A fork in the road to the garden path

I told my son to brush his teeth and he said “我的牙刷没了。”   I suddenly
realized this could be interpreted in two ways, “I lost my toothbrush”
and “I brushed my teeth off” (“I brushed my teeth until they were

我的 (my)
牙刷 (toothbrush)
没了 (gone)

我的 (my)
牙 (tooth/teeth)
刷 (brush (v))
没 (until it/they was/were gone)*
了 (particle of completion)

*This is a complement of result; complements of result are put after verbs to show the result of the verb.  Another example would be 吃胖 (eat until you’re fat).

The normal interpretation of this sentence is “I lost my toothbrush”, so it’s not a classic garden path sentence, but it has a reasonably salient garden path interpretation, kind of like a fork, where one path leads to the garden, and one doesn’t.

Can anyone think of other two-or-more-character nouns where the last
character(s) also have verb senses? China satellite map

4 responses to “A fork in the road to the garden path”

  1. Not sure that this works, but:


    我的  my
    头发  hair
    疯了  is crazy

    That is, “I’m having a bad hair day”.

    我的  my
    头   head
    发疯了 is going crazy

    Or, “I’m losing my mind”.

    Alright, technically it’s probably poor Mandarin to say the second, but there it is.

  2. Sima says:


    Not that these particular examples offer any obvious ambiguities…


    Presumably, 上 would always be inserted when the meaning was to be standing on the train.

    But there ought to be a lot of these kind of words. I’ll add more when I get chance.

    Of course, there are plenty of text-book examples of garden path stuff, like…


  3. Syz says:

    Y’know what’s cool: I don’t think you could get the ambiguity in spoken Beijing Mandarin. As I was saying the “牙刷没了” to myself, it sounded funny saying the toothbrush version (as opposed to the “brush my teeth off” version) without erhuayin. In other words, in Beijing, as far as I know it, it’s 牙刷儿 (yáshuār) and rarely 牙刷 (yáshuā). Maybe I’ll try the written version out on a few people…

  4. John says:

    Nice… this brings back fond memories of my classes in modern Mandarin, where ambiguity is a standard topic on the topic of syntax (and one of the few really fun ones!).

    Although I don’t have anymore good examples for you, I can tell you the structure in Chinese is referred to in my old textbook as “述宾关系或述补关系” (Predicate-Object or Predicate-Complement) ambiguity. A quick search didn’t turn up anything useful, but if you want to dig, I’m sure you’ll find it…

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