Subordination as a potential marker of complexity in serious and popular fiction: A corpus stylistic approach to the testing of literary critical claims

Rocio Montoro, Dan McIntyre

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


In this paper, we use a corpus stylistic methodology to investigate whether serious (i.e., ‘literary’) fiction is syntactically more complex than popular (i.e., ‘genre’) fiction. This is on the basis of literary critical claims that the structural complexity of serious fiction is one of the features that distinguishes it from popular literature (which, by contrast, is seen as easier to read). We compare the serious and popular fiction sections of the Lancaster Speech, Writing and Thought Presentation corpus (see Semino and Short, 2004) against various samples of the British National Corpus available in Wmatrix (Rayson, 2009), focussing particularly (though not exclusively) on the identification of subordinating conjunctions. We find that, on this measure, there is no basis for claiming that serious fiction is any more complex syntactically than popular fiction. We then investigate the issue in relation to a specific genre of popular fiction, Chick Lit. Here we find that while syntactic simplicity exists, this is at a phrasal rather than a clausal level. We argue that by using a corpus stylistic approach we are able to qualify accurately certain literary critical claims about syntactic complexity as a distinguishing feature of serious and popular fiction, and to propose a refined hypothesis which might be used in further studies of the syntactic structures used in these two text types.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)275-299
Number of pages25
Issue number3
Early online date1 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019


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