Garden Path Menus

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/07/23 15:31 -04:00, original URI:

Last Friday, I was having dinner with Melanie Spiller, who I had never actually met before (I just kept almost working on book projects for Sybex that never materialized). It was very cool to finally meet her, by the way....

In addition to a fascinating conversation that covered everything from the difference between UA (User Assistance) and UE (User Education) at Microsoft (and which groups chose which term and why!) to the musical efforts of Hildegard of Bingen to dismay at the lack of Boris and Natasha in cartoons (we miss our moose and squirrel!) to the forty-voice Spem In Alium by Thomas Tallis, I ran across a slightly difference type of garden path sentence than those I had heard about before.

We were having Chinese food at Maple Leaf, and I already knew I was going to order my usual there -- General Tso's Shrimp. I enjoy it when it is available on the menu of a Chinese food restaurant, which it often is (even though less commonly than General Tso's Chicken). 

For some history on General Tso and his chicken, I think the definitive reference can be found at Eric A. Hochman's The Definitive General Tso's Chicken Page. The general was not such a nice guy, it would seem. Maybe that is what the peppers are about.

Anyway, we were in no hurry, though when the waiter came by the third time we figured it might make sense to pause from me asking questions about the 10th century and music to actually order.

Melanie ordered the Lemon Chicken.

And then when it came time for me to order, I started to say "General Tso's" and had not yet had the chance to finish when he was already writing and nodding. Then when I finished and said "Shrimp" he stopped, looked confused, said "oh", then smiled, crossed something off the ticket, nodded, and headed back to the kitchen.

I remarked to Melanie that it must be a garden path sentence -- a pragmatic one, at that! -- and that I'd probably end up blogging about it.

Which was funny (to me at least) since I had Thai food the night before with Cathy and dinner at Matt's the night before that with Mary and hadn't decided to blog about anything said at those other dinners. Though in fairness to Cathy and Mary, this particular issue wasn't anything to do with the conversation I was having with Melanie, it was the waiter who inspired it!

Anyway, this is clearly nothing to do with grammatical or word usage ambiguity. So perhaps it is not a "proper" garden path sentence by the type of definition I'd know all about if I had actually tried to become a linguist, though it seems the waiter's pragmatic knowledge of General Tso's Chicken being such a commonly ordered dish is what led to his being led down a garden path menu?

It seems reasonable enough to me.

Of course I always wondered why they are called garden path sentences anyway -- they seem to cause a much bigger jolt. Like the top step that isn't there, or the bottom step that was not expected. Or like poor Wile E. Coyote who would chase Road Runner past the end of a cliff and would then fall. Maybe they should be called Wile E. Coyote sentences, instead?


This post brought to you by 左宗棠 (U+5de6 U+5b97 U+68e0, a.k.a. Zuǒ Zōngtáng, a.k.a. General Tso to those of us who only know of the chicken named after him!)

# Isaac Lin on 25 Jul 2006 10:16 PM:

Not exactly a garden path sentence, but numbers in French can lead me astray -- something like "quatre-vingt dix-sept" leads to two false starts ("4 -- no 80-something -- no 90-something ") when fishing out change at the cash.

Please consider a donation to keep this archive running, maintained and free of advertising.
Donate €20 or more to receive an offline copy of the whole archive including all images.

referenced by

2008/10/02 Not the monks... or The Monks... or The Monks... or The Mumps...

2008/09/13 Where the boys aren't garden path sentences

2008/03/09 Under the big space, you may find a 'Road to Nowhere' sentence

2007/10/19 Music is math, which is truth, which is beauty, which is here at SIAO (for a moment, at least)

2006/12/02 Enhancing language 'artificially' ?

2006/08/05 Google doesn't seem to get blogs

go to newer or older post, or back to index or month or day