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Long Distance Movement of Sentence Elements

Another factor affecting the relative difficulty of various English language structures is the distance that sentence elements appear to have moved from their logical positions within the sentence. For example, in questions and other structures in which a WH-word or phrase occurs (who, what, whose computer, which student, etc.), the WH-word or phrase must appear at the beginning of a clause.

In the question,

What have they read ____?

the WH-word what must appear at the beginning of the sentence. However, its logical position is the object position after the verb read, indicated by the line after read. We know that this is the logical position because, in an answer to the question, the object appears in the normal object position after the verb, as in

They have read the computer manual.

Research has shown that, in general, deaf students have greater difficulty with English structures in which a sentence element moves further to get to the beginning of the clause than structures in which a sentence element has not moved as far. Berent (1996b) found that deaf college students' success on WH-questions was associated with the distance between the WH-word and the particular position that the WH-word would occupy in a non-question.

For example, of the three WH-questions below, students were most successful in their knowledge of questions such as the first one, less successful on questions like the second, and least successful on questions like the third.

Who translated the sentence for the student?

Who did the student help ____ with the translation?

Who did the student say the teacher helped ____ with the translation?

In the first sentence, who represents the subject of the sentence so it already appears in its logical position before the verb translated. In the second sentence, who has moved to the beginning of the question from its logical object position after help. In the third sentence, who has moved even further from its logical position after the verb helped.