A gar­den path sen­tence leads a read­er to inter­pret it one way only to learn lat­er that the inter­pre­ta­tion was incor­rect. In oth­er words, you teased them.

For exam­ple, take the fol­low­ing sen­tence:

Fat peo­ple eat accu­mu­lates.

When most peo­ple read this sen­tence, they assume that “fat” is an adjec­tive describ­ing what type of peo­ple are eat­ing in the sen­tence. That assump­tion works right up until the last word. The read­er expects an object that fat peo­ple eat. When they see a verb, it throws them off.

In the exam­ple, “fat” is actu­al­ly a noun. In fact, it’s the sub­ject of the sen­tence. What if we added the word “that”:

Fat that peo­ple eat accu­mu­lates.

Now, the mean­ing is much clear­er.

Fix­ing a gar­den path sen­tence, how­ev­er, isn’t always as sim­ple as adding “that”. Take a look at anoth­er sen­tence.

The dog that I had real­ly loved bones.


In this one, the read­er assumes that “real­ly loved” describes the rela­tion­ship between the speak­er and the dog. In real­i­ty, it describes how the dog feels about bones. You can’t fix it by sim­ply adding “that”. Actu­al­ly, it already con­tains “that”. This one would take a com­plete rewrite:

My old dog real­ly loved bones.


Keep in mind that gar­den path sen­tences aren’t gram­mat­i­cal­ly incor­rect; they’re just con­fus­ing. And if you’re inter­est­ed in clear, con­cise mes­sages, try to avoid them.

About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing and social media tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness. Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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