Writing Down the Garden Path



Quick. Does this sentence make grammatical sense?

The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.

How about this one:

The cotton shirts are made of grows in Mississippi.

The answer is yes — they both make sense grammatically. Can you figure them out? In case you can’t, here are some hints. In the first one, ducks isn’t a noun; it’s a verb. It’s what the man who hunts does on weekends (he ducks out). In the other one, insert the word that between cotton and shirts. Now it works, right?

Both of these sentences are examples of what we call garden path sentences. They occur because English words and word groups are often ambiguous. That means they can be interpreted more than one way. In a garden path sentence, we readers are led down the garden path because we assume a meaning that isn’t correct, then get confused by a word that doesn’t seem to logically come next.


We assume, for example, that ducks is a noun because hunts is normally a transitive verb (one that takes an object) and ducks is a noun more often than it is a verb. The man who hunts ducks seems to be a clause. But it’s not. Who hunts is actually an adjective clause modifying man. So, the man who hunts is a noun clause that functions as the complete subject of the sentence. If you draw a line between the complete subject and the complete predicate (I remember my Shurley Grammar), it goes between hunts and ducks.

The real problem in this case is that ducks is ambiguous and can be used as a noun (the bird) or as a verb (lowering your head quickly) or, in this case, as part of the phrasal verb, duck out (to sneak away).

In the second example, the problem isn’t an ambiguous word, but grammatical ambiguity. Most of us assume as we read it that cotton is being used as an adjective to modify the noun shirts (What kind of shirts? Cotton shirts). We then assume that are is the simple predicate. Using the Shurley method, we’d want to draw a vertical line after shirts. But that’s not right. In fact, the simple subject of the sentence is cotton and the simple predicate is grows. The word group shirts are made from is an adjective clause modifying cotton (What kind of cotton? The kind shirts are made from).


Earlier I mentioned that these sentences are grammatically correct. I don’t want you to misunderstand, however. Just because they are correct sentences doesn’t mean they are good sentences. For our purposes here, they are interesting and tricky, but if you are writing something you want people to understand, they are bad sentences. Writers must be aware of the potential for ambiguity and must learn to proofread for accidental garden path sentences.

Our two examples could be fixed in several ways:

  • The man who hunts will often duck out on weekends.
  • The hunter ducks out on weekends.
  • The man who hunts likes to sneak out on weekends.
  • The cotton that shirts are made of grows in Mississippi. 
  • The cotton used for making shirts is grown in Mississippi. 
Of course, there might be occasions when garden path sentences are used intentionally for comic effect:
Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like bananas.
The cleverness of this sentence is tied to the double-meanings of flies (a verb and then a noun) and like (a preposition and then a verb). . .Oh, never mind. It’s just not funny if you have to explain it.
Below are some other garden path sentences I’ve Google-gleaned via Wikipedia, Fun-with-words.com, and Grammar.about.com. Can you figure them out? It’s easier once you get used to it.
  • The government plans to repeal the law have been scrapped.
  • The author wrote the novel was likely to be a success.
  • The man pushed through the door fell.
  • I told the girl the cat scratched Bill would help her.
  • The florist sent the bouquet of flowers was flattered.
Do you love to learn about grammar, writing, and words in general? You should subscribe to this blog by clicking on the SUBSCRIBE button in the upper-right-hand corner of this page. You’ll get one email per week with links to all our recent posts. Thanks for being a part of our online community!

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. buy sell cyprus
    buy sell cyprus03-22-2017

    the time to study or stop by the content or web-sites we’ve linked to below the

  2. female orgasm
    female orgasm03-22-2017

    here are some links to sites that we link to mainly because we consider they are worth visiting

  3. penis enlargement pump
    penis enlargement pump03-21-2017

    Here are a number of the web pages we suggest for our visitors

  4. funny videos
    funny videos03-21-2017

    the time to study or pay a visit to the content material or sites we’ve linked to below the

  5. Tina

    the time to read or visit the content material or web pages we’ve linked to below the

  6. desinfectionpunaisedelit

    The details mentioned inside the write-up are a few of the most beneficial out there

  7. anal toy review
    anal toy review03-20-2017

    Every as soon as inside a when we pick blogs that we read. Listed beneath are the latest internet sites that we select

  8. low carb diet plan
    low carb diet plan03-19-2017

    here are some hyperlinks to web sites that we link to mainly because we feel they may be really worth visiting

  9. payday loans
    payday loans03-19-2017

    one of our visitors a short while ago recommended the following website

  10. adam and eve
    adam and eve03-18-2017

    we came across a cool site that you may possibly appreciate. Take a search should you want

  11. peru tours
    peru tours03-17-2017

    very couple of web-sites that come about to be detailed below, from our point of view are undoubtedly nicely worth checking out

  12. machu picchu tours
    machu picchu tours03-17-2017

    we came across a cool internet site that you just may well get pleasure from. Take a search in the event you want

  13. adam and eve
    adam and eve03-16-2017

    check beneath, are some totally unrelated web sites to ours, nevertheless, they may be most trustworthy sources that we use

  14. Google

    The data talked about in the write-up are some of the top readily available.

  15. this sheat
    this sheat03-06-2017

    r6YZyT in this regard that cannot. Also visit my blog post; Garden Furniture Oil

Leave a Reply

If you like a post, please take a second to click "like," and comment as often as you like.
We promise not to correct your grammar!