I’m an English teacher who often has to grapple with explaining to students the complexity of clause structure in English, and after reading an article about various ‘longest sentences’ in fiction, I got to wondering if anyone has ever done any research into the cognitive limitations or constraints on the amount of nesting an average reader can understand.
That’s the basic question: is there any research on what our nested clause comprehension limits are?
But there are loads of related questions that might be relevant here, too, like:
How many embedded clauses can you insert in a main clause before the latter element ceases to make sense?
Is there a fixed limit on the amount of nesting we can follow?
How different are English speakers in their ability to track meaning across clauses?
Susumu Kuno has reported on this in a number of works. Here are a few references in McCawley’s excellent text on the linguistic analysis of English.