Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I’d like to take a writing break to point out an absolutely killer Garden Path sentence that Ars Technica just dropped:

"Fake browser warning your uncle might fall for delivers malicious trojan"

The headline, reading “Fake browser warning your uncle might fall for delivers malicious trojan”, is a wonderful example of a Garden Path sentence, a fully grammatical sentence whose structure is misleading, and seems like it should be read one way until later in the sentence the real structure is revealed, when it’s already too late.

These have a tendency to crash human brains. Try these on for size:

  • The horse raced past the barn fell.
  • The old man the boat.
  • The headline read with difficulty failed

Those should be read as “The horse who was raced past the barn fell down”, and “The oldest people on the boat run (“man”) it”, and that last one just isn’t as rough, as we all understand that headlines cannot read.

Ars’ little Garden Path bomb is particularly spectacular. We start off thinking that there is a fake browser, which is warning us that our uncles may fall, but then the delivers hits. At this point, we think we’ve already hit the verb (“warning”), so we’re puzzled by “delivers”.

Only once we go back and read “Fake browser warning your uncle might fall for” as a single noun-phrase can we understand that this fake warning is delivering a malicious trojan.

These sentences are spectacular, and it’s fairly rare to see such a blatant example in the wild (as a Syntactician friend put it, “this one is a doozy”), so, when I saw it, I just had to comment.

Finally, I must point out that my goal isn’t to mock the author. More likely than not, the reporter worked hard missed it.


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