3 Garden Path Sentence Headlines for Our Age of Fake News and Questionable Intentions


A couple nights ago, I listened to an NPR interviewee talk about Steve Bannon’s two-pronged threat to liberal politics as being a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” approach.

References to various pieces of gothic literature, like Frankenstein, had already appeared as political commentary in some online arenas earlier in this year’s election season. When I created a comic version of Mary Shelley’s novel for Halloween, I considered ushering in a parallel myself.

In the end, though, I didn’t bother, partially because I didn’t feel like ruining my own fun and partially because the parallels for such an analogy are simplistic and flawed.

The political world we live in is multifaceted and complex and so is Frankenstein and a lot of other literature that has earned a reputation for having easy-to-swallow, good-and-evil themes that can be slapped on current news stories like a colorful decal.

This past weekend, I walked into a pub in a northern Milwaukee suburb that I thought was just vaguely British-themed, and was confronted with the sight of a whole crowd of white people facing in the same direction and wearing red.

My second fleeting thought (the first went by so fast I barely noticed it, and we all know what it was), as I’m a recent transplant from Madison, was of the Badgers, Madison’s local college team.

Upon closer inspection, these people appeared to be rooting for Southampton in a UK football game against Liverpool.

I’m not sure how this came to pass. But my point in bringing it up is that regardless of who has been elected president, mystery and wonder still exist in this world. There are still surprises and happenings of which we cannot make sense.

For many, the election itself was a surprise. For those who are still recovering and have serious, thoughtful concerns about the future of our country, it might seem that this is a trick of the universe to end all others.

It’s easy to say that we were so wrong about this, yet we’re sure of being so right about what it means for us and for our future.

I’m not saying that we don’t have immediate reasons to be worried and that there’s not immediate work to be done. I’m also not saying that there aren’t visible, dangerous people out there who are exactly what they seem to be. But we’re in very real danger of being robbed of our humanity if we cease to see complexity and room for productive empathy in quieter corners.

We also need to recognize that the world has not stopped being a fundamentally perplexing place, and that this is not always a bad thing.

In a world of fake news headlines and duplicitous public figures, it may be helpful to take back ownership of ambiguity—to recognize that it exists with or without our tinkering, but also that we can create it by choice.

In the spirit of the above, I thought this would be a good time to set up a playspace for garden path sentences among soothing green pictures of garden paths to keep the temperature down. And why not put these sentences in headline form?

Traquair House Maze in Scotland. Photo by marsroverdriver under a CC BY-SA 2.0.

What’s a Garden Path Sentence?

A garden path sentence is, to put it simply, a sentence that doesn’t go where you may think it’s going. It can also be a sentence that’s readable in more than one way.

For example…

1. Petition for Oxford Comma Fails to Stop Tyranny

Reading #1: A petition, or a written appeal signed by multiple people, in favor of the Oxford comma, has failed to stop tyranny. Which makes sense, because it’s easy to sneak anything by a group of people vehemently putting forth the virtues of the Oxford comma.

Reading #2: [A reading that’s possible in the Internet age] A petition in favor of Oxford comma fails (failures to use the Oxford comma correctly) is going to stop tyranny. Is it, though?

Reading #3: [I command you] If you read “petition” as a verb in the imperative form, this sentence is just telling someone to do what they know is right and stop tyranny through a strange and specific means. Though I don’t think anyone needs to be petitioning in this case, as we already have disagreeing style guides and this hasn’t sparked civil war yet. As writers or editors, this is a choice we can make for ourselves.

Personally, I believe in a writer’s right to choose.


2. Writers Write What You Know Isn’t Right

With no added punctuation, there are two possible readings of this one:

Reading #1: Writers write that which you know isn’t right.

Reading #2: Writers write that what you “know” isn’t right. (Bastards!)

Whether “right” means “true” or “morally right” is, of course, up for interpretation.

Possible alterations:

  • Writers: Write What You Know Isn’t Right
  • Writers: “Write What You Know” Isn’t Right
  • Writers Write “What You Know Isn’t Right”
Chenonceau maze in France. Photo by Lieven Smits under a CC BY-SA 3.0.

3. Chicken Ducks Goose Turkeys

While this may appear to simply be a list of birds, this is actually a recipe for the unforgivable Thanksgiving classic turducken (though The New York Times can make anything look civilized). Turducken does not, as far as I know, involve any geese, which should help you separate the ingredients list from the directions.


If you’re looking for more ways to add joy and mystery back into your life…

  • Follow @infinite_scream on Twitter. You never know exactly how long the screams on your timeline are going to be, it takes away the feeling that you need to scream yourself………………..and when you talk to it, it will scream back at you without judging you.
Manoir d’Eyrignac Gardens in France. Photo by TwoWings.
  • Create your own garden path sentences and share them in the comments below.