At the French baccalaureate, there was this sentence (and the candidates had to say whether it was true or false according to the corpus):

Mr Fonseka’s goal is likely to have a prestigious career.

Is this sentence correct? What is disturbing for me is that I often see the word "likely" used like this:

It's likely that he will be coming tonight

where "likely" is used to express a probability.

But in the context of the sentence of the baccalaureate, I don't understand what it means because for me it looks like it's the goal that is likely to...

Personally, I would have better understood:

Mr Fonseka's goal is to have a prestigious career.

or (even if the meaning isn't the same)

Mr Fonseka is likely to have a prestigious career.

If this sentence is correct, is it the best way to express this? Or does it sounds a little bit weird?

  • 1
    I have taken the liberty of making some minor orthographic corrections. Note that in English we never follow the estimable French practice of putting spaces before such points as ? and :. That is a great pity, because the French use is more legible (especially with the piddling little flecks employed as points in most digital fonts); but your professors may mark you down for it. Jun 21 '14 at 12:31
  • I had also make a typing error that I just corrected ! Jun 21 '14 at 18:50
  • @StoneyB It is a ſhame, really. I find the older ſtile rather charming : books.google.com/…
    – user230
    Jun 21 '14 at 22:29

You have understood the situation exactly, and have expressed it with admirable clarity.

This is a garden path sentence, one which leads the reader to expect it will have one meaning when in fact it turns out to have another.

The crux lies at the conjunction of likely and to have. The collocation is likely to have leads the reader to parse likely as an adjective in the phrase BE likely to VERB, meaning WILL probably VERB

Mr Fonseka’s goal will probably have a prestigious career.

But that is absurd—goals do not have careers—so the reader must retrace her steps and arrive at an understanding of likely as a sentential modifier bearing the sense ‘probably’, with to have as the subject complement of goal is.

Mr Fonseka’s goal is probably to have a prestigious career.

Note that the ambiguity is resolved by employing probably instead of likely—unlike likely, probably can only be parsed as an adverb.

Note, too, that the ambiguity does not arise in speech, where intonation and prosody will make the meaning clear. In writing, you should employ probably; or if you must employ likely (for instance, if you are quoting someone verbatim), you must resort to punctuation and bracket likely with commas or dashes or parentheses.

Mr Fonseka’s goal is, likely, to have a prestigious career.

The term derives from the idiom lead down (or up) the garden path, meaning to lead someone on, to entice them with false promises. The origin of this idiom is obscure; the best guess, to my mind, is that the image is one of leading someone to a secluded area with the ulterior motive of pursuing conversation or other activity of an erotic character.

  • Thanks a lot for this detailed and really instructive answer, I knew there was something wrong with it and you made me discover what a garden path sentence was ! :) Jun 28 '14 at 19:27
  • What a beautiful answer. Accurate, pithy, understandable.
    – Mark G B
    Jun 25 at 15:33

The sentence is correct, although its tone is fairly formal, so it's not surprising that you haven't encountered it before. In my experience, ordinary conversational English uses "probably" instead of "likely" in these situations:

Mr Fonseka’s goal is probably to have a prestigious career.

That said, the sentence was probably written this way because it's unusual, and easy to mistake for your alternative (that he is likely to be successful). The true meaning is:

It is likely [I think] that his goal is "to have a successful career" [but I could be wrong].

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