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I'm an English teacher who often has to grapple with explaining to students the complexity of clause structure in English, and after reading an article about various 'longest sentences' in fiction, I got to wondering if anyone has ever done any research into the cognitive limitations or constraints on the amount of nesting an average reader can understand. That's the basic question: is there any research on what our nested clause comprehension limits are?

But there are loads of related questions that might be relevant here, too, like: How many embedded clauses can you insert in a main clause before the latter element ceases to make sense? Is there a fixed limit on the amount of nesting we can follow? How different are English speakers in their ability to track meaning across clauses?

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    This may not the right site for your question. But I can recommend Readability: Text and Context (Bailin and Grafstein). In the chapter on Grammar and Readability: Syntactic complexity they cover the issue you raise, without, however, answering the specific questions you ask. – Shoe Mar 16 at 9:59
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Susumu Kuno has reported on this in a number of works. Here are a few references in McCawley's excellent text on the linguistic analysis of English.

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