Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Wrong Turns: Keeping Readers Off the "Garden Path"

Sentences have destinations, the place you want your readers to go to absorb the information you're delivering. Most are simple: "The City Council voted for a sales tax increase." Some can be complex, but still understandable: "The mayor is expected to ask the City Council to enact a tax increase, an attempt to replace some of the money lost as a result of lower-than-expected property tax revenues."

On occasion, sentences end up confusing readers: "Declaring that property tax revenues had fallen too low, sales taxes are going up as a result of a City Council vote." In this case, a classic dangler, a reader starts thinking "someone" is declaring property tax revenues were too low, but that "someone" is missing. The reader has to back up and rethink what the sentence is trying to say.

Sentences that mislead readers are called "garden path" sentences, because they take readers in unexpected directions, the way someone who has been "led down the garden path" has been misled.

"Garden path" sentences may be grammatically correct. They might occur when a word that can be a noun/adjective or a verb/adverb confuses a reader: "The police report that targets abuse convicts enumerates ways to avoid overloading parole officers." Which of the words in that sentence are intended to be nouns or adjectives and which are intended to be verbs or adverbs? A rewording would make it clear: "A report by police indicates how to lighten the workload of parole officers who work with convicted abusers."

Or the sentence may have a phrase in the wrong place: "This year, Adelson has given at least $10 million, along with his wife, to support Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign." While it's possible that Adelson gave his wife to Gingrich's campaign, the writer probably meant "This year, Adelson and his wife have given $10 million to support Newt Gingrich's campaign."

Sometimes a "garden path sentence" may start in one direction and then switch, throwing off a reader: "The two were taken by police officers to the First Precinct station in separate cars, where they were searched, photographed,and shackled to a table with other prisoners and collaborated to write their story." The sentence starts out describing the experience of an arrest, and then switches focus to "their story," which may or may not have anything to do with the arrest. The phrase "in separate cars" is also slightly misleading, possibly making some readers think "the two" were in separate cars when they were searched, photographed, etc. One fix could be: "The two decided to collaborate on their story after they had been taken in separate cars to the First Precinct station, where they were searched, photographed, and shackled to a table with other prisoners."

Preventing "garden path" sentences is easy, provided you are paying attention to what you are writing. Read your sentence one word or phrase at a time, forming the "path" it is taking in your head. If you find yourself coming to a fork in the road, don't take it. Back up, stop to decide why the roses smell, and stay on the straight and narrow. That way, you can even avoid sentences like that last one, which tortures metaphors and then mixes them.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.