Alright, here’s a gimme:
Is it all of the above?
That question actually appeared on a Facebook page promoting National Geographic Channel’s Christmas special. NatGeo is a division of Fox, and Fox had to issue an apology, so you know Huffington Post was all over it. And that’s when things got awesome.
But before we get to that, read the following perfectly-grammatical sentence:
The horse raced past the barn fell.
If you’ve seen it before (and know what it is), feel free to skip ahead to the image (if you’re coming from the home page, it’s below the jump).
Otherwise, read on for a short lesson in linguistics. More specifically, garden paths. I’m sort of lazy, so take it away, Wikipedia:
A garden path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that the readers’ most likely interpretation will be incorrect; they are lured into an improper parse that turns out to be a dead end. Garden path sentences are used in psycholinguistics to illustrate the fact that when they read, human beings process language one word at a time.
“Garden path” refers to the saying “to be led down the garden path”, meaning “to be misled”. According to one current psycholinguistic theory, as a person reads a garden path sentence, the reader builds up a structure of meaning one word at a time. At some point, it becomes clear to the reader that the next word or phrase cannot be incorporated into the structure built up thus far: it is inconsistent with the path they have been led down.
Now give the sentence above another shot. If it’s still giving you trouble, here’s the explanation:
The reader usually starts to parse this as an ordinary active intransitive sentence, but stumbles when reaching the word “fell.” At this point, the reader is forced to backtrack and look for other possible structures. It may take some rereading to realize that “raced past the barn” is in fact a reduced relative clause with a passive participle, implying that “fell” is the main verb. The correct reading is then: “The horse – (that was) raced past the barn – fell.”
Even now that you’re thoroughly familiar with garden paths, I’m still willing to bet this gem of a headline will give you pause: