Think you have a good grasp of English?
Good. Let’s play a little game, then.
Below are seven short sentences. Each one of them is grammatically correct. Can you figure out why, and what they’re trying to say? Take a look, then check the answers below.
1. The old man the boat.
2. The horse raced past the barn fell.
3. The complex houses married and single soldiers and their families.
4. The prime number few.
5. The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.
6. Until the police arrest the drug dealers control the street.
7. Fat people eat accumulates.
Linguists call these “garden path sentences.” They take you by the hand, lead you down a winding path, and leave you tricked and confused when you reach a dead end. Despite this, they are all perfectly grammatical according to the rules of English. Let’s take a look at why. These are the things you’ve probably been saying wrong the whole time.
1. “The old man the boat.”
Besides sounding like a rejected Ernest Hemingway title, this deceptive sentence is indeed grammatically correct thanks to some well-placed homonyms—multiple words that share the same spellings but have different meanings. Homonym #1 here is “old,” in this case being used as a noun meaning “old people” (like how you might say, “youth is wasted on the young”), not as an adjective modifying “man.”
Homonym #2, as it happens, is “man,” used here as a verb, meaning “to serve in the force of.” With that in mind, here’s what the sentence is actually saying: “The old people serve on the boat.” May they take this sentence and sail far, far away. (Speaking of homonyms, can you guess the three-letter word that has 645 meanings?)