‘Garden Path’ Sentences

My sister sent me a fun article about these.

They are sentences that you think are going in one direction but which suddenly seem to go off on a weird tangent that doesn’t quite make sense.

When you read them again, you realise they do make sense but just not in the way you expected.

By way of example: The old man the boat.

Your brain probably tells you at first, ‘Oh, this is about an old man who …’ but then the path diverges and you have to figure out that man is not a noun but an unexpected (and perhaps unfortunately gendered) verb.

It’s only after a moment of thought that a seeming non-sentence makes sense.

The initial reading process is the mental equivalent of predictive text on your computer or phone screen. Your brain then has to correct its original miscue because it doesn’t like the look of a sentence without a proper verb.

Better drafting could have prevented confusion with many of the sentences in the article.

The raft floated down the river sank would be better if recast as something like The raft sank after having been floated down the river.

Add a comma after the third word of When Fred eats food gets thrown. (Actually, that one isn’t so bad as is.)

The lesson for legal writers is not to type and simply leave it at that. There will be syntactical ambiguities, errors, stylistic awkwardness, things that don’t make sense.

Come back to your piece of writing with fresh eyes. Read it aloud. Have someone else read it.

Your first draft is never as good as it could be.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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