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Mixed evidence for crosslinguistic dependency length minimization

  • Zoey Liu EMAIL logo


We investigate whether and to what extent the principle of Dependency Length Minimization (DLM) predicts crosslinguistic syntactic ordering preferences. More specifically, we ask: (i) is there a typological tendency for shorter constituents to appear closer to their syntactic heads in constructions with flexible constituent orderings? (ii) how does the extent of DLM in these constructions vary for languages with different structural characteristics? Our study uses prepositional and postpositional phrase (PP) typology as a testbed. Leveraging multilingual corpora for 34 languages, we focus on sentences with verb phrases that have exactly two PP dependents on the same side of the head verb, the ordering of which under certain conditions contains flexibility. Overall we show a pronounced preference for shorter PPs to be closer to the head verb, establishing the first large-scale quantitative evidence that DLM exists in crosslinguistic syntactic alternations. Furthermore, we present evidence that while the efficacy of DLM depends on the specific ordering structures of different language types, across languages there appears to be a much stronger preference for DLM when the two PPs appear postverbally, compared to no or a much weaker tendency for shorter dependencies when the two PPs occur preverbally. This contrast is the most visible in mixed-type languages with head-initial PPs that can appear both after or before the head verb. Within the limited number of rigid OV languages in our dataset, which have head-final PPs before the head verb, we observe no robust tendency for DLM, in contrast to the patterns in languages with head-initial PPs after the head verb. This contradicts previous findings of a longer-before-short preference in preverbal orders of head-final languages.

Corresponding author: Zoey Liu, Department of Linguistics, University of California, Davis One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA, E-mail:


We would like to thank Kenji Sagae, John Hawkins and Emily Morgan for their insightful comments and feedback on the manuscript.

  1. Notes: Part of the work in the paper has been accepted as two conference presentations in both the 2018 and 2019 Society for Computation in Linguistics (SCiL). The two extended abstracts for the presentations, titled Dependency Length Minimization and Lexical Frequency in Prepositional Phrase Ordering in English (2018) and Quantifying Structural and Lexical Constraints in PP Ordering Typology (2019) respectively, can be accessed online in the proceedings of SCiL. Since they are abstracts, they are not counted as archived publications.

Appendix Descriptive statistics of total VP instances

The number of total VP instances examined in each language under different case scenarios is presented below.

Table 2:

Descriptive statistics of total VP instances for languages with head-initial PPs after the head verb.

LanguageTotal VP instances
Table 3:

Descriptive statistics of total VP instances for Afrikaans, Persian and Chinese.

LanguageTotal VP instances
Table 4:

Descriptive statistics of total VP instances for languages with head-final PPs before the verb.

LanguageTotal VP instances
Table 5:

Descriptive statistics of total VP instances when head-initial PPs appear after the verb, in languages where head-initial PPs can also appear before the verb.

LanguageTotal VP instances
Table 6:

Descriptive statistics of total VP instances when head-initial PPs appear before the verb, in languages where head-initial PPs can also appear after the verb.

LanguageTotal VP instances


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