Think you have a good grasp of English?
Good. Let’s play a little game, then.
Below are seven short sentences. Each one of them is grammatically correct. Can you figure out why, and what they’re trying to say? Take a look, then check the answers below.
- The old man the boat.
- The horse raced past the barn fell.
- The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.
- The prime number few.
- The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.
- Until the police arrest the drug dealers control the street.
- Fat people eat accumulates.
Linguists call these ‘garden path sentences.’ They take you by the hand, lead you down a winding path, and leave you tricked and confused when you reach a dead end. Despite this, they are all perfectly grammatical according to the rules of English. Let’s take a look at why.
1. ‘The old man the boat.’
Besides sounding like a rejected Ernest Hemingway title, this deceptive sentence is indeed grammatically correct thanks to some well-placed homonyms – multiple words that share the same spellings but have different meanings. Homonym #1 here is ‘old,’ in this case being used as a noun meaning ‘old people’ (like how you might say, ‘youth is wasted on the young’), not as an adjective modifying ‘man.’
Homonym #2, as it happens, is ‘man,’ used here as a verb, meaning ‘to serve in the force of’ With that in mind, here’s what the sentence is actually saying: ‘The old people serve on the boat.’ May they take this sentence and sail far, far away.
2. ‘The horse raced past the barn fell.’
Everything is going hunky-dory until that ‘fell’ at the end, huh? At first glance, you’d be right to think that ‘raced’ is the main verb of this sentence. But it’s not. The simplest form of this sentence is actually, ‘The horse fell’; confusingly, ‘raced past the barn’ is being used as a sort of adjective phrase to tell us which horse we’re talking about – was it the horse tethered behind the barn who fell, or the horse raced past the barn?
Of course, this sentence would make way more sense if it was written ‘The horse that was raced past the barn fell’, but the quirks of English allow us to remove certain conjunctions like ‘that’ and still maintain meaning, the way you might say ‘the person I love’ instead of ‘the person that I love.’ Long story short, the horse fell (hopefully on top of whoever invented this sentence).