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Syntactic complexity across registers: Investigating (in)formality in student writing
Université catholique de Louvain; Uppsala Universitet.
University of Gävle, Faculty of Education and Business Studies, Department of Humanities, English.
2019 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

While syntactic complexity is often used to measure linguistic development in second-language (L2) writing (e.g. Housen & Simoens, 2016), it has also been found to be correlated with formality, as formal, academic texts tend to be characterized by elaborate and diverse language (e.g. Biber, 2016). This paper aims to investigate the relative importance of measures of syntactic complexity across registers in expert production and in non-native-speaker (NNS) and native-speaker (NS) student writing to test previous claims of (in)formality, as outlined below.

Student writers, in particular learners, are often descried as being overly informal in their writing (e.g. Altenberg & Tapper, 1998). However, such claims tend to be based primarily on over/underuse of a limited number of features, and few studies have sought to investigate formality in a more systematic manner. Based on the assumption that registers can be used as reference points on a scale from informal to formal (Larsson & Kaatari, 2019), the present study bridges this gap in the literature by mapping out the distribution of 14 complexity measures (e.g. phrasal sophistication, subordination and sentence complexity; see, e.g., Lu, 2017) across five registers (academic prose, popular science, news, fiction and conversation) and in NNS and NS student data. The following research questions are investigated:

  • What is the relative importance of these complexity measures for predicting formality, and in what ways are these measures correlated?
  • How do these measures pattern across registers?
  • Which of the experts’ registers is the student writers’ use closest to, and what can this tell us about (in)formality in the student texts?

The study uses data from one expert corpus, BNC-15, two learner corpora, ALEC and VESPA, and one NS student corpora, BAWE. The study uses inferential and explorative statistics, such as Random Forests. The results show that the degree of phrasal sophistication is more important than measures such as amount of subordination for predicting register. While the student texts bear some resemblance to the expert academic writing (e.g. both groups score high on complex nominals per T-unit), they also exhibit features that are associated with the non-academic registers (e.g. shorter clause length), which might offer some support for the claim that student writers tend to be somewhat informal in their writing. The results will hopefully contribute to nuancing the perceived informal-formal dichotomy, thereby benefitting both L2 instruction and theory.

References

Altenberg, Bengt & Marie Tapper. 1998. The use of adverbial connectors in advanced Swedish learners’ written English. In Sylviane Granger (ed.), Learner English on computer, 80–93. London: Longman.

Biber, Doug. 2016. Using MD analysis to explore cross-linguistic universals of register-variation. In Marie-Aude Lefer & Svetlana Vogeleer (eds.), Genre and register-related discourse features in contrast, 7–34. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Housen, Alex & Hannelore Simoens. 2016. Cognitive perspectives on difficulty and complexity in L2 acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 38. 163–175.

Larsson, Tove & Henrik Kaatari. 2019. Extraposition in learner and expert writing: Exploring (in)formality and the impact of register. International Journal of Learner Corpus Research 5(1). 33–62.

Lu, Xiaofei. 2017. Automated measurement of syntactic complexity in corpus-based L2 writing research and implications for writing assessment. Language Testing 34(4). 493–511.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2019. no 1
National Category
General Language Studies and Linguistics
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:hig:diva-29737OAI: oai:DiVA.org:hig-29737DiVA, id: diva2:1321727
Conference
The 40th annual conference of the International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English (ICAME40), June 1–5, 2019, Neuchâtel, Switzerland
Available from: 2019-06-09 Created: 2019-06-09 Last updated: 2019-08-08

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Kaatari, Henrik

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CiteExportLink to record
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Cite
Citation style
  • apa
  • harvard-cite-them-right
  • ieee
  • modern-language-association-8th-edition
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  • Other style
More styles
Language
  • sv-SE
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  • nn-NB
  • de-DE
  • Other locale
More languages
Output format
  • html
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  • asciidoc
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