Here’s a mind-twisting sentence to share with your students:
The old man the boat.
On first glance, it seems that “old” is an adjective and “man” is a noun, but the sentence immediately falls apart. Then, we go back and realize “old” is a noun and “man” as a verb.
This is called a garden path sentence. Here are three more from the Wikipedia page:
- The man whistling tunes pianos.
- The government plans to raise taxes were defeated.
- The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.
Here is another page listing several more.
These unclear sentences are also seen frequently in newspaper headlines, where an abbreviated style leads to more ambiguity:
- Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
- Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge
- British Left Waffles on Falklands
I could see these types of phrases used in class in two different ways: analyzing parts of speech and editing for clarity.
Parts of Speech
Even many of the bright 6th graders I worked with had a shaky understanding of parts of speech. Sure they could recognize “car” as a noun and “speak” as a verb, but words like “care,” a verb and a noun, could trip them up.
“The old man whistling tunes pianos” give students a chance to analyze a sentence in two ways using parts of speech. “Tunes” could be a noun or a verb. Students could go further and note that “whistling” can be read as either a transitive or intransitive verb, since tunes appears to be a direct object at first.
Editing for Clarity
Sure, these sentences are technically correct, but their clarity leaves much to be desired. Have students rewrite them to remove confusion. Encourage students to come up with multiple revised versions.
“The old man whistling tunes pianos” could become:
- The old man tunes pianos while whistling.
- The whistling old man tunes pianos.
- While tuning pianos, the old man whistles.
Let me know how you end up using these in your classroom!
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