Garden-path sentences, zegumas and syllepses

A sign in front of a restaurant reads: “Today’s special. So’s tomorrow.” Not the best way to tempt hungry passersby, but an excellent way to catch the attention of language buffs like Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, who asked on Twitter: “Is there a linguistic term for a play on words like this?”

I didn’t know a language term to describe that (presumably hypothetical) restaurant sign, either. In comedy, a play on meanings like this is called a “reverse.” You lead an audience or reader down one line of thinking, then you end with a twist that undermines your setup. For instance, you might want to offer your wife as an example of a point you just made, “Take my wife …” Then you pull the rug out from under the audience by adding “please!”

Turns out, there are language terms that describe this kind of wordplay, too.

The best known is probably the garden-path sentence. The concept is very similar to the comedy reverse. “A garden-path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect,” says Wikipedia. “‘Garden path’ refers to the saying ‘to be led down (or up) the garden path,’ meaning to be deceived, tricked or seduced.”

Garden-path sentences aren’t always funny. When they happen by accident, they can confuse readers: “The man who whistles tunes pianos.” Here you might start off thinking that “tunes” is a noun because it’s so standard to say someone whistled a tune. But when you read on you see that “tunes” is a verb: He tunes pianos.

Other language terms describe similarly confusing sentences: Here’s my recent column covering zeugmas, syllepses, paraprosdokians and garden-path sentences.