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Volume 13 Number 1, Spring 2016, Pages 1-71 PDF Download

Noun Phrase Complexity in EFL Academic Writing: A Corpus-Based Study of Postgraduate Academic Writing

    Liming Liu & Lan Li

Noun phrase (NP) centered structures are distinctive syntactic devices in academic discourse. The commonly employed subordination-based complexity measures cannot adequately capture the development of syntactic complexity of noun phrases expected of advanced student academic writing (Biber, Gray, & Poonpon, 2011). Following the call for more research in this area (e.g. Lu, 2011, p. 57), the current study compared noun phrase complexity in two corpora: one is a corpus of MA dissertations written by Chinese EFL students and the other comprises published research articles in applied linguistics journals. The study examined overall noun phrase complexity using an automatic syntactic complexity analyzer and specifically identified features of one aspect of NP complexity: NP postmodification. The quantitative results were further contextualized in a textual analysis of excerpts from the two corpora for demonstrating the significance of NP complexity to the establishment of discourse coherence. Results of the analyses showed significant underdevelopment of NP postmodification complexity in student writing relative to published texts, meanwhile explicating the circumstances under which the difference is meaningful. Implications of the findings for the teaching of EFL academic writing were also discussed.

Keywords: syntactic complexity, noun phrase complexity, postmodification, EFL academic writing, contrastive corpus analysis