A garden path sentence is one which leads the reader "up the garden path" by inviting an interpretation which turns out, on reading the final part of the sentence, to be wrong. Specifically, the misinterpretation involves a mistaken choice of parse tree, by which the relationships between words in the sentence are wrongly assigned: for instance on reading "The old man ..." it is natural to take "man" as a noun and "old" as an adjective qualifying it, but if the sentence turns out to be "The old man the boat" then in fact "man" is a verb and "The old" is a noun phrase.
I have noticed several examples of this, or something similar, in literature:
(1) When Shakespeare wrote "when we have shuffled off this mortal coil" (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1), he didn't have in mind a weary person making a foot-dragging exit from a spiral pathway, which is what may well come into a modern reader's mind: rather he was using the word "coil" in its 16th-century meaning of trouble or commotion, and to "shuffle off" something meant to get rid of it. (So "off" is an adverb modifying "shuffled", not a preposition attached to "this mortal coil", and the image is of being in the midst of the mortal coil (which is a turmoil, not a spiral) and getting out of it, rather than being on it and getting off. I've checked this in the Oxford English Dictionary.)
(2) The song Good King Wenceslas contains the lines:
Hither page and stand by me, if thou know'st it telling,
For a long time I thought that "if thou know'st it telling" was a phrase similar to "if you know what's good for you", meaning something like "if you know how to do what you are told", and that the following words "Yonder peasant who is he" were the start of a new sentence. But on consideration I realised that the question about the peasant was actually the object of "telling", and that "if thou know'st it" referred to the answer to that question, so that the whole couplet could be paraphrased as "Come here, page, and tell me, if you know it, who that peasant is and where he lives."
(3) The puzzling phrase "trip the light fantastic", which might appear to refer to light in the sense of illumination, is a shortened version of the lines from Milton (L'Allegro):
Come, and trip it as you go
So "light" is an adjective meaning the opposite of heavy, and the thing referred to by "the light fantastic" is actually the toe of a dancer. This has been obscured by the use of the phrase by several authors (including Terry Pratchett in the title of his second Discworld novel) as if "light" meant visible radiation.
These three examples involve different obscuring factors: changes in the language in the first example, modification of word order to meet the demands of metre and rhyme in the second, and the elision of words from the original quotation in the third. But they all have in common that the reader is liable to be left in a strange part of the semantic garden through a superficially plausible but mistaken parsing of the words.
Related topicsExtended misunderstandings
Attention to detail
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