I am a PhD student in Statistics and I need more understandings in Linguistics for my PhD research.

Say we are given two sentences of SAME LENGTH -- sentence A and B. Sentence A is simple (simple vocabulary, simple grammar, etc.), and the sentence B is far more complex (advanced vocabulary, advanced grammar, etc.). Would the average/median distance between the tokens in which the readers have to relate in order to comprehend the text greater for sentence B than for sentence A?

and if so, what is the name of the Linguistics theory that states that?

Thank you,

  • 1
    The answers are really good but this question needs a lot more specificity.
    – Adam_G
    Nov 18, 2019 at 17:04
  • Related question on a sister site: languagelearning.stackexchange.com/questions/2719/… —but CAF measures syntactic complexity mainly in sentence (or phrase or T-unit) length and doesn't offer a complexity measure for sentences of the same length. Nov 19, 2019 at 14:11

3 Answers 3


One of the terms you are looking for is dependency length minimisation introduced by Gibson in 1998. The reference for that term is

Edward Gibson. 1998. Linguistic complexity: Locality of syntactic dependencies. Cognition,68(1):1–76


There is no linguistic theory which states this, because the underlying ideas are too vague to submit to theorization. However, you might be able to fill in the gaps. Length requires a standard of measurement, and there are multiple possible standards – number of letters, sounds, phonemes, words, morphemes, time in milliseconds to pronounce (given some limitations on the speakers task).

There is no measurement for simplicity. For example, there is no reasonable way to compare the simplicity of "the" and "cat". Usually when people speak of language being "simple", they are speaking from the perspective of a perception task, but sometimes they mean "hard to pronounce" (this is a rationale that is popularly given behind flapping of /t/ in "winter", that it's "simpler" to pronounce the word with a flap rather than with [t]). Structural complexity can be measured in many ways, such as number of transformations required to derive a string. One could also define "simplicity" based on frequency of occurrence (in some corpus). That kind of metric could lead you deem words like "deem" as complex, and to count the "Had I but known, I would have...." construction to be complex.

I don't know what "median distance between the tokens in which the readers have to relate in order to comprehend the text" means. For example, it is unclear how the notion of "token" is relevant (unless you are dealing with spoken language), and what scale you are using to compute "distance" (distance between what and what?).

Since you seem to be ultimately interested in sentence comprehension, you would probably be most interested in psycholinguistics.


One notion of simplicity is predictability, by a suitable language model. The simplest language models are n-gram distributions. A "surprising" sentence contains rare n-grams. This would seem to be a reasonable operationalization of complexity.

  • Well, this measures in some sense the the complexity of the vocabulary (it is obvious for a 1-gram language model, less so for higher n-grams). It does not measure syntactic complexity. Nov 19, 2019 at 12:42
  • Welcome to Linguistics! This post would benefit from adding further details. Being a one-line post, it may attract downvotes and criticism. Please edit it to add further relevant information — preferably with references to credible sources.
    – bytebuster
    Nov 19, 2019 at 16:51

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