Comparative Illusion and Garden Path Sentences

Over the past few weeks, I’ve encountered some extremely interesting sentence structures that intentionally trick the human brain, and I wanted to share them here today. I encourage you to read all the examples multiple times, even if they don’t make sense at first, as figuring out their true meanings is quite rewarding.

More People Have Been To Berlin Than I Have

The first type of sentence I’d like to discuss involves a phenomenon known as a comparative illusion. These illusions, also known as Escher sentences, seem grammatically and semantically correct at first glance, but under close examination, it becomes apparent that they are entirely illogical. Comparative illusions have been observed in multiple languages. In English, studies have shown that the effect of the illusion is stronger when the sentence’s predicate, the part of a sentence or clause that tells what is said about the subject (“Rang” in “the doorbell rang” is the predicate), is repeatable or when there is a plural subject in the second clause. The illusion is caused by the existence of a matrix clause subject (i.e. more people) making a comparison between two sets of individuals when there is no such set of individuals in the second clause. There should be a bare plural in the second clause for the sentence to be correct.

The Old Man The Boat

The Complex Houses Married And Single Soldiers And Their Families

The Horse Raced Past The Barn Fell

The second type of sentence I want to share is a garden path sentence. A sentence that is grammatically correct, but will most likely be semantically misinterpreted the first time it is read. When reading a garden path sentence, the reader is intentionally led down a wrong parsing path that results in an unintended meaning. The phenomenon’s name comes from the saying “to be led down a garden path,” meaning to be tricked or deceived. Garden path sentences usually create momentarily ambiguous interpretations because they contain words or phrases that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Thus, while parsing, the reader assumes one meaning due to the beginning of the sentence that ends up not holding true, causing the rest of the sentence to appear incorrect. On the first reading, the sentence seems ungrammatical, makes almost no sense, and often requires rereading and careful parsing to be properly understood.

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