine eliding “which was” in an adventure story, told in a breathless tone, but I would expect such a story to keep use of the passive voice to a minimum.

  33. Aaron Davies said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 7:40 am

    regarding pearl jam, i suggest using a third-person variant of the royal reflexive: “Pearl Jam shoot theirself in the foot.”

  34. Bob Lieblich said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    Yawanna create garden-path sentences? Just omit the conjunction “that”: “I showed her the large dent in the rear fender of my brand-new Pontiac resulted from her backing into me.” Or the comma before “and” joining two independent clauses: “The music critic was very hostile to the music of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner was also critical of Brahms.” (Just an example; not necessarily a true statement.) Obviously neither of these two recipes works every time, but in my experience they’re responsible for much of the garden-pathery out there.

  35. Aaron Davies said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    @john lawler: i really have to strain to misparse a few of your examples. if “Helen is expecting tomorrow to be a bad day” is supposed to be about the “pregnancy” meaning, that sense has pretty much passed out of my idiolect, except as an archaism.

    regarding the (perennial) question of whether punctuation is part of “language” or “grammar”, it seems like a case of nerdview to me. i’m pretty sure the general public would disagree with you on this one. (though i’ll admit i can’t think of a breakfast-experiment-type google query with which to test my hypothesis at the moment.)

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    I just experienced momentary confusion over what you might call a garden-path event title in an invitation that graced my email inbox: “Human Rights First Annual Awards Dinner.” This turns out to be an event hosted by an advocacy group called “Human Rights First,” which has been holding such awards dinners for a number of years.

  37. John Lawler said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    @Aaron Davies:
    Only when spoken by V. Borge does punctuation become part of language. Language is oral; writing, spelling, punctuation, alphabets, characters, syllabaries, et cetera are technology.

    Nothing wrong with technology (he wrote, on the net). But it’s not a species characteristic of H. sapiens, co-evolved with our bodies and brains. There’s a big difference between language, which is at least 50,000 years old, and the common biological heritage of all mankind; and the comma, which is no older than 500 years (check out Shakespeare’s punctuation) and not even understood by all English speakers. On that time scale, commas and IP addresses are practically indistinguishable.

    As for how hard it is to think up alternative parses, consider that software doesn’t have to strain at all — parsing software just follows the parsing rules. There are a lot of those, but many many more “dispreferences” that aren’t really rules. It follows that humans (the source of the dispreferences, natch), are much much better at rejecting silly parses than software.

    Here’s what my colleague Stephen Abney said about this situation 15 years ago in “Statistical Methods and Linguistics”:

    “No matter how difficult it is to think up a plausible example that violates the constraint, some writer has probably already thought one up by accident, and we will improperly reject his sentence as ungrammatical if we turn the dispreference into an absolute constraint. To illustrate: if a noun is premodified by both an adjective and another noun, standard grammars require the adjective to come first, inasmuch as the noun adjoins to N0 but the adjective adjoins to N. It is not easy to think up good examples that violate this constraint. Perhaps the reader would care to try before reading [these] examples: Maunder climatic cycles, ice-core climatalogical records, a Kleene-star transitive closure, Precambrian era solar activity, highland igneous formations.

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    “How Gadhafi, who’s already had plans to stay in Englewood, NJ and Central Park while in the area squashed by public outrage, came to even be on Trump’s property appears to be a bit of a mystery.”

    Gadhafi’s colorful UN speech rouses and confuses, Yahoo News

  39. Matt said,

    September 23, 2009 @ 8:47 pm

    A character on a Simpson’s episode invites all his friends to his home. They can only speculate on his intentions until he announces the following:

    “I am dying — (“Oh,” everyone gasps) to tell you that I have adopted (“Ooh,” everyone sighs) — a new faith (“Ah,” they all say) — in technology” (as he unveils his big-screen TV)

    I realize that this is not a bona fide garden path, but hey.

  40. Triage « Ask Copy Curmudgeon said,

    September 28, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

    […] out any unreadably awkward text (garden-path sentences, unclear antecedents and so […]

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