2793: Garden Path Sentence

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Garden Path Sentence
Arboretum Owner Denied Standing in Garden Path Suit on Grounds Grounds Appealing Appealing
Title text: Arboretum Owner Denied Standing in Garden Path Suit on Grounds Grounds Appealing Appealing


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A garden-path sentence is one in which the first or most obvious attempt at parsing the beginning of a sentence leads to the wrong meaning, causing confusion when the sentence is completed. A classic example of a garden path sentence is "The old man the boat.", leading to an initial incorrect parsing of "the old man" as a noun phrase, and therefore to assuming there is no verb before the noun "the boat". The actual correct way to parse this sentence is to treat "the old" as a noun and "man" as a verb, meaning "to crew" or "to serve in/on", so the sentence means "The old people operate the boat."

Possible grammatically correct interpretations of the sentences in this comic are:

There was a court case regarding green walkways. The case was resolved with a sentence relating to an olive garden path. That sentence was vacated (cancelled) by a judge. That judge was flying an airplane. The airplane struck multiple birds. The plane overturned, but righted (turned right-side-up) and landed safely.

After (bird strikes)1, (judge)2, (who ordered)3 (olive garden-path sentence)4 in (case of green walkways)5 (vacated)3, (overturned but rights and lands safely.)2

  1. "bird strikes": Airplane colliding with birds in flight, or alternatively "bird strikes" could refer to the strikes called by the Bird union that this judge was known for or involved in the ruling of.
  2. "judge ... overturned but rights and lands safely": The judge (and presumably the plane they were in) flipped over but was able to get right-side up again and land safely
  3. "who ordered [the sentence to be] vacated": Identifies the judge as one who issued a ruling cancelling an earlier ruling.
  4. "olive garden path sentence": The thing that was cancelled was a punishment related to a path in an olive garden
  5. "case of green walkways": The punishment was in a court case about shared-use walkways (likely the same paths listed above, which may have been placed in an olive garden)

This interpretation is backed by the images below the headline on the depicted newspaper which show an airplane and a map with apparently a flight path with two markings in between.

Another way to break it down is, "After [the] bird strikes, [the] judge... [is] overturned, but [she] rights and lands safely." And she was "[the] judge who ordered [that the] olive garden-path sentence" (the legal sentence concerning a path in an olive garden) "in" (what is known as) "[the] Case of [the] Green Walkways [be] vacated."

A third way is: "The stuff in this article happened after a bird hits a judge's plane where they ordered an "olive garden path" punishment in a court case about green footpaths and is now ON their empty plane which then overturns but then turns right and lands in a safe manner."

This comic also pokes fun at newspaper headlines, which typically have minimal punctuation or articles and use only capital letters, leading to such ambiguities.

For another valid parsing of the sentence, here are some explanatory notes that aid in understanding:

  • A criminal court case occurred involving green-colored walkways.
  • The sentence handed down in the case involved a specific walkway (a garden path) and a specific shade of green (olive).
  • A certain judge had ordered that the sentence be vacated (a legal term meaning undone or expunged).
  • That judge was recently piloting a plane which, due to being struck by birds, overturned.
  • The judge righted the plane (turned it right-side-up) and landed safely.

A mostly similar, but slightly more comical interpretation (though less likely for a newspaper headline) can be: After (a) bird strikes, (the) judge ... (as above) (is) overturned, but rights and lands safely. In this case, the judge is standing, a bird strikes her and she is overturned, but she manages to right herself and land safely on the ground (not banging her head, for instance).

Another way of diagramming this (where noun phrases are in parenthesis and verbal clauses in brackets) would be:

 [ after
   (bird strikes)
 [ ( the judge 
     [ who ordered
       ( ( ( olive garden path)
         [ in case of
           (green walkways)
       ) be vacated
   is overturned, but
   [ (she) rights (herself) and
     [lands safely]

Certain combinations of words in the sentence are particularly easy to parse incorrectly. For example:

  • "bird" the headline is in all caps so this could be an avian but could also mean a person with the name of Bird such as Larry Bird the basketball player.
  • "bird strikes judge" can be interpreted to mean that a bird deliberately hit the judge with an appendage or weapon. If bird is a person or other worker, the phrase might mean a labour dispute in which Bird is withdrawing services
  • "Olive Garden" is the name of a restaurant chain, and "ordered Olive Garden" could mean "placed an order for food from Olive Garden"
  • Olive Garden could be a person who was the subject of the case in question
  • "Garden path sentence" is a type of (written language) sentence
  • "Green" could be referring to "green" initiatives, environmentally-friendly practices being used or to the color green, rather than to a park area
  • "in case of" can mean "in the event of" (e.g. "in case of emergency, break glass")
  • "vacated" and "overturned" can both mean "undone" in a legal context, and "rights" can refer to legal or constitutional rights

Ignoring the pictures showing a plane and flight path and only focusing on the headline, it could also be interpreted this way:

  • "After bird strikes judge", "overturned but rights and lands safely": an avian creature flew into the judge, and as it bounced off it was upside-down, but it managed to recover in time to go right-side-up to land nearby.
  • "case of green walkways", "olive garden path sentence": There was a case about green walkways, and the ruling was for an olive garden path (or it is dubbed the "Olive Garden path sentence" for the restaurant chain, because it is strongly linked to the chain - either they wanted this sentence as it benefits them or the chain is notorious for it).
  • "judge who ordered", "vacated": The aforementioned judge is known to people for ordering that the sentence be vacated (perhaps this was highly controversial), thus making this event significant enough to warrant a headline.

If one focuses on the word "judge", many of the phrases relate to legal proceedings, making the parsing of the sentence especially difficult:

  • "strike": to remove or delete from a legal document and especially from the record of a trial
  • "order": a direction issued by a court or a judge requiring a person to do or not do something
  • "sentence": punishment assigned to a defendant found guilty by a court
  • "case": a civil or criminal proceeding at law or in equity
  • "vacate": to legally annul, set aside, or render void
  • "overturn": to disagree with a decision made earlier by a lower court
  • "rights": powers or privileges held by the general public as the result of a constitution, statute, regulation, judicial precedent, or other type of law

Furthermore, the word "lands" can have two meanings:

  • The present simple variation of "to land": in the context of an airplane, to come down through the air and alight on the ground
  • The plural of "land", a common issue in legal proceedings

The title text is also an example of a garden path sentence. The meaning is probably the following: Arboretum owner, [who was] denied [legal] standing in [the] garden-path [law]suit on grounds (the reason) [that the garden] grounds [are] appealing, [is] appealing [the ruling]. Alternatively: Arboretum owner, [who was] denied [legal] standing in [the] garden-path [law]suit on grounds (reasoning) grounds (why it was denied), [is] appealing appealing [the ruling].


[A newspaper titled News with two pictures on the front page: one showing a judge with an airplane in the background, and the other displaying a map depicting the airplane's route. Above the pictures there is the following headline, displayed in all capital letters:]

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The bot didn't upload the most recent comic so I tried to do it myself, but I think I screwed it up :(Szeth Pancakes (talk) 18:31, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

I think the term "bird strikes" should be interpreted as a plural noun, given the two Xs on the map. Something like "After bird strikes, judge ... overturned but rights and lands safely" 20:30, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

Or it could be the bird strikes judge... You know, the one who was the judge in an important and well-known "bird strikes" case, possibly environmental, possibly an insurance scam case or something.Thisfox (talk) 21:46, 23 June 2023 (UTC)
I'd rather think the first x is where the plane was struck and overturned and the second one where it righted -- 11:09, 1 July 2023 (UTC)

I don't think the current interpretation is wrong, but "olive garden" could be the lower-case-when-not-a-comics-headline descriptor for, you know, an actual garden of olive trees. That makes more sense when referring to green walkways. Nitpicking (talk) 20:33, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

Can someone also parse the alt-text? I still can't figure it out. - 20:39, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

I think it's saying the arboretum owner (who is appealing the case) is himself appealing. I'm still having trouble with the grounds grounds portion though. :(*anonymouse* (talk) 20:48, 23 June 2023 (UTC)
He was appealing the lawsuit on the grounds that the grounds were appealing Ahecht (talk) 22:06, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

Going by the picture I think the "bird" that struck the judge may be the plane.

Disagree, "bird strike" is a term used for an incident where a bird strikes a vehicle, usually a plane. 20:50, 23 June 2023 (UTC)
But all these conflicting interpretations proves Randall's point that this is a garden path sentence :) Natg19 (talk) 20:52, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

*anonymouse* please reconsider your edits; before them, I think I understood the meaning, but your supposed clarification messed it up :( the paragraph you removed seemed more plausible to me, and it also contained some useful wiki links to bird strike and vacated judgement. Torzsmokus (talk) 20:47, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

As I understood it, birds hit the plane piloted by the judge that gave the Olive Garden path sentence, overturning it (!!!), but he righted it and managed to land. J Petry (talk) 20:49, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

A wikipedia:bird strike is an aviation thing. Given the airplane in the photo and the path to what appears to be runways, I think that these are the bird strikes it's referring to. "Rights and lands safely" also would refer to the judge piloting an airplane. "Overturned" thus should also refer to the flight, but I would expect it to be something like "overturns", not "overturned", given "rights and lands". Thus: "After bird strikes, the judge who ordered the sentence overturned in the olive garden path case, his plane overturned, but rights the aircraft and lands it safely." SheeEttin (talk) 20:53, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

I see what you're saying, and I think you're right. After (multiple) bird strikes the (plane being flown by the judge) overturned but was able to right itself. :(*anonymouse* (talk) 20:57, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

I feel certain that "olive" refers to the shade of green, because otherwise why specify "green" walkways? This makes "Olive Garden" a red herring, which seems likely. -- 21:01, 23 June 2023 (UTC)

I disagree. I read "olive garden" as a literal garden of olive trees. Randall is exploiting our familiarity with the Olive Garden restaurant to construct the sentence. The path would be a footpath or something through this garden. What makes the walkways green? No idea, maybe they're the kind that are actually solar panels. SheeEttin (talk) 22:10, 23 June 2023 (UTC)
I would interpret "green walkway" as meaning a picturesque walkway going through a forest, public gardens, or similar, which fits in with the olive trees. Searching for the term on Wikipedia suggests this expression is more commonly used in England than in the US. Hmj (talk) 05:29, 24 June 2023 (UTC)
As an American, I assumed exactly the same meaning for "green walkway". I see no reason to interpret "olive" as a color in this comic. The primary meaning of "olive garden path" is definitely a path within a garden where olives are grown. The idea of "olive" referring to the color green could be mentioned as a possible alternative explanation but should not be the primary one. CarLuva (talk) 13:43, 26 June 2023 (UTC)
You wouldn't grow olives in a garden, they'd be in an orchard or a grove. Ahecht (talk) 19:19, 26 June 2023 (UTC)

I still don't like "overturned but rights and lands" - why would the first verb be in the past tense and the others present tense, if they are describing events that happened within a very short time of each other? Wouldn't a headline be entirely in the present tense? 05:10, 24 June 2023 (UTC)

Because it had to overturn first (in the past) before it could right and land. It's a valid use of tense, using the past tense helps establish the sequence of events. Simpler sentences only use 3 tenses: past, present, and future, so in such a sentence, since none of the three events are in the future, two must share a tense. It could also have been "overturned, righted, and lands safely.", with two being past tense and the last being present. Getting less simple would be "had overturned, then righted so it lands safely", to give each term its own tense. Alternatively, because they're separate parts of the sentence: "Overturned" is that a court case sentence was overturned, which was further in the past, before this flight, but the most current event - that the judge rights the plane and lands the plane - is being listed in present tense, as the most current thing to happen. NiceGuy1 (talk) 07:13, 24 June 2023 (UTC)
This bothers me as well, but I don't see a way around it. It's possible that the case was "the case of the green walkways vacated," but then we need a valid parsing of "After bird strikes judge who ordered sentence overturned but rights and lands safely." Failing that, I'm prepared to conclude that the mixed case is either an error or a deliberate fudging of the norm for the sake of making it more confusing. 18:52, 24 June 2023 (UTC)
I am convinced that "overturned" is referring to the case, and "vacated" is referring to the walkways. That keeps the verb tense for the pilot/judge consistent: "rights" and "lands". The judge ordered the "olive garden path" sentence be overturned in the "case of green walkways vacated". In other words, the walkways were vacated, which led to an "olive garden path sentence", and that sentence was overturned, and the judge/pilot "rights and lands" the plane safely. Verb tense is one of the few hints on how to parse something so convoluted, and there's no better argument I can see for the current interpretation above that applies "overturned" to the plane itself. So, the plane was not overturned, but did need to be righted. DanShock (talk) 15:15, 26 June 2023 (UTC)

This also suggests the plane was overturned by some external factor, rather than just overturning by itself.

I had understood that an actual flying animal - a bird - bounced off the judge's head - in present tense, the bird strikes the judge - which made it flip over, but it managed to right itself and properly land, as if that's important. I honestly feel like this interpretation of "bird" makes more sense than an airplane being involved. Also that it adds humour, since how is the bird important enough to care that it recovered, and care ENOUGH that it should be mentioned in the headline. :) (I hadn't gotten around to trying to figure out the rest, felt too difficult until I read the concept of a garden path sentence) NiceGuy1 (talk) 07:03, 24 June 2023 (UTC)

Check that, JUST noticed the PICTURE of a judge standing in front of a plane, LOL! NiceGuy1 (talk) 15:29, 24 June 2023 (UTC)

I can't help but feel a better (worse?) sentence would be "After bird strikes judge who ordered olive garden path sentence in case of emergency exits vacated overturned but rights and lands safely", playing off familiarity with the phrase "in case of emergency" and the fact that "exit" is both a verb and a noun. 13:39, 24 June 2023 (UTC)

I'm usually the one seeking explanation here. All the discussion above is actually the funny part because Garden Path sentences can't be properly parsed!

The above unsigned comment may mislead. Garden path sentences can be parsed because they are syntactically correct. (Indeed, the point is that they allow multiple correct parsings and so give rise to multiple semantic interpretations some of which are humorously implausible.) Perhaps the commentator intended a specialized meaning of "proper" to mean something like "uniquely," but I was unable to find similar uses online. Davidhbrown (talk) 14:22, 27 June 2023 (UTC)
While a GPS might indeed have multiple 'correct' parsings (perhaps leading to ambiguity as to which was the intended context of assemblage), I think the point is mote that it has multiple intermediate parsings, like snaking through a maze of grammatical interpretations. If, just inside the 'maze entrance', you decide the second word is a noun you may then follow just as convoluted a path of subsequent rationalisations as if you had tentatively parsed it as a verb.
In both cases you may have further choices to make, in senses relatively unique to how you got there, or obvious singular presumptions, or both (if start with noun, fourth word in may seem to clearly be a verb; if started with verb, you now may need to treat fourth as noun which leads directly fo the fifth as an adverb or fourth+fifth as an atomic noun-phrase...). But whichever path you travel might end up "in the scrub", unable to get through inpenetrable undergrowth that now lies between you and the furthest extent of the "garden".
So you have to think (check that you're definitely going down the wrong parsing-route), backtrack, perhaps ponder if an 'obvious' syntax part way through might not have a different valid parsable interpretation. In the worst case scenario, though, you may find yourself having to start off (almost) from the beginning again, and having to try again making the original noun/verb interpretation differently. And trying not to get sidetracked by memories of what was 'so obvious' in the different original route of parsing the syntactical tree, but makes less sense during this approach. Unless it actually does make sense (unlikely as it might have been), and is now the valid (but obscure) parsing-route to the end that avoids yet another red herring sub-branch of understanding... 15:30, 27 June 2023 (UTC)

I think a useful addition to all the "the whole sentence could be" ideas, which could subsume all the "this bit could be rea as...", would be to do a table or header-list of how each sequential chain of words might be interpreted. Such as:

... bird: a dinosaur; bird strikes: multiple aviation icidents; strikes: something or someone impacting a target; strikes: where an idea suddenly occured to a person; strikes judge: a justice of the peace who a) adjudicated, or b) took part in, industrial action; Judge Who: a person's name/honorific; who ordered olive garden path: a possible question; ordered Olive: commanded someone called Olive to do something; olive garden: an area for growing Olea Europaea shrubs; garden path: a trail or access through an aesthetically-designed space of cultivation; garden path sentence: <ibid>; sentence in case: a ruling made following a legal hearing; in case of: indicates a conditional statement; ...

Here squashed together (and many omissions made, even within that sub-chain), just to get the idea together. Perhaps, in table form, indexed by "(OPTIONAL)FOO <one or more adjacent words> (OPTIONAL)BAR" with something like "the FOO <undergoes an action of> some BAR", and add a reference to each (<placing of start-word>.<number of words>(<optional alpabetic index to distinguish exact overlaps of different distinctions>?), then a valid complete sentence (or composite partial section) can be described like "1.1 2.1 3.2b 5.2 7.1 8.1 9.3c 12...", or any another variation that a reader might want to then summarise/expand with a "plain English"/unambiguous 'translation'. And all existing work/exposition can be folded into this in a more structured and less randomly-conversational manner. 19:50, 24 June 2023 (UTC)

Newspaper headlines like that are fun. Best one so far: "Police stops speeding car with unsecured baby" 07:29, 26 June 2023 (UTC)