These Sentences Are Perfectly Grammatical. Learn How They Trick You.

By The Language Nerds

What if I told you that you have a blueprint for speaking a certain language? When you come across a grammatical sentence that matches our blueprint, you easily process it and accept it as a sentence that belongs to your (native) language. But, when you come across an ungrammatical sentence that doesn’t match the blueprint, you rule it out, as simple as that. However, sometimes some grammatical sentences in disguise mess with the blueprint and they challenge us cognitively. They are perfectly grammatical but generally not acceptable as they initially seem incorrect; they lead us down a garden path. Incidentally, these sentences are called garden-path sentences.

Let’s see some examples of garden-path sentences. I want you to take a good look at them:

  1. The old man the boat.
  2. The girl told the story cried.
  3. After the student moved the chair broke.
  4. Fat people eat accumulates.
  5. The horse raced down the barn fell.
  6. The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.
    The reason why our blueprint doesn’t accept these sentences is that they require a lot of time to process, something that our blueprint generally avoids given the automaticity and spontaneity of language. Trying to process these sentences without parsing is like finding one’s way in a maze. Once these sentences are parsed, they become readily interpretable. Let’s look at each one individually.
  7. The old man the boat.
    This sentence can be paraphrased simply as “the elderly people control the boat”. But, what exactly caused us to not initially recognize it as such? This happened because we initially analyzed ‘old’ as an adjective describing ‘man’, something that we thought is a noun. As you go on processing the rest of the sentence, you don’t seem to find any verb, which ultimately leads you to rule the sentence out. We processed this sentence as in the tree diagram below:

To get the proper reading of this sentence, you need to rewind your processing and reinterpret ‘man’ as the verb of the sentence and the ‘the old’ as a collective noun which functions as the subject of the sentence. In other words, ‘the boat is manned by the old (people)’. Our blueprint is satisfied now, as it processed the sentence with no question marks…

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