I am not sure if my examples are technically really considered nested sentences, but i try anyway, if i got it right a nested sentence is one or more separated sentences fused into one:

  • David hates lizards. Lizards hates David. fuses into: David hates the lizards, who hates David. David hates David hating lizards.

  • David hates lizards. David hates the queen. fuses into: Queen hating David hates lizards.

  • David hates lizards. Lizards hates blondes. Blondes hate David. might fuse into: David hates David hating blondes hating lizards.

What does your linuistics say about nested sentences in general, are the rules to make them universal ?

  • Your example sentences are hard to understand due to their grammatical errors, such as "Lizard hates David" or "David hates David hating blondes hating lizards".
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 10, 2015 at 2:57
  • "David hates David hating lizards." means "David hates that David hates lizards.". You mean "David hates David-hating lizards." Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 16:01

3 Answers 3


Just answering your headline question, in linguistics we usually talk about three basic kinds of subordinate clause (what you've called a 'nested sentence'): relative clauses, adverbial clauses and complement clauses.

Relative clauses

These are clauses (i.e. sentence-like constructions) that modify a noun. The first example in the question 'David hates the lizards who hate David' contains the relative clause '...who hate David', which modifies the noun 'lizards'.

Adverbial clauses

These modify another clause and have an adverb-like effect, for example: 'He went to bed because he was tired' where '...because he was tired' is the adverbial clause.

Complement clauses

Complement clauses are clauses that stand as subject or object in another clause, for example: 'I thought that you were going', wherein '...that you were going' is the complement clause.

The SIL linguistics glossary has more detail on each of these at relative clause, adverbial clause and complement clause.

Subordinate clauses are a large and complex area of linguistics and vary greatly from one language to another so there are no universal rules. The above is just a really basic answer to your question.


German allows a lot of nesting - even has verb-prefixes and the verb bracketing the subject (with the prefix moving to the end of the sentence), 4 cases, genders and other little aids to still make sense of complicated sentences. Whole sentences can be nested easily, and even more than once.

However, such sentences often need to be read a few times to be understandable, make manuals and such difficult to understand for lay-people, can lead to misunderstandings when a writer doesn't know all the suffixes very well, and so on. It's basically a 'feature' only used by people who never tried to speak (or write) in a clear and easy to understand way.

Personally, if I see a writer using them a lot (like some German language philosophers), I assume their writings are not a pinnacle of clear thinking...

I used to like them as they seem to allow to compress a lot of information into very small space. However, with all the little helper-prefixes, -suffixes, prepositions, conjunctions and so on, they don't really make things shorter. Not to mention having to read the same sentence multiple times to understand it.


I think any theory on the market can probably handle such sentences. The first part of the analysis is simple relativization, where a noun in a higher clause also has a role in a lower clause, for example "I saw the man who drank the coffee", where "the man" is both the object of seeing and the subject of drinking. As a special case, you can arrange your choice of subject and object roles so that the higher subject is also the lower object, and the higher object is the lower subject (the David-hating-lizards example); or other permutations as you consider. The second part is that a would-be postnominal modifiers precede the noun subject to conditions worthy of separate discussion, so that "The man who is singing" becomes "The singing man", and "The man who is singing bawdy songs" becomes "The bawdy song singing man". You get "David hates David-hating lizards relativization and preposing.

The third example doesn't work, which makes it interesting. To make it clearer, we should change the verbs, to wit: David loves lizards. Lizards bite blondes. Blondes hate David. You might think this would yield "David loves David-hating blonde-biting lizards". The problem is that this doesn't preserve the semantics of the simpler parts, since in this merged version, lizards bite blondes and hate David, whereas we want something where it's the blondes who hate David. Lizards can bite David-hating blondes and David can love blonde-biting lizards, and that's the end of it.

There is a limit on relative clause reduction and preposing -- it can't be just any relative clause. Note that you can't say *"I know the bought a house man", meaning "I know the man who bought a house". To be preposable, the clause has to be reducible to a compound (normatively, you should stick in hyphens, which reflect the different intonational structure of preposed clauses). Nouns have to be singular ("book-buying child" but not *"books-buying child") and the verb has to be a participial form, not a tense-inflected form ("man-eating tiger" or "moth-eaten pants" but not *"moth-ate pants"). You can have one VP thing in the clause ("slow-moving car", "very slow-moving car"; "house-buying business", "dilapidated house-buying business"), but not a verb-plus particle and an object (*"answer up-looking student" or anything like that) and not some string of postverbal modifiers (*"book to Sally giving student" etc.). So, while you can merge three clauses into "David loves lizards which bite blondes that hate David", you can't do that plus compounding of all of the clauses.

Rules for forming relative clauses are not all the same and are highly variable across languages. See Keenan & Comrie 1977 Noun Phrase Accessibility and Universal Grammar for discussion.

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