19 May 2022


Applied Syntactic complexity in L1 and L2 writing: Does the syntactic complexity of native and non-native college-level English writers differ?

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Economic globalization has led to an increase in the use of English as a second language. The number of English second language speakers are more than the native speakers by a ratio of four to one (Sarwar et al., 2020). The field of linguistics has evolved and can be argued to have evolved from foreign and second language learning. One of the main areas of focus when studying foreign language is in writing skills and development. Writing has always been considered a challenge for both first language (L1) and second language (L2) learners. Several differences exist in the nature of language by English as a First Language (EFL) and English as a Second Language (ESL). Academic writing is also an advanced form of writing that can be a challenge for second language learners. Research on second language L2 writing has flourished with the growing use of English as a lingua franca (Wu et al., 2020). Syntactic complexity has been a significant measure of the second language (L2) writing development and proficiency. The analysis draws on the first language (L1) writing proficiency. Syntactic complexity can be defined as the intricacy in the use of grammar for language construction. Some of the measures of syntactic complexity include the length of clauses, T-unit lengths, and sentences lengths (Jiang et al., 2019). The analysis of the differences in L1 and L2 writing should examine whether the writers from the specific backgrounds are different. In case of differences in their writing, factors that lead to the differences should be analyzed. This paper analyzes the difference in syntactic complexity between L1 and L2 writing, showing a difference in sentence length, T-Units length, clauses length. Factors that impacted syntactic complexity among L1 and L2 writers included the background, the specific genre and the writing topic.

Syntactic complexity relates to the rule of a language. Complexity in linguistics has been used to refer to specific aspects of a language that can make communication easier or simpler (De Clercq & Housen, 2017). Syntactic complexity thus relates to the sophistication in the syntax of grammatical resources used in language production. Research on L2 writing has predominantly used length as a performance measure to capture the overall syntactic complexity and understand the difference in complexity across different proficiency levels. The different dimensions used to identify syntactic complexity include the length of production units, phrasal complexity, subordination complexity, and coordination complexity (Yoon, 2017). These differences can be reflected among learners with different proficiency levels. Most syntactic complexity measures (SCMs) use mean T-unit, the total words in a clause, and the total number of clauses in a T-unit. A T-unit, the smallest terminable unit, is identified as the shortest sentence that a specific sentence can be split to make grammatical sense (Jagaiah et al., 2020). Such a split can be undertaken by inserting periods and capital letters in a sentence (Zeng, 2021). The mean length of the T-unit is predominantly used to quantify the structural complexity of writing, where a longer T-unit mean length indicates a more structurally complex sentence. In contrast, a shorter T-unit mean length indicates a less structurally complex sentence.

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Native and non-native English writing (background information)

Native and non-native writing have been studied to determine differences in their styles of writing. Native English speakers can be understood as individuals that grew up speaking and writing English as their first and primary language (Fokes et al., 2019). On the other hand, non-native English speakers can be understood as individuals that acquired English as an additional language after a prior establishment of another first language. A native speaker learned the language through a natural setting by hearing their parents speak, while the non-native speaker learned the English language when one was an older child or an adult. Native and non-native speakers have been studied to identify patterns in their grammar and vocabulary (Hartshorne et al., 2018). Native speakers have been generally perceived to have a rich vocabulary of idioms and slang and can understand the best time to use certain phrases and words depending on the context. The general grammar and complexity of writing have also been different between the native and non-native writers.

Native speakers have had several years of practice using and interacting with their first language in different circumstances. Non-native speakers often lack a similar level of complexity by practicing the language in a lesser amount (Brysbaert et al., 2021). However, non-native speakers may strive to improve their writing styles and enrich their writing to make it more competitive. The writing styles of non-native speakers can also be influenced significantly by their backgrounds (Calafato, 2019). Native and non-native speakers have different levels of language practice and proficiency. The analysis of the syntactic complexity between native and non-native writers is critical to understand whether how one learned a specific language and their specific backgrounds can influence the complexity of some of their words.

Native and non-natives have a difference in certain stylistic features in their writing. Writing is a means where one presents their thoughts in a graphic form. Effective writing will preserve the linguistic message and accurately represent various thoughts in the correct graphical form (Jurgens et al., 2017). Native writers have been found to have no problem presenting their thoughts through writing. However, most non-native writers can sometimes get stuck when presenting their thoughts in writing. The thought processing for natives and non-natives in the process of writing is thus somewhat different (Lambert & Nakamura, 2019). The difference in thought processing can influence whether someone will use certain words, phrases, and sentences. The analysis of the differences in syntactic complexity between native and non-native writers should reveal whether there is a difference in the thought-processing between the two groups.

The comparison in the syntactic complexity in English as a lingua franca (ELF) and American English (AmE) can be used to understand the differences in the syntactic complexity of native and non-native English languages. The use of English as a lingua franca can be attributed to non-native speakers. On the other hand, American English can be regarded as the language spoken by native speakers. English as a lingua franca refers to the use of English all over the world and its use as an international language. ELF by non-native speakers contains significant variation and differs considerably from the English spoken by native speakers (Wu et al., 2020). The difference could be caused by an imperfect learning of the English language or the native speakers could disregard various forms of grammar they consider redundant. There are various innovations on the English language that can ultimately have an effect on the writing skills.

The comparison of bilingual and non-bilingual learners can provider a further understanding to native and non-native learners. Bilingual learners were identified to be individuals that have two native languages and could be regarded as non-native language learners, while non-bilingual language learners could be regarded as individuals that have one native language and could be regarded as native language learners (Lahuerta, 2017). Bilingual non-native English speakers could have spoken the English language as the second language and non-bilingual native English speakers spoke English as their first language. A comparison was conducted between the bilingual and non-bilingual groups to reveal whether there is an increase in the phrasal elaboration and clausal coordination between the two groups. The results revealed that syntactic complexity was generally higher among the bilingual and non-native group.

Native and non-native English speakers have different backgrounds. The predominant background of native English speakers could be citizens from countries like the United States of America (USA), United Kingdom, Ireland, and Canada (Lu & Ai, 2015). On the other hand, the background of non-native English speakers varies widely as it could be individuals from any other part of the world. The specific country of origin and backgrounds of L1 writers impacted the syntactic complexity due to the structure of the languages. Some languages have similar structures and could be placed in a single group. For instance, the Russian, German, French, and Bulgarian languages fit in similar groups, and they exhibit closer patterns (Lu & Ai, 2015). Different non-native English language speakers can thus be placed into similar groups.

Variation in syntactic complexity (background information)

Variation in syntactic complexity could result from differences in the individual learners, i.e. motivation, personality or social background. The variation could also be caused by the individual level regarding the stage of language development and proficiency. Other factors that could lead to the variation include external factors like the task modality, genre of tasks, and the target language (Kuiken et al., 2019). Task modality, the presentation of a task orally or in a written format, can lead to the variation of syntactic complexity. The variation can also be encountered with the task type, where differences can be observed in instructional, argumentative, problem-solving, and descriptive tasks. Different genres like narratives, argumentative essays, newspapers, drama, and fiction can differ in their syntactic complexity. The target language and previous languages of learners can influence the syntactic complexity. Such differences can become more apparent at higher language levels.

The variation of syntactic complexity among non-native writers varies based on their backgrounds. Syntactic complexity of L2 writing cannot be analyzed without critically considering the L1 backgrounds of the writers. Learners from different L1 backgrounds may not develop in the same way in the area of syntactic complexity (Lu & Ai, 2015). The difference in the backgrounds of L1 and L2 learners could also impact the development of syntactic complexity. Specific differences can be observed in the various elements of syntactic complexity when the specific L1 backgrounds of the writers are observed. One cannot separate language from one’s cultural background. Syntactic complexity is highly influenced by one’s background. Native English writers will reflect their cultural backgrounds like food, lifestyle, ceremonies, and dressing (Lu & Ai, 2015). On the other hand, non-native writers could be influenced by their first language in spelling and syntactical structure. A study of how the first language impacts the learning and use of a second or third language, specifically the syntactic complexity, could determine whether the interference of the first language is positive or negative.

The data from native speakers also showed similar patterns in the genre effects. Yoon and Pool (2017) further analyzed data on two different genres. The hypothesis was if the native writers presented similar differences in complexity as L2 writers, it could be explained that the difference was due to the cognitive factors required in writing production among L2 writers. Instead, it could be observed that the writers required different functions when communicating. The findings from the study revealed that the native speakers revealed similar genre effects like the L2 writers. There was a general improvement in the unit-length intricacy in the argumentative essays but no differences when considering the clause measurements (Yoon & Polio, 2017). Functional differences thus led to a change in the syntactic complexity between L1 and L2 writing and the genre changes.

Syntactic complexity development was identified to be influenced by different factors like educational context, topic, genre and background. The variation in syntactic complexity can also be caused by genre effects. Genre can be defined as the specific categories that distinguish literature based on some stylistic criteria. Some examples of genre can include poetry, drama, works of prose, fictional works, and non-fiction (Yoon & Polio, 2017). The variation in syntactic complexity can reveal whether L2 writers and L1 writers have differences in syntactic complexity when writing different genres. Ortega (2015) established that L2 writing had a greater complexity and development because a large amount of L2 writing usually occurs in an educational context. The result is that the development of instruction and complexity of L2 writing can be generally higher compared to L1 writing. Ortega (2015) further observed that the syntactic complexity of L2 writing increased since the language resources of having an additional language is more mature over time. The research further observed that other factors like L1 backgrounds, writing quality, and genre could impact the syntactic complexity of L2 language learners. The study of syntactic complexity among L2 learners and writers should be analyzed based on different factors like the nature of writing and the background of the individual.

Proficiency level impacted the syntactic complexity of the L2 writers. Proficiency could be described as a measure of advancement in the general writing skills and level used by the writers. For instance, the proficiency level can vary from an intermediate B1 level to an upper B2 intermediate writing for students. Another example of proficiency level could include secondary and college level writing. The comparison of syntactic complexity among the different writing levels could reveal whether syntactic complex among L1 and L2 writers varies based on writing level. The analysis of variation in syntactic complexity could reveal whether there is an increase in the level of sentence composition and coordination from the lower level to higher proficiency levels (Lahuerta, 2018). Higher proficiency levels are expected to show higher syntactic complexity since higher levels of writing are expected to have greater learning maturity.

Studies on syntactic complexity in L1 and L2 writing

English as a Lingua Franca

The comparison in the syntactic complexity in English as a lingua franca (ELF) and American English (AmE) can be used to understand the differences in the syntactic complexity of native and non-native English languages. Wu et al. (2020) undertook a quantitative study to examine the overall sentence complexity between AmE and ELF research articles. The backgrounds of the non-native writers were from the Chinese backgrounds. The participants were examined across dimensions like the length of production units, phrasal complexity, subordination complexity, and coordination complexity. The results revealed significant differences in nine factors used to compare the different dimensions of complexity. The study found that ELF writers, identified as non-native writers, predominantly used clauses and sentences that were longer. The research also revealed that there was a general increase in syntactic complexity where the ELF writers had improved coordination and complex phrases compared to the AmE native writers.

The production unit lengths especially sentence lengths and clause lengths were also higher in the ELF group. Wu et al. (2020) observed that ELF research articles had lengthier sentences and clauses as the observation is a characteristic of academic articles. Scientific writers in the ELF field wrote their English in a different manner when compared to AmE users. One of the reasons for the difference was that published research articles for ELF writers require tighter writing than those used by AmE writers. Wu et al. (2020) established that non-native writers used more advanced coordination at the sentential and phrasal levels compared to native writers. The higher use of coordination was identified to be a characteristic in the ELF research.

Differences in Backgrounds

The research on the difference in the syntactic complexity was attributed to the differences in the backgrounds of second English learners. Lu and Ai (2015) examined 200 essays submitted by both native and non-native speaker students. The students wrote argumentative essays and were from different first-language backgrounds. The seven L1 backgrounds analyzed included German, Bulgarian, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Tswana. The results showed that ignoring the learners’ L1 background led to few differences in three measures between the native and non-native groups. Grouping the learners based on their L1 backgrounds led to differences in 14 measures for the two groups. The results showed that considering the L1 backgrounds of the NNS groups increased the syntactic complexity differences in the L1 and L2 learners.

Genre Effects

The differences in the syntactic complexity between native and second language speakers could be attributed to the genre differences. Yoon and Polio (2017) examined the linguistic development among ESL students in two written genres of narrative genres and non-narrative genres. Narrative genres involve a description of events by focusing different descriptions like time and actions. The non-narrative genre focuses on discussing ideas in a logical fashion with the aim of making an argument. The study analyzed argumentative and narrative essays written by 37 students where all the students spoke English as a second language (Yoon & Polio, 2017). A critical analysis of the essays was done to reveal differences in the advancement and whether there are differences of genre. The aim of the authors was to determine genre variations between native and non-native speakers to show whether the differences are functional or developmental.

L2 writers were also found to have increased complexity in non-narrative essays over narrative writings. Similar differences were also observed in L1 writers. Both groups used less frequent and longer words in the argumentative genre, and they had an increase in the diversity of their words in the narrative genre. Native writers thus presented similarities in genre effects as like the L2 writers. However, when considering the differences in the L2 and L1 writers, the L2 writers showed higher complexity for the same genre in both the narrative and non-narrative writing genres (Yoon & Polio, 2017). The authors observed that the implication from the findings is that L2 writers should not be limited to simple narratives that are perceived to be easier but should also be considered for more complex writing as they showed higher levels of syntactic complexity.

Bilingual and Non-Bilingual Programs

The analysis of the differences in the syntactic complexity between bilingual and non-bilingual learners revealed that bilingual language learners had a greater syntactic complexity. Lahuerta (2017) examined whether there was a difference in syntactic complexity among bilingual and non-bilingual students. The essays of 393 students were examined by evaluating measures of syntactic complexity. The measures of syntactic complexity used were the phrasal, clausal, and sentential level. The analysis of the essays was done by evaluating the selection of syntactic complexity and a further examination of the sentence structures.

The bilingual group had higher writing complexity across all levels of syntactic complexity compared to the non-bilingual group. Lahuerta (2017) revealed that the sentences produced by the bilingual groups was significantly longer, and the students had advanced phrases compared to the non-bilingual groups. While the sentences of the bilingual groups were simple and more compound, further analysis revealed that the sentences had compound-complex elements. The bilingual group used more coordinated clauses and subordinate clauses in a sentence. The conclusion to derive from the studies was that syntactic complexity varies between the bilingual and non-bilingual groups. Such differences could infer that there are differences in the syntactic complexity between the native and non-native writers.


L1 and L2 writing could be analyzed to determine how the difference in topic and discourse could impact the syntactic complexity and quality of writing. Yang et al. (2015) examined how syntactic complexity varies with the topic among ESL speakers. The study examined 190 students where each was given a non-narrative assignment on two topics. Human raters then examined the two topics to reveal construct and sub-construct differences to show differences in syntactic complexity. The study established that the topic chosen was significant in determining the syntactic complexity of the writing. One of the topics led to higher subordination and an increase in the level of global sentence complexity compared to another topic. The analysis of the development of L1 and L2 writing with syntactic quality led to the observation that an increase in the syntactic complexity led to an overall increase in the writing quality.

Educational Context

One of the factors that led to greater complexity in L2 writing is its educational context. Ortega (2015) examined five studies in the Journal of Second Language Writing (JSLW) on the basis of four themes of syntactic complexity. The researcher also sought to examine how L1 development can influence the syntactic complexity of the writers. A further analysis was conducted on L2 writing to determine how genre and proficiency could impact the development of syntactic complexity. The main research question developed by the researcher was how syntactic complexity continually grows and the specific factors that could impact the growth of syntactic complexity. The author also sought to answer the best approach that could be used to measure syntactic complexity.

Proficiency Level 

The proficiency level among L1 and L2 writing both led to a difference in the syntactic complexity of their writing. Lahuerta (2018) examined the difference in the syntactic complexity in undergraduate students grouped as intermediate and upper-intermediate level. The participants considered for the study were from Spanish backgrounds. A total of 200 Spanish undergraduates that had enrolled in a Degree in English studies were chosen for the study. 101 students were at the intermediate B1 level and 99 students at the upper intermediated B2 level. The analysis of complexity measures for the L2 writers was critical to determine whether syntactic complexity measures could be used to capture the writing changes for the different proficiency levels among different writers.


The findings from the studies showed that the L2 writers had a greater syntactic complexity compared to L1 writers. Native and non-native writing was compared across different dimensions like bilingual and non-bilingual groups and English as a lingua franca. The results revealed that the bilingual group that spoke several languages had higher syntactic measures than the non-bilingual group (Lahuerta, 2017). The results could be used to conclude that non-native writers that spoke more than one language had greater syntactic complexity. The speaking of English as lingua franca also revealed that it was associated with syntactic complexity. ELF writers used longer sentences and longer clauses, indicating higher complexity. Structural differences in grammar were evident in syntactic measures like coordinate clauses. Native writers used simple and shorter sentences while the sentences produced by the non-native groups were relatively longer and more complex. The conclusion was that non-native writers could find English writing more demanding and resorted to greater complexity.

The implication for the results is that L2 writers should not be considered as lower-level writers but should be considered to have the same writing abilities as L1 writers. In the past, non-native writers have been regarded to use simple English and have thus been given simple narratives. The findings also showed that L2 writers at the lower levels of writing showed greater syntactic complexity compared to L1 writers at higher levels (Yoon & Polio, 2017). L2 writers should not be limited to simple-level writings like narratives that are perceived to be easier. L2 students are capable of producing more complex languages and should be considered for assignments that require more complex language. The writers used more linguistic resources that made their writing clear and explicit.

The higher syntactic complexity in L2 writing compared to L1 writing could be explained by the need to improve communication, clarity, and explicitness among L2 writers. According to Wu et al. (2020), L2 writers using ELF resolved to using lengthier sentences to improve the nature of communication in their writing. Most L2 writers engaged in scientific research articles, and they had the pressure of improving communication through their writing. The information on the nature of research, research subjects, and research questions was done in a long sentence to improve communication efficiency. L2 writers had greater syntactic complexity by using coordinate adjectives to modify nouns or noun phrases to add greater clarity to their writing. Adjectives provided more information that clarified nouns and specified the meanings of some words. Noun premodifiers were also frequently used along with coordinate adjectives in social science and humanities as a strategy to enhance clarity. The use of noun positive modifiers in complex nominals was observed in ELF writing as a means to improve the explicitness of the writing. Having preposition phrases led to more complex nominals, minimizing the burden of meaning processing. Prepositional words are usually more advanced but clearer in their meaning compared to premodifiers.

The explanation for the increase in the complexity of L2 writing could be caused by the fact that L2 writers felt that they were less proficient in the language and saw a need to improve communication efficiency, clarity, and explicitness in their writing. Most L2 writing also took place in the educational context, where there was a general increase in the overall complexity of their writing. L2 writers thus used longer sentences to improve the efficiency of their communication (Ortega, 2015). The aim was that a reader that goes through their writing would easily comprehend the word by reading a few sentences. L2 writing also strived to improve clarity and explicitness by incorporating coordinate adjectives and prepositional phrases. Coordinate adjectives brought more clarity to nouns and pronouns, while prepositional phrases improved the explicitness in their work. On the other hand, L1 writing took place in both educational and non-educational contexts, and they did not feel the need to improve the general clarity or explicitness of their work. The result was that L1 writing had a lower syntactic complexity compared to L2 writing.

The L1 backgrounds impacted several syntactic complexity measures like unit lengths, sentential coordination, subordination, and phrasal sophistication. Advanced writers from certain L1 backgrounds can produce longer and more complex sentences compared to writers from other L1 backgrounds. The awareness of how the backgrounds of writers impact their syntactic complexity can help teachers understand the differences in the syntactic complexity of each of their students. Lu and Ai (2015) determined that French and Bulgarian non-native groups produced sentences, clauses, and T-units similar to the native group. The Russian group produced shorter clauses compared to the native group. The German L1 speakers had relatively longer sentences, T-units, and clauses compared to the NS group. They were identified to have the highest level of proficiency, and they had higher syntactic complexity in other measures like sentential and phrasal coordination. Teachers handling students from different backgrounds should consider their L1 backgrounds to critically understand the writing needs of the students.

The analysis of the literature revealed that the syntactic complexity of both L1 and L2 writing is impacted by different factors like genre, topic, and proficiency level. The argumentative writing genre had higher syntactic complexity compared to the narrative writing genre. The topic also impacted the syntactic complexity, where advanced topics had greater syntactic complexity among the two groups of writers (Yang et al., 2015). An increase in the proficiency level also increased the syntactic complexity of the two groups. The implication of the findings is that a comparison of the syntactic complexity among native and non-native writers would consider similar genres, topics, and proficiency levels. Ensuring similarities in the given factors would ensure that there are no other factors that could lead to a difference in the data between the two groups. The analysis also revealed a general improvement in the quality of writing as syntactic complexity increased among both L1 and L2 writers. The findings imply that syntactic complexity leads to advancement in writing through the improvement in the linguistic resources.

An increase in the syntactic complexity led to an increase in the quality of writing among native and non-native writers. Ortega (2015) established that syntactic complexity grows with an increase in linguistic development. The increase in syntactic complexity thus led to a difference in writing, and it improved the general quality of writing. The improvement in syntactic complexity improved the ability of the writers to use additional language and it showed a general improvement in language maturity. The writers can communicate better and with additional rhetorical flexibility.

Further analysis also revealed that low-level bilingual learners outperformed higher level bilingual and non-bilingual learners in syntactic complexity. Lahuerta (2017) further examined how third graders bilingual learners performed when compared to non-bilingual learners. The findings showed that the third graders bilingual learners had higher levels of syntactic complexity and had a greater quality of composition compared to the non-bilingual learners. The measures of subordination and coordination were relatively higher among fourth graders compared to the third graders writing. The results showed that there were positive effects of bilingual education as it led to greater performance among the students.

The analysis of the syntactic complexity between L1 and L2 writing revealed that genre differences impacted both the syntactic complexity of L1 and L2 writers. Yoon and Polio (2017) revealed that there were big genre differences in linguistic complexity. The authors established that there were similar patterns in the genre effects with the L2 writers where there was an increase in the unit length complexity in argumentative genre but no differences in the clause-level measures. Both the L1 and L2 groups used less common and longer words in the non-narrative writing compared to the words in narratives. However, the results on the phrase-level complexity were mixed and were not statistically significant.


The analysis revealed that L2 writing had a higher syntactic complexity compared to L1 writing. Non-native college-level English writers had higher levels of syntactic complexity compared to native writers. L2 writers showed greater levels of syntactic complexity across all levels of the length of sentences, complexity, coordination, complexity by subordination, and complexity by phrasal elaboration. There was a variation in some studies where no differences were observed in some levels of complexity. The reasons for the differences were attributed to the L1 background of the English learners. The significant differences in the syntactic complexity between the native and non-native groups can be used to improve the performance of writing for the two groups of writers. Additional systems can be integrated for educational applications to provide a customized learning process for writers from different backgrounds. The study revealed a need to conduct further research on more backgrounds to show the differences in syntactic complexity among people from several other backgrounds that have not been adequately studied. A further analysis of the difference in the L1 and L2 writing for the students when writing different genres can also be used to understand the difference in syntactic complexity.

The recommendation from the analysis of syntactic complexity of L1 and L2 writing is that there is a need to consider the diversity of learners in writing. The analysis of differences in syntactic complexity revealed greater diversity and writing variety among L2 writers. L2 writing has a greater variety and diversity that led to further development of syntactic complexity features. L2 writers efficiently improved the syntactic complexity of their writing based on the given topics. L2 writers could improve their syntactic complexity as L2 writing development is generally judged as the ability of writers to improve their linguistic complexity. The L2 writers had greater linguistic resources, and the result was that they attained greater diversity and sophistication in the use of their language. The writers met the demands of the given tasks and also went beyond what was expected of them by enriching their discourse through the use of complex constructions.

The implication for the findings is that non-native writers should be regarded to have a rather advanced language ability. The research showed that ELF writing generally takes place with more advanced topics and greater sophistication and led to an increase in the syntactic complexity. The future research should further explore the differences in syntactic complexity among L1 and L2 writers and identify why the differences exist. Future research could also focus on using more participants to ensure reliability and validity of the results. The research showed that non-native writing generally takes place with more advanced topics and greater sophistication and led to an increase in the syntactic complexity. Different cultures have different language structures, leading to a difference in the syntactic complexity among the non-native writers. Further research should specifically identify the background differences and why it leads to differences in syntactic complexity. Based on the concept of syntactic complexity, L2 writers could be identified to use more linguistic resources compared to native writers.


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StudyBounty. (2023, September 15). Applied Syntactic complexity in L1 and L2 writing: Does the syntactic complexity of native and non-native college-level English writers differ?.


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