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"A garden path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader's most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end." A classic example, used by Wikipedia, is "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

Obviously such a forced changing of interpretation suits humor, which generally works via a turn in expectation and is tolerant of nonsense. (As Wikipedia notes, paraprosdokian "is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.") However, turns of expectation are a more broadly used literary device, so garden path sentences should have at least limited utility outside of humor.

Closely related to satirical use, a garden path sentence might be used in argumentation to abruptly transition from conceding points in an opposing position to refutation of those points. Rhetorically, even a small portion of nonsense might be permitted as such might have a satirical (attributing the nonsense to the opposing position) rather than illogical (attributing it to the argument itself) feel.

In fiction, the confusion in the reader might mirror a character's confusion, whether from lack of intellect, lack of knowledge, or contradiction of preconceptions, allowing an intelligent, knowledgeable, open-minded reader greater sympathy with the character. Similarly, situational uncertainty (e.g., a twist of fate) might be reinforced or foreshadowed by such grammatical turn.

Another possible use might be adjusting the pace of the story, particularly moving startling from a lulling slow pace to a more rapid pace. Forcing the reader to reinterpret a sentence might wake the reader and introduce a pause like an auctioneer taking a breath. In a similar way, it might be possible to use the distraction of the reader to intensify the sense of surprise when an unexpected event immediately follows.

A garden path sentence might also be useful at the end of a division to encourage reflection. Just as the reader is forced to pause and rethink the sentence, so the pause and reflective attitude might be extended more broadly backward to the preceding writing.

In addition to how garden path sentences can be used constructively, I am also interested in what dangers the construct presents. Misuse can take of form of simply wrong or merely poorly executed. The use of concrete examples is encouraged.

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  • Some of the above is more answer-like and is included to show effort (only thinking not research effort; my minimal research effort only found this reference). If such should be moved to a (rather weak, IMO, with no concrete examples) answer, I will do so, though I would really like examples to illustrate uses. Nov 28 '21 at 15:37
  • Cross-posted to codidact: writing.codidact.com/posts/285007 Nov 28 '21 at 15:38
  • It's not so clear what your are asking, especially since you seem to answer part of your question within the question. Maybe try moving the "answer" parts of your question to be an answer, or removing them completely. Also, summing up what exactly you'd like to know as the last sentence might help too.
    – user613
    Nov 29 '21 at 10:11
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Prose

In regular prose? I don't think I've ever seen it done.

It would be par for the course for absurd dialogue, like what's in Alice in Wonderland. (I thought there were some garden path sentences in there, but I can't find any.)

But otherwise, no. You list a number of potential effects you're trying to achieve, but I feel the most likely one is frustration or annoyance, in a way that brings the reader out of the story. The examples given by Wikipedia are the type that you would need a few seconds to understand — assuming it doesn't look like a flat out mistake. It's similar to seeing a word you're completely unfamiliar with, or a pronoun where you have to weigh your options to determine which antecedent it belongs to.

Somewhat closely related is zeugma, which does have plenty of use in literature. The difference here is that zeugma isn't difficult to understand.

If you're still interested in trying to use garden path sentences, you can still go for it. If you have beta readers, you'll get more specific opinions.


Poetry

In poetry, sure. For example, the first lines of To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse:

The moon will shine for God
knows how long.

This is an example that I found on Reddit. But it's quoted there without line breaks, and the effect is completely ruined. I couldn't see "The moon will shine for God" as a complete thought, so there was no re-parsing. (Still, even its original formatting, it lacks the punch of most garden paths.) The American Scholar cites Blue as another example using garden paths.

Poetry can be short. Poetry can use enjambment. Poetry just has different expectations as a genre. There are a lot of similar effects out there that are used in poetry (and sometimes also songwriting), such as subverted rhymes and reverse poems.


Headlines

Garden path sentences are so common in news headlines that there's an established term for it, Crash Blossoms, coming from the headline "Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms".

With these headlines, both interpretations are grammatically correct, even if one is absurd. It's obvious that the special grammar used in headlines (headlinese) makes many more garden paths possible, though it's not always obvious if this ambiguity is intentional or not. On one hand, it can be good clickbait. On the other hand, it can seem unprofessional (if it was a mistake) and even inappropriate (if it was a joke).

See Language Log and Wikipedia for more info.

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