Double garden path

Turns out that although I mentioned garden-path sentences once here in passing, I’ve never really written about them.

A garden-path sentence is one that initially leads the reader to parse it in one way, but turns out to be structured differently than it appeared to be.

The usual example, and the first example I encountered, is “The horse raced past the barn fell.” When I first heard that, I insisted that it was ungrammatical; it took me quite a while to understand that it means “the horse [that was] raced past the barn fell [down].”

For more discussion of the concept, and a couple more examples, see the abovelinked Wikipedia article.

What brought the concept to mind today was the opening line of a science fiction story:

Dawn was just beginning to color the sky. She huddled inside the small bathroom…

(From Gardner Dozois’ 1972 story “Machines of Loving Grace.”)

I initially assumed that Dawn referred to a time of day; then when I got to the she, I assumed “Dawn” was a character name; then it became clear that my original interpretation had been correct, and that this was one of those stories that refer to the protagonist by pronoun rather than name.

(I don’t know whether this technically counts as garden-path by linguistics standards; the confusion is at a semantic level rather than a syntactic level. But it seemed to me to be at least a related concept.)

I’m pretty sure that that doubled disorientation was unintentional; nothing else in the story leads me to think that Gardner intended the opening to be confusing. I feel like the editor (Damon Knight) ought to have suggested rephrasing.

But I nonetheless think it’s kind of a neat effect.

(…And now, although the connection is very tenuous, I can’t resist mentioning a joke that my friend Rob used to say sometimes: “Knight passes. Dawn bids two diamonds.” I don’t know whether that was original to him or not.)

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