Linguistic complexity: locality of syntactic dependencies

Cognition. 1998 Aug;68(1):1-76. doi: 10.1016/s0010-0277(98)00034-1.


This paper proposes a new theory of the relationship between the sentence processing mechanism and the available computational resources. This theory--the Syntactic Prediction Locality Theory (SPLT)--has two components: an integration cost component and a component for the memory cost associated with keeping track of obligatory syntactic requirements. Memory cost is hypothesized to be quantified in terms of the number of syntactic categories that are necessary to complete the current input string as a grammatical sentence. Furthermore, in accordance with results from the working memory literature both memory cost and integration cost are hypothesized to be heavily influenced by locality (1) the longer a predicted category must be kept in memory before the prediction is satisfied, the greater is the cost for maintaining that prediction; and (2) the greater the distance between an incoming word and the most local head or dependent to which it attaches, the greater the integration cost. The SPLT is shown to explain a wide range of processing complexity phenomena not previously accounted for under a single theory, including (1) the lower complexity of subject-extracted relative clauses compared to object-extracted relative clauses, (2) numerous processing overload effects across languages, including the unacceptability of multiply center-embedded structures, (3) the lower complexity of cross-serial dependencies relative to center-embedded dependencies, (4) heaviness effects, such that sentences are easier to understand when larger phrases are placed later and (5) numerous ambiguity effects, such as those which have been argued to be evidence for the Active Filler Hypothesis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Decision Trees
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Language Development*
  • Linguistics*
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Mental Processes / classification
  • Models, Theoretical