Complex syntax as a window on contrastive rhetoric

Bracha Nir, Ruth A. Berman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The paper concerns complex syntax in the sense of text-embedded clause-combining. We consider different perspectives on why languages employ complex syntax, taking the usage-based view that "discourse drives grammar". Complex syntax is analyzed as shedding light on the nature of "contrastive rhetoric", on the assumption that linguistic typology interacts with rhetorical strategies in the construction of discourse. An innovative methodology is delineated for evaluating syntactic complexity along a hierarchy of clause-combining relations, from isotactic single clauses to paratactic symmetric and asymmetric stringing by coordination and complementation, on to hypotactic layering by adverbials and relative clauses, and endotactic nesting or embedding of one clause inside another. Detailed criteria for each of these levels of clause-combining were applied to 64 narrative texts written by graduate-level university students, native speakers of four different languages (English, French, Hebrew, and Spanish) on the shared topic of interpersonal conflict. The discourse effects of linguistic typology are analyzed in terms of the linguistic means available to these different languages for combining clauses as well as discursive strategies preferred by speaker-writers in constructing narratives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)744-765
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The texts analyzed for this study were collected in the framework of a large-scale cross-linguistic project. The project was funded by a Spencer Foundation major research grant to Ruth Berman as PI (for details of aims and elicitation procedures, see Berman and Verhoeven, 2002; Berman and Katzenberger, 2004; Berman, 2005), and involved 20 subjects at four different age groups – from grade school, junior-high school, high school, and graduate school. The population consisted of native speakers of different languages from monolingual, middle-to upper-class backgrounds in seven different countries: France, Iceland, Israel, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. All subjects were first shown a 3-min wordless video clip depicting different (unresolved) conflict situations. The video clip was neutralized for cultural content – by eliminating all verbal cues, spoken or written, and having typical teenager participants clothed in ‘‘universal’’ jeans and tee-shirts – and proved usable across the countries in our study. It showed scenes of interpersonal conflict in a school setting – for example, a moral conflict of whether to cheat in an exam or return a purse someone dropped, a social conflict of how to treat a new kid who interfered in a conversation, and a physical conflict of fighting during recess.


  • Clause packages
  • Complex syntax
  • Contrastive rhetoric
  • Linguistic typology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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