False Start


The horse raced past the barn fell.

That’s a grammatically correct sentence. What does it mean? Most readers have to puzzle over it a bit before seeing the interpretation

The horse [that was] raced past the barn fell.

This is a “garden-path sentence” — the reader naturally assumes one interpretation and is confused to find that another had been intended. Further examples:

The old man the boat.

The government plans to raise taxes were defeated.

The cotton clothing is made of grows in Alabama.

I convinced her children are noisy.

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

In writing, lexicographer Henry Fowler calls it “an obvious folly — so obvious that no one commits it wittingly except when surprise is designed to amuse. But writers are apt to forget that, if the false scent is there, it is no excuse to say they did not intend to lay it; it is their business to see that it is not there, and this requires more care than might be supposed.”


Apart from being mathematically true, ONE + TWELVE = TWO + ELEVEN is also famously an anagram — the same group of letters appears on each side of the expression.

In numerical form (1 + 12 = 2 + 11) it’s both an anagram and a palindrome — the same numerals appear on either side of the equal sign, and in opposite order.

Expressed in Roman numerals (I + XII = II + XI) it remains an anagram and a palindrome — again, the same numerals appear on both sides, and in reverse order.

In a square font the equation remains the same when each character is turned upside down:

legerdemain 1

In Word Ways, contributor Anil points out a further coincidence: Write the original equation in a square font, turn it upside down, and twist the first plus sign 45 degrees to make a multiplication sign:

legerdemain 2

A similar trick works in Roman numerals: Start with the original expression, turn it upside down, and change the plus signs to minus. If IIX is taken as 8, then we get another valid expression:

I + XII = II + XI
IX + II = IIX + I
IX – II = IIX – I

(Anil, “One + Twelve = Two + Eleven,” Word Ways 35:4 [July 2012], 308. See also Spanagrams and Immortal Truth.)



A Mrs. Harris published this verse in Golden Days on Oct. 10, 1885:

He squanders recklessly his cash
In cultivating a mustache;
A shameless fop is Mr. Dude,
Vain, shallow, fond of being viewed.
‘Tis true that he is quite a swell —
A smile he has for every belle;
What time he has to spare from dress
Is taken up with foolishness —
A witless youth, whose feeble brain
Incites him oft to chew his cane.
Leave dudes alone, nor ape their ways,
Male readers of these Golden Days.

It reads so naturally that it’s surprising to find that it contains a double acrostic: Taking the fourth letter of each line spells out QUANTITATIVE, and taking the last letter spells out HEEDLESSNESS.



Australia was named before it was discovered. Ancient geographers had supposed that land in the north must be balanced by land in the south — Aristotle had written, “there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole” — and Romans told legends of a Terra Australis Incognita, an “unknown land of the South,” more than a millennium before Europeans first sighted the continent.

In 1814 the British explorer Matthew Flinders suggested applying the speculative name, Terra Australis, to the actual place — and in a footnote he wrote, “Had I permitted myself any innovation on the original term, it would have been to convert it to AUSTRALIA; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.”

Coming and Going


Edmund Wilson’s 1948 poem “The Pickerel Pond” has a novel feature — backward rhymes:

The lake lies with never a ripple
A lymph to lave sores from a leper
The sand white as salt in an air
That has filtered and tamed every ray;

Below limpid water, those lissome
Scrolleries scribbled by mussels
The floating dropped feathers of gulls;
A leech like a lengthening slug

That shrinks at a touch, ink and orange;
A child’s wrecked Rio Janeiro,
One fortress of which flies a reed
The cleft and quick prints of a deer …

Each pair of line endings (ripple/leper, air/ray) reverse one another in pronunciation, reflecting the pond’s mirror-like surface. They’re called amphisbaenic rhymes, after the amphisbaena, a Greek monster whose two heads allow it to move in either direction. Wilson’s poem contains 70 twisting stanzas of such rhymes.