26 October 2008

Garden Paths

Stranded runners search resumes, sez the Beeb of the awful weather conditions that have marred a two-day mountain marathon in the Lake District. The first time I read the headline, I assumed it meant, "Stranded runners check out some CVs" (I obviously have been in the States too long, what with my could I get?s and my waiting in lines). I was multitasking, as per usual, and so I didn't pause for thought, although at the back of my mind it didn't seem to make sense (whose CVs would the runners be searching? And why would that help?) but it was only when I re-read it that I realised it meant, "The search for stranded runners resumes" (this is what happens when you clip too many words from a sentence and leave it saturated with nouns).

This type of headline leads to a phenomenon called, very technically, in linguistics "garden pathing" (when reading, the brain is constantly seeking to come up with the most likely way a word or a sentence will be finished based on the information we already have--just like predictive texting, really--but sometimes the linguistic context means that the reader is led up a garden path). In this scenario, "Stranded runners" is a noun phrase (a noun plus any associated articles and adjectives) and noun phrases are often followed by a verb phrase (a verb plus any adverbs or other associated words), so when I read "search," my brain was already primed to expect a verb and I read the sentence as:

[Stranded runners] [search] [resumes]
[NP] [VP] [NP]

The sub-editor (presumably to keep the word count of the headline as low as possible) chopped out so many words that we actually get a three-word noun phrase followed by a one-word verb phrase:

[Stranded runners search] [resumes]
[NP] [VP]

I find the headline particularly clunky because although "stranded runners search" is serving as an ellipsis for "the search for stranded runners," this type of elision occurs more commonly when the preposition "of" not "for" is involved (genitive not dative case; for example, "the lovely garden of my parents" becomes "my parents' lovely garden).

There are more complex examples of garden pathing, some of which I need to read several times before I can work out, such as, The horse raced past the barn fell. Still, along with pied-piping (restructuring a sentence so that it does not end with a preposition; I think Winston Churchill satirically said something along the lines of, That is the type of attitude up with which I will not put), WTF coordination (my favourite example being from Alanis) and wh-islands, garden pathing did help to make my dull syntax lectures interesting--for the quirky name if for no other reason. Gosh, this post has turned into a stream of nostalgia for a love of syntax I never really had (jeez, now I'm going all Pynchon-esque)! I think I might have drunk too much coffee again.

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