Garden Path Sentence Explained: The horse raced past the barn fell

Channel: suzyjstyles


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Some sentences cause a reader to become 'lost' or 'tangled' in an incorrect interpretation of the early part of the sentence, meaning that they later have to 're-parse' the sentence, backtracking through the syntax to find a different way of interpreting and coordinating the words. Sentences like these are known as 'Garden Path' sentences. One particularly tricky example is the following...

"The horse raced past the barn fell"

Every year, when I teach this material to Undergraduates at the University of Oxford, about half of the students encountering this sentence for the first time find it very difficult to recover from the garden path, and some can't discover the correct structural interpretation on their own. Here's why it's so difficult, explained according to what we know about online sentence processing, one word at a time.

Supplement created for Language & Cognition, Part 1 Experimental Psychology, Trinity Term 2012. Dr Suzy Styles.