The old man the boat.

…and other garden path sentences.

So I’m on a garden path sentence kick. I love language and words and spelling and English in general, anything to do with those areas. And I just learned about garden path sentences the other day.
Garden path sentences are called so because they tend to lead the readers brain down a specific path, at first, appearing like a regular sentence, but then having an ending that, at first glance, makes the entire sentence not make much sense. It’s only when you back up and start thinking outside the box and NOT taking the usual, typical, “lazy” pathway in thinking that most people automatically take that you suddenly read the sentence how it really is meant to be.

In the thread title’s case, most people read “old” as an adjective, of course…and “man” as the noun (making a sentence that makes no sense and seems like a jumble)…
…when it’s really that “old” is the noun here and “man” is actually the verb.

It’s saying “The old” (as in, a group of old people…opposite of the phrase “the young” as in “the young RULE THE WORLD”)…man (as in, to run something)…the boat.
When I first read that sentence, though, it took me at least ten minutes to understand what it was actually saying…but after that I was like “Oh, wow”. It was like a new way of thinking. And then I found other garden path types of sentences like…

“The horse ran past the barn fell.”

Which horse fell? The horse standing there? No. The horse sleeping under the tree? No. … Ah… the horse **RAN PAST THE BARN **fell.

“The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.”

The [apartment] complex houses [as in, gives shelter to] [both] married and single soldiers…and their families.

Fat people eat accumulates.

The fat that people eat…adds up over time.

I love them. Anyone have any more good ones? Sentences that you can read once, twice, even five times and go “huh?” but then you suddenly go “Ohhh, it’s meant to be taken THIS way…”.

I’ve never heard of these and I find them interesting.

I caught on pretty quickly to all but the horse ran one.

Lil’ more help with that, please.

ETA: Unless ‘Ran Past the Barn’ is the horse’s name (which would seem a bit of a cheat)

Agreed. The horse one makes no sense.

Then there are those sentences that really can be read in several different ways that all (sort of) make sense. I think Chomsky liked to give examples of things like that.

Jane made the robot fast.

[ul][li] Jane assembled the robot in a short amount of time. (I think this interpretation might be a bit debatable. Can “fast” be used as an adverb?)[/li][li] Jane caused the robot to be securely tied down with chains.[/li] Jane compelled to robot to stop eating.[/ul]

One can also construct peculiar sentences that are apparently grammatical, but the human (English-speaking) mind can’t parse them.

“The cat ran.” Here, “The cat” can be further elaborated as “The cat the dog chased”
giving: “The cat the dog chased ran.”

“the dog” can be further elaborated as “the dog the farmer owned”

Final result:
“The cat the dog the farmer owned chased ran.”

I found this example in a linguistics textbook many years ago. According to the book, linguists agree that this is a perfectly grammatical sentence, yet it is incomprehensible.

The OP’s examples are straight out of the Garden Path article in Wikipedia.

The horse example is supposed to be:
“The horse raced past the barn fell.”

Fell can mean:

Maybe “the barn fell” means an “amount of timber cut” that is at, or associated, with the barn?

I’d need a that before ran to make it grammatical.

And Jane could have souped up the robot so that it was speedier.

Here’s a more extensive collection of garden path sentences, with 21 of them:

In British English, “fell” can be a geographical feature, like a stony hill or a moor. So “the barn fell” could be the fell associated with the barn.

Here’s another list of garden sentences (some of which (most of which?) duplicate sentences in the above-posted list):

Consider this one in particular: “Mary gave the child the dog bit a bandaid.”

Compare with “The cat the dog chased ran.” from Post #5.

ETA: Similarly, “The tomcat curled up on the cushion seemed friendly.”

You’re all overthinking the horse one.

Somebody raced a horse past a barn.
Then the horse fell.
So, the horse raced past the barn fell.

“The horse raced past the barn fell” is like the standard model for these. Using “ran” instead of “raced” shouldn’t change the grammatical correctness, but it definitely changes the ease at which one finds the correct parsing, since normally there’s no outside force that “runs” something, even if there’s someone compelling it to as in this case, but anything can be “raced” by whoever is controlling it, and horses are things that are raced.

I believe Pinker’s The Language Instinct then goes on to point out that a college fight song that goes “Bulldogs Bulldogs Bulldogs Fight Fight Fight” is actually a possible grammatical sentence (although generally not intended to mean the same such a sentence).

Agreed. It works with ‘raced’, not with the OP’s version, ‘ran’.

Even ‘run’ works better than ‘ran’.

Or: The horse walked by the barn fell.

You could also nest increasing levels of military countermeasures:

“The anti- anti- anti- anti- missile missile missile missile missile missed.”

These work in English especially because English has very limited morphology. A word like “set” is a noun, a verb and an adjective, distinguishable as such only by context and position.

In writing. These sentences tend to parse more easily in speech because of cadence, tone and emphasis. It is difficult to utter the thread title in a way that makes it hard to parse, because we naturally color our speech to impart the sense. Because, after all, the point of speaking is usually to convey a thing.

That’s right. You need the past tense of a transitive verb there. (I’m not so sure if “run” really works that way.)

ETA: i.e., you have to be able to say:
“Somebody raced the horse” or “Somebody walked the horse”.

Closely related, I feel, are how people usually instantly react with certain words.
Like “number”. How do you say that word?

Well, I think most would go NUM BURR, thinking it means like the number one, etc.

But it could also be number as in “My left hand is number than my right”.

Yet if someone writes just the word “number” and nothing else, I’d bet any amount they’d automatically say it like the numerical version.

This often comes up in cryptic crossword clues, e.g. “Anaesthetists? Figures!” where the answer would be “numbers”, playing on the double meaning.