The Garden Path Effect

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Monica Beasley

The garden path effect

Class: Cognitive psychology

Professor: Linda A Gullatte

One of the most important personalities in the cognitive psychology who studied the garden path effect is Lyn Frazier who is a Linguistics professor at the University of Massachusetts. His garden path model of syntactic parsing influenced many linguists in their studies about the lexical and syntactical ambiguity in our language. In his book “The sausage machine”, Frasier claims that the longer a sentence, the more grammatical rules needed to be applied. With each word added to a simple phrase, the structure of the sentence becomes more complicated and more time is spent in trying to understand the meaning of it. The smaller the sentence, the easier to comprehend it since the numbers of grammatical rules are limited. The garden path is a metaphor intended to compare the maze in a garden path with how difficult a sentence can be to understand if many word and ideas are added to one sentence and not explained clearly. In order to comprehend the content of a text, different cognitive processes are involved. One of them is the lexical analysis where the contextual the meaning of the words is analyzed. The other process is the syntactic parsing that analyses the grammatical structure of words and phrases in a sentence and determines what semantic ideas where expressed in that context. These cognitive processes play a big role in the comprehension of the garden path effects in our language. The garden path effect is the misleading, the misunderstanding, the ambiguity found in a sentence that has more than one meaning. This concept is assimilated with a maze where you get lost, you are mislead until you find the right outlet. Many times this event can be frustrating because of the ambiguity and the uncertainty we feel on our way to find the right meaning of a sentence. The way our brain works is whenever we hear someone talking or when we read something, our mind is trying to figure out automatically what word or expression is going to follow. When we encounter something in our reading (or listening for that matter) that we are not expecting, we read the sentence again to make sure we did not misinterpret the idea meant to be represented in the first place. In that case, we do a lexical analysis of the whole sentence in order to find the right meaning. We access each meaning of the word we are confused about to make sure the appropriate meaning gets activated. In most cases, the sentences with a garden path effect are formulated with no intention of misleading. We have a few cases where the misleading is intentional. The sentence “Chris helped the grandmother of the child who was on the bicycle.”, can throw us on the wrong path since we might understand that the grandmother or the child could have been on the bicycle. If we change the sentence to “Chris helped the grandmother and the child who was on the bicycle.”, the syntactic ambiguity is less relevant. After reading over the disambiguating region a few times (…of the child/…and the child), we understand that the child was the relative clause (on the bicycle), and not the grandmother. In the above sentence, the garden path effect was unintentional; the author chose to use a syntax that was found to be misleading by the readers. In a few occasions, the intention to mislead the readers with semantic ambiguity games ends up to be entertaining for some people. We find these word games in many languages, and since I speak three languages I will present an example from each language. In Italian, the saying “Non bisogna appoggiarsi troppo ai principi, perché poi si piegano.” means “You can’t rely too much on your principles because you might bend them”. Translated mot-a-mot it doesn’t make much sense in English. After a lexical analysis of the Italian verb “appoggiarsi” we find out that the word is a homonym that also means “lean...
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