The following online article has been derived mechanically from an MS produced on the way towards conventional print publication. Many details are likely to deviate from the print version; figures and footnotes may even be missing altogether, and where negotiation with journal editors has led to improvements in the published wording, these will not be reflected in this online version. Shortage of time makes it impossible for me to offer a more careful rendering. I hope that placing this imperfect version online may be useful to some readers, but they should note that the print version is definitive. I shall not let myself be held to the precise wording of an online version, where this differs from the print version.

Pubished in Journal of Linguistics 33.131–51, 1997.



Depth in English grammar



Geoffrey Sampson


University of Sussex






Corpus data are used to investigate Yngve’s claim that English usage avoids grammatical structures in which the number of left branches between any word and the root node of a sentence exceeds some fixed limit.  The data do display a marked bias against left-branching, but the pattern of word-depths does not conform to Yngve’s concept of a sharp limit.  The bias could alternatively reflect a statistical invariance in the incidence of left-branching, but whether this is so depends on how left-branching is counted.  Six nonequivalent measures are proposed; it turns out that one (and only one) of these yields strikingly constant figures for left-branching in real-life sentences over a wide range of lengths.  This is not the measure suggested by Yngve’s formulation; it is the measure whose invariance is arguably the most favourable for computational tractability.





1.  History and implications of the Yngve Hypothesis

Victor Yngve drew attention (1960, 1961) to an asymmetry in English grammar favouring right-branching over left-branching structures:  although various individual grammatical constructions create left-branching, Yngve believed that the use of these constructions is in practice constrained in such a way that the ‘depth’ of any word in a sentence never exceeds some fixed limit, perhaps seven.  He offered an explanation for this in terms of psychological processing mechanisms.  Lees (1961) and Fodor et al. (1974: 408ff.) argued that the relevant psychological considerations are more complex than Yngve supposed, and that the depth constraints in languages such as Japanese and Turkish are quite different from that in English.

            Note that the term ‘depth’, in Yngve’s usage, refers purely to the quantity of left-branching contained in the path linking a terminal node to the root node of a grammatical tree structure (we shall become more precise shortly about how this is counted).  It is necessary to stress this to avoid misunderstanding, because the term ‘depth’ is used quite differently in connexion with tree structures by computer scientists, for whom the depth of a terminal node is the total number of branches (of any kind) between itself and the root.  Thus, for a computer scientist, the rightmost terminal node of a tree may have a large depth, but for Yngve the depth of the last word of a sentence is necessarily zero.  Yngve’s papers on this topic have attained such classic status in linguistics that I have chosen to follow his usage here.  The computer scientists’ ‘depth’ is a quantity which plays no part in the present discussion, so I have not needed to adopt any particular term for it.[1]

            The question of left-branching became linked for linguists with that of multiple central embedding (Miller & Chomsky 1963, Reich 1969), which is claimed to be constrained very tightly indeed.  Occasionally it is suggested (e.g. Lyons 1991: 116) that Yngve’s hypothesis might have resulted from taking what is in reality a constraint on central embedding to be a more general constraint on left-branching.  But these issues should be kept distinct.  There unquestionably is a strikingly low incidence in English of left-branching in general that is, of multi-word constituents occurring anywhere other than as rightmost daughters of their containing constructions.  One of the most immediately noticeable features of any grammatically-analysed English corpus which uses brackets to delimit constituents is the frequent occurrence of long sequences of right brackets at the same point in a text, while sequences of adjacent left brackets are few and short.  On the other hand the empirical facts about central embedding are less clear.  De Roeck et al. (1982) and Sampson (1996) give evidence that the kinds of construction claimed by writers such as Church (1982: 24 n. 32) and Stabler (1994: 315-316) to be ‘unacceptable’ do quite often occur in ordinary usage in English and other languages.  There may be a special avoidance of central embedding; alternatively, the alleged rarity of multiple central embedding might just reflect the familiar principle that, when one counts examples of anything, the more detailed the criterion which examples are required to meet the fewer cases one will find.  This paper will study the general English tendency for multi-word constituents to occur at the end of their containing construction, ignoring the separate issue whether constituents which violate this tendency are significantly less frequent in the middle than at the beginning of the higher unit.

            Writing before the availability of computers and grammatically-analysed corpora, Yngve noted (1960: 461) that ‘It is difficult to determine what the actual [depth] limit is’; his figure of seven seems to have been a surmise based on psychological findings about memory limitations in other domains, rather than on an empirical survey of linguistic usage (which would scarcely have been feasible at that period).  Fodor et al. (1974: 414) echoed Yngve’s point about the difficulty of checking empirically just what the depth patterns are in real-life usage.  But it is fairly clear that Yngve’s conception involves a sharp cut-off:  up to the depth limit (whether this is seven or another number) many words are found, beyond the limit none.  He illustrates his concept with a diagram (reproduced here by permission of the American Mathematical Society as (1), after Yngve 1961: 134, Fig. 5) of the kind of structure that would be expected with a depth limit of three; of the fifteen terminal nodes in (1), apart from the last (which necessarily has depth 0) there are three at depth 1, six at depth 2, and five at depth 3.  Yngve’s caption to the diagram reads ‘If the temporary memory can contain only three symbols, the structures it can produce are limited to a depth of three and can never penetrate the dotted line.’




            Yngve’s depth hypothesis is significant for computational linguistics, because leaving aside the question whether sentences violating the depth limit should be regarded as ‘ungrammatical’ or as ‘grammatical but unacceptable’, a distinction that we shall not discuss it seems to imply that English grammatical usage is determined in part by a nonlocal constraint.  Since the phrase-structure rules of English grammar allow some left-branching and are recursive, it appears that the class of structures they generate should include structures with excessive left-branching, which would have to be filtered out by a mechanism that responds to the overall shape of a tree rather than to the relationship between a mother node and its immediate daughter nodes.  Statistical optimizing techniques for automatic parsing, such as those of Sampson et al. (1989), Black et al. (1993), which select the analysis for an input string which maximizes a continuous measure of grammatical plausibility, might need to build depth of left-branching into their evaluation metrics as a consideration to be traded off against local mother/daughter-node relationships.

            While there is undoubtedly something right about Yngve’s depth hypothesis, to an empirically-minded corpus linguist the postulation of a fixed limit to depth of left-branching has a suspicious air.  Corpus linguists tend rather to think of high- and low-frequency grammatical configurations, with an ‘impossible’ structure being one that departs so far from the norm that its probability is in practice indistinguishable from zero, but without sharp cut-offs between the ‘possible’ and the ‘impossible’.  The aim of this paper is to bring corpus evidence to bear on the task of discovering precisely what principle lies behind the tendency to asymmetry observed by Yngve in English.  We shall find that the answer is clear-cut; that it does not imply a sharp cut-off between acceptable and unacceptable depths of left-branching; and that it has positive consequences for the computational-tractability issues canvassed above.


2.  Evidence used to assess the hypothesis

The corpus used for this purpose is the SUSANNE Corpus (Sampson 1995).[2]  This is an approximately 130,000-word subset of the Brown Corpus of edited American English, equipped with annotations identifying its surface and logical grammatical structure.  The SUSANNE Corpus was developed in conjunction with the SUSANNE analytic scheme (op. cit.).  This is a set of annotation symbols and detailed rules for applying them to difficult cases, which is intended to come as close as possible to the ideal of defining grammatical analyses for written and spoken English that are predictable (in the sense that different analysts independently applying the scheme to the same sample of English must produce identical annotations), comprehensive (in the sense that everything found in real-life usage receives an analysis, and all aspects of English surface and logical grammar which are definite enough to be susceptible of explicit annotation are indicated), and consensual (in that the scheme avoids taking sides on analytic issues which are contested between rival linguistic theories, choosing instead a ‘middle-of-the-road’ analysis into which alternative theorists’ analyses can be translated).  Its 130,000 words make the SUSANNE Corpus far from the largest analysed corpus of English now available, but limited size is the penalty paid to achieve high reliability of the analysis of each individual sentence for present purposes that is important.[3]  The research reported below used Release 3 of the SUSANNE Corpus, completed in March 1994;  the many proofreading techniques to which this version was subjected before release included scanning the entire text formatted by software which uses indentation to reflect the constituency structure implied by the SUSANNE annotations, so that most errors which would affect the conclusions of the present research should have been detected and eliminated.

            Although the SUSANNE analytic scheme aims to be ‘consensual’ as just defined, obviously many individual linguistic theorists would prefer different structural analyses for particular constructions.  However, although this might lead to some changes in the individual figures reported below, the overall conclusions are sufficiently clear-cut to make it reasonable to hope that they would be unaffected by such modifications, provided these were carried out consistently.[4]

            Some readers may think it unfortunate that the present investigation is based on written rather than spoken English; if constraints on left-branching derive from psychological processing considerations (as Yngve believed) it is likely that these considerations impact more directly on spontaneous speech than on writing.  At present there is to my knowledge no analysed corpus of spontaneous spoken English which would have been suitable for the purpose.  But in any case, transcriptions of spontaneous speech tend not to contain long chains even of right-branching structure, and they contain many editing phenomena which make it difficult to analyse an utterance in terms of a single coherent tree-structure; so that it is questionable whether an analysed corpus of spontaneous speech could be used for this research, even if we had one.  The highly-ramified structures discussed by Yngve (1960) are in fact much more characteristic of written than of spoken English, and I believe that an analysed corpus of written English may offer the best opportunity to take his work further.


3.  Preparation of the test data

In order to study left-branching, it was necessary to modify the structures of the SUSANNE Corpus in a number of respects:

            (i)  The SUSANNE analytic scheme treats punctuation marks as ‘words’ with their own place in parse trees; and it recognizes ‘ghost’ elements (or ‘empty nodes’) terminal nodes marking the logical position of elements which appear elsewhere in surface structure, and which have no concrete realization of their own.  Punctuation marks are not likely to be relevant to our present concerns (with respect to human syntactic processing they are written markers of structure rather than elements forming part of a syntactic structure); and ghost elements are too theory-dependent to be appropriately included in an empirical investigation such as ours (Yngve discussed only the structuring of concrete words).  Therefore all terminal nodes of these two types, and any nonterminals dominating only such nodes, were pruned out of the SUSANNE structures.

            (ii)  Any tree whose root node is labelled Oh, ‘heading’, was eliminated:  this covers items such as numbered chapter titles, and other forms whose internal structure often has little to do with the grammar of running English text.

            (iii)  Apart from ‘headings’, the SUSANNE texts are divided by the analysis into units whose root nodes are labelled O, ‘paragraph’.  A paragraph normally consists of an unstructured chain of sentences (interspersed with sentence-final punctuation marks which were eliminated at step (i)).  Yngve’s thesis relates to structure within individual sentences; therefore O nodes were eliminated, and the units within which left-branching was examined were the subtrees whose roots are daughters of O nodes in the unmodified Corpus.  Not all of these units are grammatically ‘complete sentences’; occasionally, for instance, a noun phrase functions as an immediate constituent of a SUSANNE paragraph.  The present investigation paid no attention to whether root nodes of trees in the modified Corpus had the label S or some other label.

            (iv)  Some SUSANNE tree structures contain nodes below the root, representing categories such as ‘direct quotation’, which with respect to their internal constituency are equivalent to root nodes.  For the present investigation, the links between such ‘rootrank nodes’ (Sampson 1995: 4.40) and their daughters were severed:  thus left-branching was measured within the sentence(s) of a direct quotation without reference to the sentence within which the quotation was embedded, and when left-branching was measured in that quoting sentence the quotation was treated as a single terminal node.

            (v)  The SUSANNE analytic scheme treats certain sequences of typographic words, e.g. up to date used as an adjective, as grammatically equivalent to single words.  Any node labelled with an ‘idiomtag’ (Sampson 1995: 3.55) was treated as terminal, and the structure below it in the unmodified SUSANNE Corpus was ignored.

            (vi)  The SUSANNE analytic scheme makes limited use of singulary-branching structure.  For instance, a gerundive clause consisting of a present participle and nothing more will be assigned a node labelled with a clausetag dominating only a node labelled with a verb-group tag dominating only a node labelled with a present-participle wordtag.  Numerical measures of left-branching might take singulary branching into account in different ways, depending on exactly how the measures were defined, but intuitively it seems unlikely that singulary branching is significant in this connexion; and again singulary-branching nodes seem to be entities that are too theory-laden to be considered in the present context.  (What would it mean to assert that the grammatical configuration just cited is a case of three separate units that happen to be coterminous, rather than a case of one word unit that happens to play three roles? many would see these as different ways of talking about the same facts.)  Therefore singulary branching was eliminated by collapsing pairs of mother and only-daughter nodes into single nodes.


4.  Counts of word depths

The first question put to the resulting set of sentence structures was whether Yngve’s concept of a sharp limit to the permissible degree of ‘depth’ is borne out in the data.  Let us say that the lineage of a word is the class of nodes including the leaf node (terminal node) associated with that word, the root node of its tree, and all the intermediate nodes on the unique path between leaf and root nodes; and let us say that a node e is a younger sister of a node d if d and e are immediately dominated by the same ‘mother’ node and e is further right than d.  Then Yngve’s concept of the ‘depth’ of a word corresponds to:


(2)       The total number of younger sisters of all the nodes in the word’s lineage.


The number of words in the modified SUSANNE Corpus having various depths in this sense is shown in Table 1.




            Table 1 gives us not a picture of a phenomenon that occurs freely up to a cut-off point and thereafter not at all, but of one which, above a low depth, becomes steadily less frequent with increasing depth until, within the finite quantity of available data, its probability becomes indistinguishable from zero.

            However, although (2) is the definition of ‘depth’ that corresponds most directly to Yngve’s exposition, there are two aspects of it which might be called into question.  In the first place, ‘depth’ in this sense can arise as much through a single node having many younger sisters as through a long lineage of nodes each having one younger sister.  This is illustrated by the one word in SUSANNE having depth 13, which is the first word[5] of the sentence Constitutional government, popular vote, trial by jury, public education, labor unions, cooperatives, communes, socialized ownership, world courts, and the veto power in world councils are but a few examples (Brown Corpus and SUSANNE Corpus location code G11:0310).  The SUSANNE analysis of this sentence is shown in (3); nodes contributing to the depth count of the first word are underlined.[6] 




            Although in principle the existence of individual nodes with large numbers of daughters and the existence of long lineages of nodes each having one younger sister are two quite different aspects of tree-shape, for Yngve the distinction was unimportant because he believed that branching in English grammatical structures is always or almost always binary (Yngve 1960: 455).  But this seems to have been less an empirical observation about English grammar than an analytical principle Yngve chose to impose on English grammar.  In the case of multi-item co-ordinations such as the one in (3), for instance, where semantics implies no internal grouping of the conjuncts I know of no empirical reason to assume that the co-ordination should be analysed as a hierarchy of binary co-ordinations; in SUSANNE analyses, which avoid positing structure except where there are positive reasons to do so, many nodes have more than two daughters.  Where SUSANNE has a single node with three or more daughters, it seems that Yngve regularly assumed a right-branching hierarchy of binary nodes.  This implies that ‘depth’ measured on SUSANNE trees will best approximate to Yngve’s concept if each node having younger sister(s) contributes exactly one to the depth of the words it dominates, rather than nodes having many younger sisters making a greater contribution.  In that way, depth figures for words dominated by nodes with many daughters will be the same as they would be in the corresponding Yngvean trees containing only binary nodes.  (To make the point quite explicit:  although I do not myself believe that grammatical branching is always binary, I am proposing that we count word depth in a way that gives the same results whether that is so or not.)

            Secondly, even the most right-branching tree must have an irreducible minimum of left branches.  A tree in which all nonterminal nodes other than the root are rightmost daughters ought surely to be described as containing no left-branching at all; yet by Yngve’s definition each word other than the last will have a depth of one, rather than zero (and the average word depth will consequently depend on how many words there are).  This inconsistency could be cured by ignoring the leaf node when counting left-branching in a lineage.

            Accordingly, I suggest that a more appropriate definition than (2) of the depth of a word would be:


(4)       The total number of those nonterminal nodes in the word’s lineage which have at least one younger sister.


Thus, consider terminal node e in tree (5):



Counted according to (2), the depth of e is four, the relevant younger sister nodes being F, j, k, L.  Counted according to (4), the depth of e is two, the contributing nonterminals being B and C.  If the distribution of depths among SUSANNE words is recomputed using definition (4), the results are given in Table 2.




            The decline is now much steeper, but again we seem to be looking at a continuously decreasing probability which eventually becomes indistinguishable from zero in a finite data-set, rather than at a sharp cut-off.  The four words at depth 5 are the words New York, United States occurring in the respective sentences Two errors by New York Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek in the eleventh inning donated four unearned runs and a 5-to-2 victory to the Chicago White Sox today (A11:1840), and Vital secrets of Britain’s first atomic submarine, the Dreadnought, and, by implication, of the entire United States navy’s still-building nuclear sub fleet, were stolen by a London-based soviet spy ring, secret service agents testified today (A20:0010).  These examples seem intuitively to relate more closely than the (3) example to the depth phenomenon with which Yngve was concerned; their SUSANNE analyses are (6) and (7).


            FIG. 6 ABOUT HERE


            FIG. 7 ABOUT HERE


            It is true that, if depth is counted in terms of definition (4) rather than Yngve’s original definition (2), then Table 2 shows that the SUSANNE data are logically compatible with a fixed maximum depth of seven.  But to explain the figures of Table 2 in terms of a fixed depth limit is scientifically unsatisfactory, because it is too weak a hypothesis to account for the patterning in the data.  To give an analogy:  a table of the numbers of twentieth-century Europeans who attain various ages at death would, in the upper age ranges, show declining figures for increasing age until zero was reached at some age in the vicinity of 120.  Logically this would be compatible with a theory that human life is controlled by a biological clock which brings about death at age 125 unless the person happens to die earlier; but such a theory would be unconvincing.  In itself it fails to explain why we do not meet numerous 124-year-olds to explain that we need some theory such as cumulative genetic transcription errors as cells repeatedly divide leading to increased probability of fatal maladies; and, if we adopt a theory of this latter kind, it is redundant also to posit a specific fixed maximum which is rarely or never attained.

            What we would like to do is to find some numerical property obeyed by the SUSANNE trees which is more specific than ‘no depth greater than seven’, which is invariant as between short and long sentences, and which predicts that the number of words at a given depth will decline as depth increases.

            In the following sections I address this issue in the abstract, prescinding from psychological questions about how human beings might produce or understand grammatical structures, and instead treating the set of observed SUSANNE parsetrees purely as a collection of shapes in which some invariant property is sought.  The ratio of psychological theorizing to empirical description in this area has been rather high to date, and the balance deserves to be redressed.  Having found an empirical result I shall not wholly refrain from speculation about possible processing implications, but these will be very tentative; the central aim of the work reported here is to establish the empirical facts rather than to draw psychological conclusions.


5.  Alternative measures of left-branching

One possible invariant might be mean depth (in the (4) sense) of the various words in a sentence.  If there were no tendency to avoid left-branching, then mean word depth would be higher in long sentences than in short sentences, because more words imply longer lineages between terminal nodes and root, and the lineages would contain left-branching as frequently as right-branching.  Yngve’s picture of a depth boundary that remains fixed however long a sentence grows suggests that mean word depth might be constant over different sentence lengths; this could be true despite the occasional incidence of words with unusually large depth figures.

            However, if we choose to compute the asymmetry of sentence structures by an averaging procedure over all parts of the tree, rather than by taking a single maximum figure, then averaging word depth is not the only way to do this.  Two other possibilities present themselves.  One could take the mean, over the nonterminal nodes, of the proportion of each node’s daughters which are left-branching nodes that is, which are  themselves nonterminal and are not the rightmost daughter.  Or one could take the mean, again over the nonterminal nodes, of the proportion of all words ultimately dominated by a node which are not dominated by the rightmost daughter of the node and are not immediately dominated by the node.  Let us call these three statistical properties of a tree structure the depth-based measure, the production-based measure, and the realization-based measure respectively.

            A low figure for any of these three measures implies that a tree has relatively little left-branching.  But the measures are not equivalent.  Consider for instance the three six-leaf tree structures (8), (9), and (10):


By the depth-based measure, the most left-branching of the three structures is (8); by the production-based measure, the most left-branching is (9); by the realization-based measure, the most left-branching is (10).[7]  So far as I am aware, other methods of calculating degree of left-branching will assign a ranking to the various trees having a given number of leaf nodes that will be identical or near-identical to the ranking assigned by one of these three measures.

            None of the three measures give figures for different trees which are directly comparable when the trees have different numbers of leaf nodes (i.e. dominate sentences of different lengths).  An entirely right-branching tree, in which nonterminal nodes are always rightmost daughters of their mothers, will score zero by each of the three measures.  But, for each of the measures, the score for an entirely left-branching tree will depend on sentence length.  Writing w for the number of leaf nodes (words) dominated by a tree, the maximum score will be:


                                  for the depth-based measure


                         for the production-based measure


  for the realization-based measure

[Consult print publication for formulae missing in this online version]


We might therefore normalize the measures to a common scale by dividing the raw figures by the appropriate one of these three quantities.  The resulting normalized measures give us a meaningful way of comparing the positions occupied by sentences of any lengths on a scale from 1, for ‘completely left-branching’, to 0, for ‘completely right-branching’ (with respect to any one of the three definitions of asymmetry).

            I shall refer to the six resulting statistical measures of left-branching as RD, RP, RR, ND, NP, NR, for raw v. normalized depth-, production-, and realization-based measures.  The question now is which, if any, of these six measures yields figures for structural asymmetry in English that show little variance with different lengths of sentence.


6.  Incidence of left-branching computed by alternative measures

In order to answer this question I grouped the sentences of the modified SUSANNE Corpus into sets by length; for each set up to length w = 47 I computed the six asymmetry measures for the sentences in the set, and took their means.  (The maximum length of sentences examined was fixed at 47 because, above this length, not all lengths are represented in the data by at least ten instances.  Up to w = 47 the fewest instances of a sentence-length is nineteen for w = 45.)  For very short sentences the means display some patternless fluctuations, which is not too surprising:  with few words and even fewer nonterminals to average over, one should perhaps not expect statistical measures of a tree’s topological properties to be very informative.[8]  But the runs of figures from w = 7 up to w = 47 (covering a total of 5963 sentences) display very clear trends, summarized in Table 3, which for each of the six measures gives the overall mean and standard deviation of the 41 individual means for different sentence lengths, together with the linear correlation coefficient r between sentence length and individual mean asymmetry figure.




            The measure closest to Yngve’s concept, RD, shows a very strong positive correlation (r = 0.96) between length and depth:  individual mean RD figures range from 0.38 for 8-word sentences up to 0.98 for 47-word sentences.  Normalizing the depth measure merely reverses the sign of the correlation (r = –0.93):  individual mean ND figures range between 0.136 for length 7 and 0.040 for length 41.

            By far the most consistent measure of left-branching is RP, which shows essentially no correlation with sentence length (r = 0.093).  Mean RP figures for different sentence lengths cluster tightly (low standard deviation) round the overall mean of 0.094; the lowest individual mean is 0.084 for length 45, the highest is 0.102 for length 44.  It is evidently RP which gives rise to the limited left-branching which Yngve took for an absolute bar on lineages containing more than a fixed maximum number of left branches.

            The normalized production-based measure of left-branching, and the realization-based measures, are not as precisely correlated with sentence length as the depth-based measures, but absolute correlation coefficients over 0.6 make it clear that these measures are not candidates for the invariant quantity adumbrated by Yngve.  Individual means range from 0.22 (NP), 0.123 (RR), 0.189 (NR), for length 7, down to 0.17 (NP), 0.085 (RR), 0.094 (NR), for length 45.

            I do not suggest that the incidence of words at different Yngvean depths can be predicted purely from statistics on the average incidence of nonterminal and terminal daughters in individual productions.  If that were possible, the figures of Table 2 would display a regularity that we do not find.  Assuming that not only the proportion L of left-branching daughters but also the mean number b of daughter nodes per mother node, and the proportion R of rightmost daughters which are nonterminal, are constant for different sentence-lengths, then each figure in Table 2 ought to differ by a constant factor bL/(1 – R) from its predecessor.  Even if the figures of Table 2 were not to hand, we would know that things are not that simple.  The great majority of root nodes in the modified SUSANNE Corpus have the same label S, ‘main clause’, and the class of those productions which share some particular mother label will not in general contain the same proportion of left-branching daughters as found in all productions (the fact, recorded in Table 2, that there are more depth-1 than depth-0 words in the Corpus shows that productions having S to the left of the arrow have a relatively high proportion of left-branching daughters).  Likewise the mean proportion of left-branching daughters for category labels which themselves occur on left-branching daughter nodes is very likely to deviate from the overall mean in one direction or the other.  Considerations like these imply that we cannot predict an expected pattern of word depths against which Table 2 can be tested.  But, once we know that the overall incidence of left-branching productions is a low constant frequency for sentences of different lengths, there is no need of further explanation for the fact that the figures in Table 2 dwindle to zero after the first few rows, and hence for Yngve’s impression that depths above about seven never occur in practice.[9]


7.  Implications of the findings

From a computational perspective, the significance of the fact that RP is the invariant measure is that this is the one measure of asymmetry which depends purely on local grammatical facts.  A context-free grammar with probabilities associated with alternative productions gives an invariant mean RP figure for sentences of different lengths; if any of the other five measures had proved to be invariant with sentence length, that would have implied some mechanism controlling global tree shape, separate from the class of allowable productions.  Thus the finding may represent good news for computational tractability.

            Admittedly, even the invariance of RP might require an explanation in nonlocal terms, if the grammatical structures to be explained were to incorporate the singulary branching which was eliminated from the modified SUSANNE Corpus (3, (vi) above).  For instance, if pronouns are introduced into clauses via rules which rewrite clause categories as sequences including the category ‘noun phrase’ at different points, and separate rules which rewrite ‘noun phrase’ alternatively as a pronoun or a multi-word sequence, then a probabilistic context-free grammar could not ensure that subjects are commonly pronouns and that multi-word noun phrases occur much more often clause-finally.  But the grammar of English could be defined without singulary branching, by using rules in which e.g. pronouns occur directly in the expansions of clause categories.

            It is interesting that the invariant measure is RP rather than NP.  One interpretation of this finding might perhaps be that sentences are not in practice constructed by choosing the words they are to contain and then organizing those words into a suitable grammatical structure; rather, the grammatical structures are chosen independently of sentence-length considerations, and the expansion process terminates simply because productions having no nonterminals to the right of the arrow have a certain probability and hence will sooner or later be chosen.[10]

            It is hard to accept that the consistent mean left-branching figure for English productions could be caused by a fixed limit to the number of items held in the speaker’s/writer’s short-term memory, as Yngve argued:  that mechanism would give invariant RD rather than invariant RP figures.  If the language used low frequency of left-branching productions (that is, productions which add one to the Yngvean depth of the words ultimately dominated by their left-branching daughter node) as a strategy to avoid generating trees containing words deeper than some fixed limit such as seven, it would be a very inefficient strategy:  most words would be at a depth much less than the limit, ‘wasting’ available memory, and even so there would occasionally be a violation of the limit.  I suggest that fixed numerical limits may play little role in the psychological processing of language.

            It would be interesting to discover whether the different incidence of Yngvean depth found in languages such as Japanese and Turkish can equally be accounted for by left-branching production frequencies fixed at different language-specific values.


8.         Summary

We have seen that Yngve was right in saying that English grammatical usage embodies a systematic bias against left-branching constructions.  But corpus evidence of a kind that has become available only since Yngve published his hypothesis suggests that the nature of that bias is rather different from what Yngve seems to have supposed.  It is not that English enforces a left-branching depth maximum which is frequently reached but never exceeded.  Rather, there is a specific probability of including a left-branching nonterminal category among the immediate constituents of a construction; this probability is independent of the wider sentence structure within which the construction is embedded, but because the probability is small the incidence of words at different depths becomes lower, and eventually vanishingly low, at greater depths.






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            Depth      Words

            0                 7851

            1               30798

            2               34352

            3               26459

            4               16753

            5                 9463

            6                 4803

            7                 2125

            8                   863

            9                   313

            10                 119

            11                   32

            12                     4

            13                     1

            14+                  0


               Table 1

Depth counts by Yngve’s definition





            Depth      Words

            0               55866

            1               64552

            2               12164

            3                 1274

            4                     76

            5                       4

            6+                    0


               Table 2

Depth counts by revised definition





              RD          ND             RP             NP             RR            NR

mean    0.73            0.067         0.094         0.20           0.10           0.12

s.d.      0.19            0.023         0.0038       0.0091       0.0075       0.020

r           0.96          –0.93           0.093       –0.61         –0.83         –0.88


                                                   Table 3

Distribution of mean structural asymmetry at different sentence lengths, for six measures of asymmetry


Raw Depth-Based Measure (RD):  word depth (by definition (3)), averaged over the words of a sentence

Raw Production-Based Measure (RP):  proportion of the daughters of a nonterminal node which are themselves nonterminal and nonrightmost, averaged over the nonterminals of a sentence

Raw Realization-Based Measure (RR):  proportion of the words dominated by a nonterminal which are also dominated by a lower nonterminal that is not the rightmost daughter, averaged over the nonterminals of a sentence

Normalized Measures (ND, NP, NR):  for each sentence the corresponding raw measure is converted to a number between 0 and 1 by dividing by the largest possible raw figure for a sentence of the same length







School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences

University of Sussex

Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH







[1]Computer scientists’ quantitative measures of tree structure (e.g. Knuth 1973: 451ff., Aho et al. 1974: 167 Ex. 4.33) specify the extent to which a tree departs from perfect ‘balance’ where the paths between terminal nodes and root are all the same length:  this affects the efficiency of algorithms which access data held in tree structures.  These measures ignore the extent to which departures from balance occur in one direction rather than the other, which is the topic of the present paper but is not normally significant in a computing context.


[2]The SUSANNE Corpus was produced by a project sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK), reference no. R000 23 1142, using a resource developed earlier by Alvar Ellegård of the University of Gothenburg (Ellegård 1978).  The Corpus is distributed free of charge by anonymous ftp [via Sampson’s Resources page – link replacing out-of-date information in original text].


[3]Although SUSANNE contains only a fraction of the Brown Corpus material, if the latter is accepted as a ‘fair cross-section’ of the language there is some reason to see SUSANNE as comparably representative:  it contains equal quantities of prose from each of the four broad genre categories established by Hofland & Johansson (1982: 22-27) from objective evidence.


[4]Likewise, provided one agrees that grammatical structure can be represented in terms of labelled trees, I believe it is not important for what follows whether one takes the trees to be defined by unitary phrase-structure rules, by separate immediate-dominance and linear-precedence constraints, or otherwise.  The conclusions certainly would be affected if one held a view of English grammar such as that attributed by Stabler (1991: 200) to ‘Steedman and others’ (see e.g. Steedman 1989: 466), according to which English syntax is based on left-branching structures.  But I am not aware of any support whatever for such an analysis from literature whose primary focus is on the empirical facts of English, rather than on theories of psychological processing.  If this view were accepted, it would be difficult to explain why most linguists take it as a truism that English and Japanese, for instance, have widely-different overall syntactic architectures.


[5]Misprinted as Consitutional in the source text from which the Brown Corpus was compiled.


[6]Note that the YC nodes dominating commas, being punctuation nodes, were eliminated from the modified Corpus used in this study.


[7]The respective scores are as follows:


                                                                           (8)             (9)           (10)


               depth-based                                       1.50           1.00           0.67

               production-based                               0.20           0.25           0.17

               realization-based                                0.327         0.325         0.333


I illustrate the calculations for the case of tree (9).  For the depth-based measure, the nonterminals having younger sisters are the two lowest, hence the depth (by definition (4)) of the leaf nodes in left-to-right sequence is 0, 2, 2, 1, 1, 0 total 6, averaged over six leaves gives 1.00.  For the production-based measure, the left-branching nodes are again the two lowest nonterminals, hence the proportion of left-branching daughters for the nonterminals in sequence from the root downwards is 0, 0.5, 0.5, 0:  average 0.25.  For the realization-based measure, the relevant proportions of words for the nonterminals in sequence from the root downwards are 0/6, 4/5, 2/4, 0/2:  average 0.325.


[8]Some of the short ‘sentences’ in the SUSANNE Corpus consist of material such as prices shown numerically which, like ‘headings’ (see 3 above), can scarcely be seen as representing natural language structure in the ordinary sense.


[9]My discussion (like Yngve’s) has assumed a phrase-structure representation of sentence grammar, in which all the words of a sentence are associated with terminal nodes of a tree structure, and nonterminal nodes are labelled with grammatical categories.  It would be interesting to consider whether generalizations about depth in English would be affected if one chose a dependency representation of grammatical structure (Tesnière 1965), in which nonterminal as well as terminal nodes are associated with words, and the mother/daughter relationship between nodes represents the head/modifier rather than the whole/part relationship.  A dependency tree is notationally equivalent to a phrase-structure tree in which one daughter of each nonterminal node is marked as head, so facts about depth in phrase-structure trees should be mechanically translatable into facts about dependency trees.  But the respective statements would not necessarily be equally straightforward it might be that the facts about depth in English are more naturally stated in terms of one notation rather than the other; and conceivably the availability of headship information in dependency trees could permit generalizations to be stated in a stronger form lacking a translation into phrase-structure notation.  I have not pursued these issues.


[10]Booth & Thompson (1973) have shown that it is possible to construct pathological probabilistic context-free grammars which give a more than infinitesimal probability for derivations to expand endlessly without terminating, but this is surely more a mathematical curiosity than a finding relevant to natural language:  if English can be described by a probabilistic grammar, it will presumably be a non-pathological grammar.