First Advisor

Susan Conrad

Date of Publication

Summer 8-20-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages


Applied Linguistics




Complexity (Linguistics), English language -- Writing, Second language acquisition, Grammar comparative and general -- Syntax, Civil engineering -- Specifications



Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 70 pages)


Traditional studies in syntactic complexity consider increased clausal complexity to be characteristic of development, proficiency and growth in written language production. However, this stereotypical view ignores two important facts. First, complexity differs by register (i.e. daily speech versus formal writing). Second, as the proficiency of writers increases, their complexity in formal writing changes from clausal complexity to phrasal complexity (i.e. lower-proficiency writers have more subordinate clauses whereas higher-proficiency writers tend to have more noun phrases). Therefore, in this study, I argue for the need to consider not just clausal complexity but also phrasal complexity measures when assessing development and performance in second language (L2) writing production. In addition, this study addresses two important gaps that remain understudied in the literature of syntactic complexity. First, there are few studies that analyze changes in syntactic complexity of first-language (L1) Spanish English Language Learners (ELL)'s writing. A few studies have analyzed writers' L1 background as an influential factor in complexity, but an important language such as Spanish has been ignored. Additionally, most studies focus on general academic writing (i.e. argumentative essays), but there are no studies that investigate syntactic complexity in other registers and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) areas. For instance, there are no studies in syntactic complexity that focus on civil engineering, which is an area where writing plays a vital role. Hence, this study intends to fill these gaps by looking at the syntactic complexity of civil engineering student writing, including Spanish L1 writers.

The present study investigated syntactic complexity in the writing of English-as- their-first-language (EL1) and English-language-learner (ELL) civil engineering student writing. Taking a contrastive corpus-based approach, I used the L2 Syntactic Complexity Analyzer (L2SCA) to analyze measures of clausal and phrasal complexity. In particular, I used two measures of clausal complexity (clauses per sentence and dependent clauses per clause) and three measures of phrasal complexity (mean length of clause, coordinate phrases per clause, and complex nominals per clause). The analysis was focused on a total of 74 samples of student writing: 30 ELL low-level texts, 14 ELL high-level texts, and 30 EL1 texts. The quantitative analysis consisted of non-parametric statistical tests applied between groups (i.e. ELL-low vs ELL-high, ELL-low vs EL1, and ELL-high vs EL1).

The statistical analysis indicated that the writing of both ELL student groups was significantly more clausally complex than the writing of EL1 students on both clausal complexity measures. No differences were found in phrasal complexity, and no developmental trends were found in relation to levels of proficiency among writers. All groups exhibited high levels of internal diversity and lack of within-group consistency.

The pedagogical implications of this study include familiarizing ELL students with the characteristics of professional engineering writing as a way to break the stereotype that more clausally complex sentences entail more advanced and more proficient writing. ESP instructors should try to identify characteristics of the syntactic complexity particular to their field so that they can provide appropriate feedback to their students. Moreover, ESP programs with Spanish-speaking students should pay attention to clausal complexity as potential linguistic transfer from students' L1 into the writing production in the L2.


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