Syntactic complexity effects in sentence production

Gregory Scontras*, William Badecker, Lisa Shank, Eunice Lim, Evelina Fedorenko

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Syntactic complexity effects have been investigated extensively with respect to comprehension (e.g., Demberg & Keller, 2008; Gibson, 1998, 2000; Gordon et al., 2001, 2004; Grodner & Gibson, 2005; King & Just, 1991; Lewis & Vasishth, 2005; Lewis et al., 2006; McElree et al., 2003; Wanner & Maratsos, 1978). According to one prominent class of accounts (experience-based accounts; e.g., Hale, 2001; Levy, 2008; Gennari & MacDonald, 2008, 2009; Wells et al., 2009), certain structures cause comprehension difficulty due to their scarcity in the language. But why are some structures less frequent than others? In two elicited-production experiments we investigated syntactic complexity effects in relative clauses (Experiment 1) and wh-questions (Experiment 2) varying in whether or not they contained non-local dependencies. In both experiments, we found reliable durational differences between subject-extracted structures (which only contain local dependencies) and object-extracted structures (which contain nonlocal dependencies): Participants took longer to begin and produce object-extractions. Furthermore, participants were more likely to be disfluent in the object-extracted constructions. These results suggest that there is a cost associated with planning and uttering the more syntactically complex, object-extracted structures, and that this cost manifests in the form of longer durations and disfluencies. Although the precise nature of this cost remains to be determined, these effects provide one plausible explanation for the relative rarity of object-extractions: They are more costly to produce.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)559-583
Number of pages25
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Relative clauses
  • Sentence processing
  • Sentence production
  • Syntactic complexity
  • Wh-questions
  • Working memory


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