A garden-path sentence is one that creates confusion by the reader due to syntactic or semantic ambiguity, and often relies on the fact that the same word can have several roles (e.g., function both as a verb and as a noun). For example, in English:

The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.

in Dutch:

Ik sloeg meermaals de man met de wandelstok gade.

To correctly understand the sentence, one needs to go back and assign a different role to words that were already processed. Since in Esperanto the grammatical roles of words are much more expressed (the -a/-o ending, for example, makes a clear distinguishing between an adjective and a noun) – is it at all possible to create such sentences in Esperanto?


4 Answers 4


One way to construct garden-path sentences in Esperanto is by using a word that can either function as a modifier or as a noun phrase, e.g. ambaŭ:

Elektante inter ambaŭ infanoj atente rigardis kukon kaj torton.

When a plural noun comes directly after ambaŭ, people tend to parse ambaŭ as a modifier of the noun. But in the above sentence, ambaŭ is a noun phrase belonging to the phrase "Elektante inter ambaŭ", while infanoj is the subject of the main clause.

Similar examples can be constructed using adjectives that can function as language names (and thus as noun phrases):

Por la pola lernolibro ankoraŭ ne ekzistas.

  • Whether these are true garden path sentences is another question. One common feature of garden path sentences is that once you see the intended meaning, the meaning is obvious. Another is that the perceived meaning of the words jumps significantly. The famous garden path sentences are well-formed for both interpretation. Some of these sentences seem to be missing words in the correct interpretation. e.g. Elektante inter ambaŭ, la infanoj atente rigardis kukon kaj torton. Jan 10, 2017 at 13:15
  • 1
    Is it not the case that garden path sentences turn out to be not well-formed for the initial interpretation? You either have a word left over, as in The horse raced past the barn fell or find something is lacking as in the old man the boat. That discrepancy requires a re-analysis, and then, as you rightly say, the meaning becomes obvious. Jan 11, 2017 at 12:14

I think this should be possible by leading the reader to incorrectly link a preposition to the wrong part of the phrase. Here is a slightly contrived example:

Pro manko de tempo al tempo mi iras al la loka vendejo por aĉeti lakton.

Because manko de tempo is a common phrase, on the first reading the reader might wrongly assign de tempo to be describing manko. However once al tempo is reached this parsing no longer makes sense and instead de tempo is part of the adverbial phrase de tempo al tempo.

This example could be made clearer with the addition of a comma after the pro manko.

  • Is it possible to speak of a manko without specifying what it's a lack of? I found about 10 possible examples in the Tekstaro, but none of them had this sense (being out of milk.) Maybe pro ties manko de tempo al tempo... Jan 10, 2017 at 13:30
  • @TomasoAlexander I don’t see why not, I think it’s more or less clear that the manko is about milk by the end of the sentence. But I agree the structure is a bit awkward. Maybe it’d be more obvious if we changed the word order: ‘ofte ne plu estas lakto en la fridujo kaj pro la manko de tempo al tempo mi preterlasas la matenmanĝon’.
    – Neil Roberts
    Jan 10, 2017 at 17:45
  • I don't think you can find any real example of the word manko used that way - so to underscore, I'm trying to say the exact opposite - that even knowing what you're trying to say, it is not clear that manko here means manko de lakto. When manko is used by itself, it seems to mean "shortcoming" or - in the right context - a biblical famine. Jan 10, 2017 at 20:13

Yes, garden-path sentences are indeed possible in Esperanto! :-) They might be a bit harder to construct than in English, though, as Esperanto has very little ambiguity. (Still, ambiguity does exist; I remember a scifi story transitioning from a prayer to a social commentary in a very garden-path-ish way: ”Blabla. … Amen.” Sed ne amen, ne al la am’ kondukis …)

Here’s my (contrived!) try:

Se unu minus du pontojn, ni malvenkus.

At first, the brain parses the phrase as a mathematical expression using the conjunction minus. Later, it turns out it’s a phrase describing a military situation, using the conditional form of the verb mini ”to mine”.


The recent question about adjective agreement (Why do adjective share their noun's ending?) prompted a discussion on my Facebook timeline where this very expression (garden path sentence) was brought up. We discussed several examples of potentialy ambiguous sentences - many of which are just as ambiguous in Esperanto.

  • Mi konas viron kun ligna kruro, kiu nomiĝas Smith.
  • Ŝi donis sandviĉojn al la infanoj sur paperaj teleroj.
  • Mi vidis viron manĝantan en la parko per teleskopo.
  • Mi iam mortpafis elefanton en mia piĵamo.

Whether these are true garden path sentences is another question.

[Read: I don't think they are - and neither do I think many of the examples given in the other answers are - although I think we've demonstrated that they're probably possible.]

I've also been contemplating wether it's possible to come up with one starting with the word estas followed by a noun. The meaning of the words changes quite a bit with what comes next:

  • Estas pano (there is bread, bread exists)
  • Estas mateno (the current time is morning)
  • Estas vero (what follows the word ke is true.)

I haven't yet come up with a word which is fuzzy enough in meaning to fit in more than one category, but this is a limitation in my imagination, not a constraint of Esperanto grammar.

  • 4
    I would say they're not garden path sentences, but ambiguous attachments (a famous English example is "I saw the man with the telescope"). Garden path would require retracing and re-assigning a different word class, which works well in English with its limited morphology, but not as well in any language that has word class markers like Esperanto. Jan 10, 2017 at 9:31
  • I would say that too. Sorry for not being more explicit. Jan 10, 2017 at 11:50

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