Column: Not your garden-variety sentences


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

I’ve been getting into gardening lately. Specifically, I’m cultivating a native perennial garden designed to support monarchs and other crucial pollinators. If I see you and you ask me what I’ve been up to lately, I’ll talk about the latest seedling that just popped up in the garden. Unless you actually want to chat with me about native perennial pollinator gardening, don’t go down this conversational road with me.

Speaking of gardens and paths, I’d like to discuss a fascinating sentence structure called a “garden path sentence.” These pleasant-sounding sentences are grammatically correct (yay); however, they lead you to believe something is amiss in their structure.

What do I mean by that? Let’s look at a few examples:

The old man the boat.

This sentence causes you to do a double take. At first sight, it seems like a sentence from the rough draft of “The Old Man and the Sea.” However, the “old” is the subject of the sentence. The old (collective group of people) man (a verb meaning “to control”) the boat.

Here’s another garden path sentence: I convinced her children are noisy.

Although this sentence is grammatically correct, it’s missing a “that” between “her” and “children” that would clear things up pretty quickly: I convinced her that children are noisy.

The cotton shirts are made of grows in Mississippi.

The first time your eyes scan this sentence, you probably assume “cotton” is an adjective describing “shirts.” However, your brain feels a sense of grammatical whiplash when you get to the end and feel funny about the wording. You go down the garden path of “The cotton shirts are made” thinking that the sentence is about the “cotton shirts,” but the sentence is actually about the “cotton” that “shirts are made of” and how that cotton “grows in Mississippi.”

When we’re led “down the garden path,” as the saying goes, we’re deceived. These sentences each lead our brains in one direction almost to the point that it’s too late for us to change course. We get to the end of the sentence and scratch our heads thinking something isn’t quite right. There’s a certain sense of ambiguity that drives the editor side of me crazy.

What do we do with garden path sentences? I think they’re funny as an exercise in wordplay, but outside of a fun word-nerd party trick, I suggest we rewrite the sentences so that they say what they are meant to mean rather than confuse the reader. In an age of pervasive misleading information, I prefer to err on the side of clarity. Happy gardening.