A garden path sentence is a sentence that leads the reader astray and forces them to reanalyze. The obvious first interpretation when one starts reading is a red herring and it comes clear that the sentence doesn't parse to anything sensible before rereading the whole thing a couple of times.

For example, in "time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana" one is lead to believe that the second "flies" is also a verb, but in retrospect it turns out to be a noun. For another example, in "the old man the boat" one first reads "man" as a noun but it turns out to be a verb.

I started to wonder whether there are examples of this in classical Latin literature. Classical Latin sentences can be hard to parse, but that or even ambiguity is not quite the same as leading astray. A garden path sentence should offer the reader an obvious interpretation which turns out to be wrong. In English many of these sentences are built around ambiguity between nouns and verbs, and in Latin that ambiguity is much weaker. Latin can certainly mislead, but how badly can it do that?

What would be good examples of garden path sentences in classical Latin? Or in other words: What is do you think the most misleading classical Latin sentence (in the aforementioned sense) and why?

  • Have you looked at Plautus & Terence? I'm guessing they would be prime candidates!
    – DukeZhou
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 19:57
  • 1
    @DukeZhou No, I'm not that familiar with their work, but I'd be happy to see if someone more versed in either one could give an example. This kind of thing is pretty slow to search unless you have a good hunch to begin with, so it might take me a while to get to anything worthwhile.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 21:09
  • "Fruit flies like a banana" has always irked me because it's either ungrammatical or nonsensical. Adding the "a" in there specifies that there is a single banana out there that flies. That's the nonsense interpretation. If the sentence is to mean that fruit flies like bananas in general, then it should be plural, no article necessary. Grr..
    – cmw
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 20:18

1 Answer 1


REGINAM NOLITE OCCIDERE TIMERE BONUM EST SI OMNES CONSENTIUNT EGO NON CONTRADICO - though that one is less about multiple meanings in one word, and more about multiple possible locations for a comma, making the sentence's meaning vacillate between "kill the queen" and "don't kill the queen". There are more examples of these kinds of amiguities, but a sentence that actually depends on one of the (many! too many?) word-ambiguities in latin (e.g. "liber" = "free" and = "book" - there is a double meaning sentence about the price of books/freedom being high) and really is from antiquity i don't know about (the example with the queen that i cite is also not from antiquity, but there is a very similar one that hails from that time: Ibis redibis nunquam per bella peribis)

Parsing of example 'A' (Marlowe's version is yet another variant) was given in London Magazine 1826 (11 March)Google e-books

London Magazine 1826 Mar. 11.—discussion of ambiguities of punctuation, “Ibis redibis” has turned up. There is one example not so trite, and almost as good. Adam, Bishop of Westminster, consulted on the expediency of putting Edward the Second to death, answered, “Edwardum regem occidere nolite timere bonum est.” With a comma after nolite it would be dissuasive; with one after occidere, and another after timere, it is persuasive. The priest knew where to stop, the regicides did not; instead of commas after nolite & timere, they put a full stop to the King’s existence.

Parsing of Example 'B,' which is oracular is either optimistictic:

Ibis; redibis. Nunquam per bella peribis.

...or it is pessimistic:

Ibis. Redibis nunquam. Per bella peribis.

  • 2
    Welcome to the site! Are couple of things are unclear to me here: (1) What are the possible comma locations and what readings do they lead to? It might be my being slow, but I don't see how it works. (2) Where is Ibis redibis nunquam per bella peribis from? (3) How does the garden path work with that one?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 21:14
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    @bukwyrm If the editing offends, use 'roll back.' Or, alternatively, add an improvement of your own, such as naming the location of the oracle, and reclaim ownership of the answer. I particularly like your incorporation of an English garden pathism in your answer.
    – Hugh
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 1:38

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