Comprehension and syntax

Complex sentences: 3 types


Complement clauses

Relative clauses

Structure and function of complex clauses


All are conjoined clauses

Morphemes called "complementizers" often link the clauses together. Some are obvious conjunctions, but in English that and the wh- words (who, which, ..) are very prominent.

Independent and dependent clauses

The relative and complement clause is the "dependent" clause; so called as it may not be a full sentence -- though in many cases complement clauses are fully attached.

Relatives but not complements have "gaps"

A gap () reflects a missing phrase consitiutent, one that has been typically moved from its basic location. Linguists use the notion of "trace" often to indicate the original location of a constitutent. The main source of gaps in relative clauses is the relative pronoun which is moved leftward.

Functions of complex clauses

create "syntactic names" of referring expressions

Much of the creativity of language lies in these complex clauses. They help speakers find a referring expression for any thought that comes along.

relative clauses serve several functions

They serve to help the listener identify the topic of the NP. Sometimes they provide more information about the topic.

complement clauses name or express abstractions

"His belief that the world is flat"

"Her hope that the world was round"

"cooking of the missionaries"

Parsing and complex clauses


Parsing creates the trees necessary for deriving the intended meaning of the utterance. This is not easy as speech is a linear stream of phonological elements with no explicit hierarchical structure. There also may be elements missing or out of order.

(Human languages do not use parentheses nor mark gaps nor indicate members of the same constituent directly.)

English, having lost its I. E. inflections, relies entirely on lexical information and word order.


"breadth first" (parallel)

"Depth first" (serial)

procrastination (modest delay)

Waiting for an extra morpheme or two can prevent some garden paths taken.

cues to the appropriate "trees"

Most of these are "bottom-up" or "data-driven" but information from context and the lexicon ("lexical guidance") may play a role.

word order patterns



complementizers (that, wh-, -ing, for-to)

relative pronouns


lexical guidance


sequential NPS

See 3 —"the professor the students"

Acquisition of complex clauses

Children begin using complex clauses almost as soon as they use any sentences containing four or more morphemes -- typically around 20 months. Between 24 and 36 months nearly the entire spectrum of complex sentence types can be observed in their speech.

"wants and watches"

The first complex clauses are likely to be in utterances like "(You) Watch me jump bed" or "(I) want go store mommy."

Complements and questions

By 36 months, it is likely one can observe "I think Mommy read Daddy's book" or "I wonder how cows go moo?

Relative clauses

These show up, of ten on "empty" nouns like thing or one in object NP position -- "I want one like Joey has ()" .

Examples that should be understood In addition to glossary

1. Ambiguity: complement or relative? Find the gap!

The fact that Otto knew was surprising.

The fact that Otto knew () was surprising.

I forgot the fact that Otto knew.

I forgot the fact that Otto knew ().

2. Relative pronouns and redundancy

The boy that () lived here is in first grade.

The boy (that) I saw () is in first grade.

3. Role of intonation in preventing taking a "garden path"

The professor the students believed was arrested.

The professor the students believed was arrested died.

4. Multiple gaps in complex relative clause

The girl that) Peter wanted Sam to leave () wore a pink dress.

The girl (that) Peter wanted () to leave Otto wore a pink dress.

The girl (that) Peter wanted () to leave () wore a pink dress.

5. The most difficult English sentence (Limber, 1976)

5.0 The player kicked the ball kicked him,

5.0.a The player (that was) kicked the ball kicked him.

5.0.b The player kicked the ball (that was) kicked (to) him.

The player threw the ball (that was) kicked (to) him.

The player thrown the ball kicked him.

The player kicked the ball thrown him.


Subject complement clause (1a)

Object complement clause (1c)

Subject relative clause (2a)

Object relative clause (2b)


Relative pronoun


Garden path sentence

Active and passive versions of a sentence

Lexical access

Lexical guidance

Redundant (redundancy)

Contrast the redundant that in 2b with the non-redundant that in 2a.