Garden Path Sentences and Paraprosdokians

Two of my favorite linguistic devices are the garden path sentence and the paraprosdokian. You’ve likely encountered these many times in the past, even if you didn’t know how they were categorized. They are both sentences that cause the reader to reconsider information as the sentence is being read. For garden path sentences, this is a result of the reader parsing a sentence incorrectly, and for a paraprosdokian, the sentence is introduced in a manner to intentionally set the reader up for an unexpected conclusion.

Garden Path Sentences

A garden path sentence is named for the expression “to lead down the garden path” which means “to mislead.” A reader is “mislead” due to an error in parsing, or interpreting, the sentence. Common elements that create these parsing errors are words that can act as multiple parts of speech and ambiguously worded or placed phrases such as adjective or noun phrases.

Fat people eat accumulates.

(the) Fat (that) people eat accumulates (in their bodies).

That Jill is never here hurts.

(the fact) That Jill is never here hurts (me).

The raft floated down the river sank.

The raft (that was) floated down the river sank.

Unless you enjoy frustrating and confusing your readers, it is probably best to avoid garden path sentences in your writing. Many can be resolved by changing word or clause order or adding a pronoun in the right place.

Paraprosdokians

Paraprosdokians lead the reader to an unexpected place, but they do so much more intentionally. Writers and speakers often employ a paraprosdokian to create a sharp contrast. Often the introductory clause will rely on a common interpretation or use of a word or phrase and then conclude the sentence with an alternative meaning or use than what was initially assumed for dramatic or comedic effect.

Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

We assume change is used in the abstract, but then we shift to its concrete usage.

“If I could just say a few words, I’d be a better public speaker.” – Homer Simpson

The sentence starts with a common speech introduction, but after the second clause, we need to reinterpret it in its more literal sense.

“I haven’t slept for 10 days, because that would be too long.” – Mitch Hedburg

You get the point now, right? Set up one interpretation. After punchline, different interpretation.

Paraprosdokians and garden path sentences could be a fun daily oral language activity to encourage students to critically analyze the role words and phrases play in a sentence. Practice with the technique will allow one to more quickly recognize these devices when used and more quickly “recover” from them as they rush to reinterpret or reparse a thought.

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