Date of Award


Level of Access

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Communication Sciences and Disorders


Nancy E. Hall

Second Committee Member

Judith L. Stickles

Third Committee Member

Julie Cheville


Syntactic complexity is important in many ways to constructing quality written texts, particularly during adolescence when students are required to communicate complex ideas through writing (Nippold, 2007). Attempts have been made to define the relationship of syntactic complexity to measures of writing quality; however results of such studies are mixed, potentially due to participant and methodological confounds (Beers & Nagy, 2009; Crowhurst, 1983). This project investigated the relationship between syntactic complexity and quality across two genres of writing: narrative and expository essays. The aims were to (1) determine what measure(s) of syntactic complexity indicate quality of writing in narratives and expository essays, and (2) determine whether measures of syntactic complexity indicate quality of writing differently in narrative versus expository genres. Essays were collected from 50 ninth grade students who attended the same public high school. Over two class periods, 25 students wrote narratives and 25 students wrote expository essays. A quality score was assigned to each essay by two raters using a six- point primary trait rubric. The following measures of syntactic complexity were used: mean length T-unit (sentence length), subordination index (number of clauses per sentence), mean clause length (number of words per clause), nominal, relative, and adverbial clause use, and percent grammatically correct T-units. Significant differences existed between narrative and expository syntactic complexity, with expository essays exhibiting greater subordination and relative clause use. Correlational analysis indicated that, among narratives, longer sentences and longer clauses were positively correlated with text quality. The relationship was different for expository essays—the use of adverbial clauses was positively correlated with quality. Moreover, for both narratives and expository essays, the presence of fewer grammatical errors was positively correlated to quality. Therefore, syntactic complexity was found to be related to writing quality; however, this relationship is dependent on genre and the measure used to quantify syntactic complexity. Explanation of the findings involved discussion of discourse-level influences on syntax and the gap between narrative and expository writing skill during adolescence.