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Q&A

How can garden path sentences be used (and misused)?

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"A garden path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader's most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end." A classic example, used by Wikipedia, is "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

Obviously such a forced changing of interpretation suits humor, which generally works via a turn in expectation and is tolerant of nonsense. (As Wikipedia notes, paraprosdokian "is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.") However, turns of expectation are a more broadly used literary device, so garden path sentences should have at least limited utility outside of humor.

Closely related to satirical use, a garden path sentence might be used in argumentation to abruptly transition from conceding points in an opposing position to refutation of those points. Rhetorically, even a small portion of nonsense might be permitted as such might have a satirical (attributing the nonsense to the opposing position) rather than illogical (attributing it to the argument itself) feel.

In fiction, the confusion in the reader might mirror a character's confusion, whether from lack of intellect, lack of knowledge, or contradiction of preconceptions, allowing an intelligent, knowledgeable, open-minded reader greater sympathy with the character. Similarly, situational uncertainty (e.g., a twist of fate) might be reinforced or foreshadowed by such grammatical turn.

Another possible use might be adjusting the pace of the story, particularly moving startling from a lulling slow pace to a more rapid pace. Forcing the reader to reinterpret a sentence might wake the reader and introduce a pause like an auctioneer taking a breath. In a similar way, it might be possible to use the distraction of the reader to intensify the sense of surprise when an unexpected event immediately follows.

A garden path sentence might also be useful at the end of a division to encourage reflection. Just as the reader is forced to pause and rethink the sentence, so the pause and reflective attitude might be extended more broadly backward to the preceding writing.

In addition to how garden path sentences can be used constructively, I am also interested in what dangers the construct presents. Misuse can take of form of simply wrong or merely poorly executed. The use of concrete examples is encouraged.

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Science fiction can use garden path sentences to set up a situation that defies the reader's expectations. They can set up what appears to be ordinary life but turns out not to be or present what seems like a familiar SF trope and then pull a switch.

A couple of examples from Heinlein. At the start of Methuselah's Children, Mary Sperling objects to a candidate for marriage because "there's too much difference in age." The person she's talking with takes this to mean Mary thinks she's too young, but we soon learn she's vastly older than she appears. Stranger in a Strange Land opens with "Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith." Someone with no previous knowledge of the story would imagine a non-human with an oddly Earthlike name. The story then reveals that Mike is a human who was born on Mars and raised by native Martians. Frederik Pohl's "The Midas Plague" has the sentence "It was a small wedding — the best he could afford." The uninitiated reader will assume the man couldn't afford a larger wedding, but the story then unfolds an upside-down economy in which the mark of wealth is not having unwanted stuff foisted on you.

Other genres, such as mystery stories, could similarly set up a situation that seems to look one way but turns out to be something unexpected.

The device can turn into a cheap trick. If the garden path description is laid on too heavily or relies just on wordplay, readers may feel they were unfairly treated. The opening of Collodi's Pinocchio arguably lays it on too thick. He starts with "Once upon a time there was..." then insists that the reader will complete it with "a king" and says that the reader is wrong. He intended it humorously, but it's a bit irritating.

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