Reading relative clauses in English

Edward Gibson, Timothy Desmet, Daniel Grodner, Duane Watson, Kara Ko

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Two self-paced reading experiments investigated several factors that influence the comprehension complexity of singly-embedded relative clauses (RCs) in English. Three factors were manipulated in Experiment 1, resulting in three main effects. First, object-extracted RCs were read more slowly than subject-extracted RCs, replicating previous work. Second, RCs that were embedded within the sentential complement of a noun were read more slowly than comparable RCs that were not embedded in this way. Third, and most interestingly, object-modifying RCs were read more slowly than subject-modifying relative clauses. This result contradicts one of the central tenets of complexity research: that nested sentences are harder to understand than their right-branching equivalents (e.g., Miller and Chomsky 1963). It is hypothesized that this result followed from a combination of two information-flow factors: (1) background information is usually presented early in a sentence; and (2) restrictive RCs - the form of the RCs in Experiment 1 - usually convey background information. Experiment 2 tested this hypothesis by comparing restrictive and non-restrictive RCs - which generally provide new information - in both subject- and object-modifying positions. The results of the experiment were as predicted by the information-flow account: Only restrictive RCs were read more slowly when modifying objects. It is concluded that both resource and information-flow factors need to be considered in explaining RC complexity effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)313-353
Number of pages41
JournalCognitive Linguistics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Information flow
  • Relative clause
  • Sentence complexity
  • Sentence comprehension

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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