Up or down the garden path?

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Recently a friend sent me this example of a hard-to-parse sentence (source here):

What have you been surprised men you’ve been seeing expect without doing the work to show they deserve it?

This is not exactly a "garden path" sentence, which  Wikipedia tells us

[…] 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 yields a clearly unintended meaning. "Garden path" refers to the saying "to be led down [or up] the garden path", meaning to be deceived, tricked, or seduced. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler describes such sentences as unwittingly laying a "false scent".

The parse we start out with is the correct one — it's just that it runs into a wall when it gets to the sequence "men you've been seeing". If we persist, that original parse eventually recovers.  We need to figure out that "men (that) you’ve been seeing expect _ without doing the work to show they deserve it" is the complement of be surprised (that); and what has been painfully extracted from the object position of expect in that clause.

But this analysis left me with several questions: Is there a metaphorical name for that kind of sentence, assuming that "garden path "is not appropriate? And what's the history of the "garden path" phrase, in general and as applied to sentence processing?

From the OED's entry for garden:

P5. colloquial. to lead (a person) up the garden (path): to lead (a person) on; to entice; to mislead, deceive.

with citations like

1925 E. Mannin Sounding Brass i. viii They're cheats, that's wot women are! Lead you up the garden and then go snivellin' around 'cos wot's natcheral 'as 'appened to 'em.
1957 I. Murdoch Sandcastle ii. 29 I'm going to lead her up the garden. I've got her thoroughly foxed so far.
1993 D. Coward tr. G. de Maupassant Grove of Olives in Mademoiselle Fifi & Other Stories 219 She left out the bit about how she led you up the garden path about who was the father.

I'm a bit surprised that this meaning hasn't been found earlier than 1925. And the OED has no entry for "down the garden path", although Google ngram counts for down are at least as frequent as up:

Of course, many of the instances of both directions are literal rather than metaphorical.

Anyhow, a quick Google Scholar search shows that "garden path" was routinely applied to sentence processing by the mid-1970s, e.g. Carol Conrad, "Context effects in sentence comprehension: A study of the subjective lexicon", Memory & Cognition 1974:

The research on the effects of context on ambiguity arose from the question of whether or not people process both meanings of an ambiguous sentence. This research has given rise to several theories of how ambiguities are processed , The first of these, the garden path theory, was initially suggested by Lashley (1951), who proposed that people process onJy one meaning or structure of a sentence at a time and that if the original interpretation later becomes inappropriate, we then process the other meaning.

This quote led me to hope that the phrase might have originated in Karl Lashley seminal 1951 chapter "The problem of serial order in behavior". But Lashley doesn't use the "garden path" metaphor, though he gives a lovely example of the problem:

[T]he understanding of speech involves essentially the same problems as the production of speech and definitely demands the postulation of an after-effect or after-discharge of the sensory components for a significant time following stimulation. Thus, in the spoken sentence, "Rapid righting with his uninjured hand saved from loss the contents of the capsized canoe," the associations which give meaning to righting are not activated for at least 3 to 5 seconds after hearing the word. I shall refer later to other evidence for such long after-discharge of sensory excitations. The fact of continued activation or after-discharge of receptive elements and their integration during this activation justifies the assumption of a similar process during motor organization. The processes of comprehension and production of speech have too much in common to depend on wholly different mechanisms.

The first use of the "garden path" metaphor with respect to sentence processing seems to come ten years later, in Charles Hockett's 1961 chapter "Grammar for the hearer" (In Proceedings of Symposia in Applied Mathematics, vol. 12):

This then raises the same questions, recursively, about the history of "garden path" as applied to jokes — but I'll leave this for the commenters.

Update — Language Down the Garden Path, which publishes papers from a 2010 conference, reprint's Tom Bever's 1970 chapter "The cognitive basis for linguistic structures", which introduces the often-quoted sentence "The horse raced past the barn fell" — but as far as I can tell, Bever 1970 doesn't use the "garden path" metaphor.




  1. Philip Taylor said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 5:27 am

    Although of zero linguistic interest, it is perhaps worthwhile mentioning that the putative etymology of "to lead X up/down the garden path" dates back to the time when cottagers kept a tame pig for slaughter. When said pig's time was up, it was led up/down the garden path (i.e., away from the cottage) before having its throat cut.

  2. Uly said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 6:48 am

    Without ever looking it up or thinking about it much, I've just always assumed that "garden path" started off as an alteration of "primrose path", which of course leads nowhere good.


  3. unekdoud said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 7:46 am

    Is this a matter of what's considered the initial parse? Because I would consider "Men you've been seeing expect X." itself a garden-path sentence out of its context of relationship advice.

  4. KevinM said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 10:31 am

    A By-path Meadow, or Pilgrim's Progress sentence? A Red Riding Hood sentence? The root problem, however, may be complementizer deletion. A "that" after "surprised" might keep the reader on the right path. Strait is the gate, and narrow the way …

  5. KevinM said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 10:33 am

    (Sorry, you already pointed out the missing "that." Slipped my mind.)

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 10:34 am

    I'm not sure "What […] men you've been seeing expect" counts as a garden path, but it does read ambiguously to me. Presumably the intended meaning is "what men you're dating expect", but (not realizing that the context was relationship advice) my first reading was "what men have been seen to expect".

  7. Robert Coren said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 10:54 am

    It took me a couple of readings to make any sense at all of this sentence. "What have you been surprised" looks like it's headed into an ungrammatical thicket, which might be clarified if the next word were, say, "about" or "by", but "men" just sent my head spinning.

    What's strange is that it seems that the writer of that sentence was actively trying to obscure its meaning by leaving out at least one crucial "that".

  8. Jerry Packard said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 11:40 am

    As myl points out, the cited sentence is not a garden path, it’s a fronted wh- question, with the wh- ‘gap’ following the verb _expect_ and the fronted constituent being ‘heavy’ (= long), making it difficult to process. Other than being difficult to process I don’t think such a sentence has a particular name. I’ve been working on sentence processing since around 2000 and have directed a couple of dissertations on ‘garden pathing’ in Chinese and never heard the ‘up’ version until today. I’ve always visualized it as a person having a difficult time reversing their parse because they were fighting against a gravity assist. I’m not sure (but I can guess) why Professor Hockett, who was my first advisor in grad school, used ‘Confucius’ as a reference for the joke since it has nothing to do with Confucius.

  9. Lemon Guy said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 12:20 pm

    I have read this sentence a dozen times and still cannot parse it or figure out the intended meaning. How is it grammatical? Can someone parse it for this poor confused soul?

    [(myl) Here's a version without the WH-fronting and subject-aux inversion, and with a complementizer and relative pronoun stuck in:


  10. rosie said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 12:26 pm

    The sentence confused me just as it confused Robert Cohen. In trying to parse the words "What have you been surprised", I naturally assume that "What" refers to what "you" have been surprised by. When I start reading a "wh-" question, I assume that the relativizer has been extracted from one clause, not dragged out from inside the inner of two nested clauses. I'd say it is indeed a garden-path sentence.

  11. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 1:01 pm

    I'm with Lemon Guy. I can't figure out what the sentence is even trying to say at all. A little help, please?

  12. Y said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 1:24 pm

    "You are surprised man-friends expect stuff, without them doing the work to show they deserve it. What kind of stuff?"

  13. RT said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 1:33 pm

    For those having trouble parsing: the question means (roughly): "The men you're dating sometimes expect things without having done anything to earn those things. What expectations have they had that surprised you?"

    I don't generally use "seeing" in the way the sentence does, which made it harder for me to parse it out of context.

  14. Jerry Packard said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 1:58 pm

    Statement: You have been surprised that men you have been seeing expect [ something ] without doing the work to show they deserve it. Now make it a WH question.

  15. Circeus said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 4:30 pm

    It's not any garden pathiness that makes the sentence devolve into being hard to comprehend, it's the multiple center embeddings.

  16. Lemon Guy said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 5:35 pm

    Aha! It finally clicked.

    I don't know if this is a category the LL has considered before, but this sentence may be the most difficult to parse sentence I have ever encountered in normal idiomatic writing. (I'm sure it would be easier to understand in context.) This seems like a category distinct from "garden path". We could trivially generate examples by just endless nesting a lot of sub-clauses, but this example has not too many words.

  17. Bloix said,

    July 28, 2019 @ 10:07 pm

    Given that 1925 quote, it looks like the origin has nothing to do with pigs to the slaughter and more to do with women being "seduced," ie raped.
    I did ngrams of up the lead up garden and lead down the garden with and without path and you and up until the 1930s the examples are innocuous descriptions of people walking on literal paths in literal gardens.

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 3:59 am

    Well, I have to confess that my source was not a lexicographer but rather an old countryman (Jack Hargreaves, 1911–1994); it is, of course, not impossible that he was mistaken, but he certainly lived at a time and in a locality when/where "leading the family pig up/down the garden path" was a regular occurrence, and his theory seems not unreasonable to me.

    [(myl) It's unfortunately not impossible that the same idiom was used for slaughtering pigs and seducing women.]

  19. loonquawl said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 6:35 am

    There is another quote from 1925, this one from minutes of a meeting:

    "I shall try very carefully not to follow the Chairmans's lead this morning. He was leading me up the garden a little"

    – it is from Commission on Food Prices: First Report, with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices, H.M.S.O., 1925

  20. richardelguru said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

    Bit OT, but the attribution of the 'pea'/pee GP joke to Confucius!?
    Is that too a joke, maybe a meta-joke*?

    * And I shall carefully avoid the barbarity of adding "…and I never met a joke I didn't like".

  21. Lex said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 12:38 pm

    FWIW, I recall referring in jest to such sentences as “washboard roads” or washboarding (referring to the ripples in sandy or gravel paths which preclude full contact with the ground making for an either slow or slippery, and generally bumpy, trip).

  22. Rachael Churchill said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 1:42 pm

    @richardelguru, there's a whole category of Confucius jokes, in the form of proverbs, and characterised by puns (in English) and stereotypically Chinese-sounding bad grammar. Another example I can think of is "Man who walk through airport turnstile sideways going to Bangkok", but I expect Google can find you others.

  23. Philip Anderson said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 3:27 pm

    I had only ever heard “up the garden path”, never “down”, and indeed that seems to be an/the American usage.
    I always pictured a winding garden path that never got anywhere. But the oldest version seems to be “up the garden”; when was “down” first used?

  24. Viseguy said,

    July 29, 2019 @ 7:37 pm

    For what it's worth, I found the sentence indecipherable until, after suffering through the source piece, I was able to read it, finally, in context. At that point, the meaning seemed clear and unambiguous. That said, Henry James Dating Goddess is not.

  25. Philip Anderson said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 7:35 am

    It wasn’t necessarily related to seducing women “The first known published occurrence of 'lead you up the garden' is in Ethel Mannin's 'Sounding Brass' (1926) where it refers to women leading men 'up the garden' for the purposes of seduction.“ (http://northerncobblestone.blogspot.com/2013/04/origins-of-lead-up-garden-path.html?m=1)

    This entertaining music hall monologue (1929) clearly combines the idiom with a literal garden seduction:

    Hansard has a number of early references, such as this one, 1926:
    ‘if I may use a vulgarism, he is trying to lead his supporters "up the garden." ‘

    So it seems to have been a familiar, if vulgar, expression in the 1920s, as other references show. Seduction using flattering words and empty promises seems a more likely allusion than pig-killing.

    Given the absence of “path” in many of the early references (it appears in Hansard in 1929 though), a connection with Shakespeare’s “primrose path” (Hamlet), seems unlikely to me.

  26. Francois Lang said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 7:39 am

    @Rachael Churchill

    100 "Confucius say" jokes (including your Bangkok example) for our enjoyment at


  27. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 8:18 am

    When I was 5 years old, in 1948, my brother Dave taught me this joke when we were doing our paper route in rural Ohio:

    "Confucius say, 'He who cooks carrots and peas in the same pot is unsanitary'."

    That was long before Hockett used it in his 1961 chapter and in his Cornell lectures.

    I often tell this joke to friends and in my lectures. Very few get it the first time I tell it. Then I retell it, emphasizing the "peez" very heavily, but most people still don't get it. Only after I tell it three times do a few people start to get it.

    I understood it the very first time my brother told it to me as we walked across a field in Ohio. It made me laugh so hard I almost peaed in my pants.

  28. BZ said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 12:10 pm

    After struggling to understand the sentence, I finally get it, but I'm still not 100% sure it's grammatical. Let's simplify it. "What have you been surprised men do?" This has to be grammatical by itself before adding any clauses, and to me it's not. And adding implied words doesn't help. "What [things] have you been surprised [that] men do?" Still no. I think there is a "by" missing. "What have you been surprised *by* *that* men do?" Once you add both the "by" and the "that" the sentence becomes grammatical and parseable. Maybe this was a dangling preposition hypercorrection?

    Oddly, without the "what" the "by" is not needed. "I've been surprised [that] men I've been seeing expect XYZ" is ok.

  29. Jerry Packard said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 12:56 pm

    Maybe it works better with simpler constituents: what are you surprised he did?

  30. Rachael Churchill said,

    July 30, 2019 @ 3:00 pm

    @BZ It's grammatical for me, with and without "that".
    Is a potential answer (like "I'm surprised men leave the toilet seat up") grammatical for you?

  31. Philip Taylor said,

    July 31, 2019 @ 5:06 am

    Clearly I cannot answer for BZ, and whether or not something is grammatical is increasingly moot, but for me "I'm surprised men leave the toilet seat up" is fine for speech but in writing I would expect it to read "I'm surprised that men leave the toilet seat up". When I write, I rarely include the "that"s in the first draft, since I am writing what I am thinking, and I think in words (i.e., I mentall compose as if I were speaking). But when I come to review that first draft, I invariably insert the "that"s that the more formal medium of the written word appears to require.

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