Garden path of the day

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Kate Riga and Nicole Lafond, "Congress Boots The Government Funding Can Down The Road, Again", Talking Points Memo 1/18/2024:

Under pressure from an impending snowstorm (translation for non-D.C. weather babies: a predicted couple-inch sprinkling), both chambers of Congress Thursday passed a continuing resolution to keep the government funded until early March.

"Weather babies" means people who are not used to significant snowfall, of course. But at first I got the wrong scope for "non-", assuming the structure

[[non D.C.] [weather babies]]

meaning "weather babies who are not from D.C."

That interpretation violates a Gricean maxim or two — why would "impending snowstorm" need to be translated for weather babies if they're not from D.C. (and by implication, not need to be translated for weather babies from D.C.)?

But the authors clearly meant the analysis to be

[non [D.C. weather babies]]

i.e. "those readers who are not D.C. weather babies". This presupposes that folks in D.C. are all weather babies, scared of "a predicted couple-inch sprinkling" of snow — and now the irony works, because the D.C. weather babies are the group feeling the pressure, and their meteorological infancy is relevant.

This is the milder variety of "garden path", leading to "a clearly unintended meaning" rather than "a dead end". And the problem with the mistaken interpretation is a subtle one. But I still did a double take.



  1. Jenny Chu said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 9:54 am

    I found the headline itself rife with almost-garden-paths:

    [Congress boots] – the new snowshoe required of congresspeople?
    [[Congress boots] the government funding can] – There are many types of things that the government funding can support. Congressional boots are one of them.
    [Congress [boots [government funding can]]] – Is "boots" a verb like "believes"? Congress doesn't think much of government funding … Congress thinks government funding can take a long walk off a short pier!

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 9:57 am

    The wholesale elimination of news media copy editor positions is, of course, the root cause of such infelicities. Your garden path could easily have been prevented with the use of hyphens (non-D.C.-weather-babies). But isn't the more salient issue the noun pile in the hed? It took me three tries to figure out what Congress boots are.

  3. Robert Coren said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 10:14 am

    I found the headline perfectly transparent ("Congress boots" as a noun phrase is not something that would have occurred to me without the mention of garden paths), and was puzzled about the subject line until I read Mark's explication, and found that I had in fact parsed the "non-D.C weather babies" as [[non D.C.] [weather babies]], even though thinking at some level that the author meant the other parsing.

  4. DCBob said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 10:34 am

    Wouldn't a non-DC-weather-baby be someone who was not conceived during a DC snowstorm?

  5. Stephen Goranson said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 11:27 am

    I admit never picturing congress boots until introduced by Jenny Chu, which path led me to imagine repurposed parking enforcement wheel boots to fix congress members in place until they do their job.

  6. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 12:44 pm

    What a timely follow-up to one of te the recent posts on Chinese, and the discussion under it!

  7. Jamie C said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 12:52 pm

    This may not be a "milder variety", depending on your point of view. With a dead end, after all, the reader *knows* they didn't understand, whereas here, the reader may never look for clarification.

  8. Tristan Miller said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 12:54 pm

    Some style guides prescribe the use of an en dash instead of a hyphen when attaching a prefix to a multi-word expression. This would serve to distinguish between "non-D.C. weather babies" (weather babies who are not from D.C.) and "non–D.C. weather babies" (those readers who are not D.C. weather babies), supposing, of course, that both the writer and reader were familiar with this convention.

  9. Mike Anderson said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 2:03 pm

    And here I was just enjoying a lovely stroll down those cute little garden paths. Oblivious to the linguistic ambiguity, I was still able to comprehend the article; Congress got the winter whim-whams, put a band-aid on the budget, called a Snow Day, and went home for hot chocolate.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 2:25 pm

    I had no trouble discerning the intended meaning, but I have the perhaps unfair advantage of having lived in the D.C. area for a few years but spent most of my life living in parts of the U.S. that are better than that at taking a couple inches of snow in stride. So I well-understood the "weather baby" stereotype that was being evoked in a way that it might have been hazardous for the writers (or their editors, if indeed they have any) to assume was common ground for their whole readership.

  11. Dick Margulis said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 2:28 pm

    @DCBob: Someone who was not conceived during a DC snowstorm would be a non-DC-weather baby.

    @Tristan Miller: I tried to offer the en dash alternative as a second possibility, but in my composition window (Firefox) the hyphen and en dash were visually identical, so I thought better of it. However, as rendered in your published comment, the en dash looks fine. The tricky part is that news media tend to adhere to associated press* style eschews the use of the en dash, being mired as it still is, in the Teletype character set of yore.

    * I'll start capitalizing associated press when they start capitalizing Internet.

  12. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 3:53 pm

    FWIW note also position of "Thursday," which is standard news-ese but of course not remotely English.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    January 21, 2024 @ 8:31 pm

    @Dick Margulis: We use Associate Press style at my work. They used to capitalize Internet but switched to lower case a number of years ago.

  14. Dick Margulis said,

    January 22, 2024 @ 11:12 am

    @Chas Belov: Yes, I'm aware of that. But the argument that supports the switch to lowercase is absurd, and so I resist.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    January 23, 2024 @ 10:21 am

    @Tristan Miller: On my screen, your hyphen and en-dash are distinguishable, but only just. If you hadn't called attention to the difference I probably wouldn't have noticed it. I doubt that using the dash rather than the hyphen in the article would have helped anybody avoid the incorrect interpretation.

  16. rpsms said,

    January 23, 2024 @ 12:53 pm

    I am probably more confused by "boots the can," since the standard idiom (and children's game) is "kick the can."

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