Document Type : Research Paper


Assistant Professor in TEFL, Alzahra University, Tehran, Iran


This paper focuses on errors made by Persian learners of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) when producing English headless relative clauses (RCs). Although English does not allow interrogative structure in headless RCs, Persian EFL learners tend to produce them in the interrogative form. In the course of the present research, potential sources of this error were explored, and eventually the Markedness Differential Hypothesis (MDH) showed to have more explanatory power, and made up the theoretical framework of the research. The oral and written corpus of the study was obtained in the course of two years through diverse sources from 137 female and male Iranian participants. The collected, naturally-occurring data yielded a pool of 126 ill-formed RCs, consisting of 85 (67.46%) ordinary headless, 25(19.84%) headed and 16 (12.69%) free headless RCs. Scrutiny into the data led to recognizing systematic errors in two main types (headless RC in subject or object position) and two subsidiary types (headless RC in subject position including copula verb) of English headless RCs. These systematic errors can be attributed to markedness differential hypothesis, not in the sense that the forms are different across the two languages, but because of the wider functionality of interrogative and declarative forms in English headless RCs, compared to Persian. This study calls for linguistic analysis of other facets of such systematic errors, more collaboration of linguists and language pedagogues to recognize and address learning problems, and studies on educational solutions for related problems.


Main Subjects

Abdollahnejad, E., & Marefat, H. (2018). Relative clauses in Persian: A small-scale corpus study. Lingvisticae Investigationes 40(2), 135-149.
Alizadeh, A., & Khaleghizadeh, S. (2015). Using relative clauses of subject-subject and subject-object: Comparison of the writings of Arab-speaking Persian learners in intermediate and advanced level. Journal of Teaching Persian to Speakers of Other Languages, 4(9), 59-78 [In Persian].
Azmude, H., Amuzade, M., & Rezaei, V. (2017). A study of relative clause extraposition in Persian based on discourse grammar. Journal of Language Research, 9(24), 59-85 [In Persian].
Bahrami, K. (2016). Comparison of Persian and German restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clauses. Language Related Researches, 7(2), 19-32 [In Persian].
Bresnan, J. (1973). Headless relatives. In H. V. Riemsdijk (Ed.), Free relatives (pp. 23-46). Oxford: Blackwell.
Bresnan, J., & Grimshaw, J. (1978). The syntax of free relatives in English. Linguistic Inquiry, 9(3), 331-391.
Brown, H. D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching. New York, NY: Pearson Education.
Bettoni, C., & Di Biase, B. (2015). Processability theory: Theoretical bases and universal schedules. In C. Bettoni, & B. Di Biase, (Eds.), Grammatical development in second languages: Exploring the boundaries of processability theory (pp. 19–80). Amsterdam: Eurosla.
Clahsen, H. (1984). The acquisition of German word order: A test case for cognitive approaches to L2 development. In R. Andersen (Ed.), Second languages: A crosslinguistic perspective (pp. 219-242). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Clark, H. H., & Clark, E. V. (1978). Universals, relativity and language processing. In J. Greenberg, C. A. Ferguson, & E. A. Moravcsik (Eds.), Universals of human language (pp. 225-77). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Comrie, B. (1996). Language universals and linguistic typology: Syntax and morphology. Oxford: Blackwell.
Crystal, D. (1992). An encyclopedic dictionary of language and languages. Oxford: Blackwell.
Dabir-Moghaddam, M. (1999). Theoretical linguistics: Emergence and development of general grammar. Tehran: Sokhan Publication [In Persian].
Eckman, F. R. (1977). Markedness and the contrastive analysis hypothesis. Language Learning, 27(2), 315-330.
Eckman, F. R. (1985). Some theoretical and pedagogical implications of the markedness differential hypothesis. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7, 289-307.
Eckman, F. R. (1996). A functional-typological approach to second language acquisition theory. In W. C. Ritchie, & T. K. Bhatia (Eds), Handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 92-112). New York, NY: Academic Press.
Eckman, F. R., Bell, L., & Nelson, D. (1988). On the generalization of relative clause instruction in the acquisition of English as a second language. Applied Linguistics 9(1), 1-20.
Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gennari, S. P., & McDonald, M. C. (2007). Semantic indeterminacy in object relative clauses. Journal of Memory and Language, 58(2008), 161-187.
Haegeman, L., & Gueron, J. (1999). English grammar: A generative perspective. Oxford: Blackwell.
Haghbin, F., & Asadi, H. (2015). A role and reference grammar analysis of relative clauses in Farsi. Language Research, 5(2), 21-41 [In Persian].
Hall, M., & Azar, B. (2010). Understanding and using English grammar. New York, NY: Pearson.
Jiang, Z., & Shao, C. (2006). Markedness in universal grammar and second language acquisition. US-China Education Review, 3(8), 41-62.
Kanno, K. (2007). Factors affecting the processing of Japanese relative clauses by L2 learners. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 29, 197-218.
Kasper, G., & Faerch, C. (1987). Perspectives on language transfer. Applied Linguistics, 8(2), 72-94.
Keenan, E. L., & Comrie, B. (1977). Noun phrase accessibility and universal grammar. Linguistic Inquiry, 8(1), 63-99.
Kellerman, E. (1979). Transfer and non-transfer: Where we are now. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 2, 37–57.
Khansir, A. A. (2012). Error analysis in second language acquisition. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(5), 1027-1032.
Kuroda, S.-Y. (1968). English relativization and certain related problems. Language, 44(2), 244-266.
Mackey, A. (1995). Stepping up the pace: Input, interaction and interlanguage development: An empirical study of questions in ESL (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Sydney, Australia.
Marefat, H., & Meraji, M. (2006). Parsing preferences in structurally ambiguous relative clauses: L1 vs. L2. The International Journal of Humanities of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 12(1), 111-127.
Miremadi, S. A. (1997). Persian syntax: A G. B-based analysis. Tehran: SAMT Publication.
Mohseni, A., & Samadian, S. (2019). Analysis of cohesion in writing performance of Iranian intermediate EFL learners. Issues in Language Teaching, 8(2), 213-242.
Mowlaei Kuhbanani, H., Alizade, A., & Sharifi, S. (2018). The role of typological features of relative clauses in Persian word order. Journal of Language Research, 10(28), 87-114 [In Persian].
Najafi, A. (1995). Application of ke in spoken Persian. Persian Academy Letter, 1(3), 7-19 [In Persian].
Pienemann, M. (1999). Language processing and second language development: Processability theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Pienemann, M. (2007). Processability Theory. In B. Van Patten, & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition (pp. 37–154). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pienemann, M., & Johnstone, M. (1987). Factors influencing the development of language proficiency. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Applying second language acquisition research (pp. 45-141). Adelaide: National Curriculum Resource Center.
Radford, A. (2004). English syntax: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rahmany, R., Marefat, H., & Kidd, E. (2013). Resumptive elements aid comprehension of object relative clauses: Evidence from Persian. Journal of Child Language, 41(4), 1-12.
Riemsdjik, H. V. (2006). Free relatives: A syntactic case study. In M. Everaert, & H. V. Riemsdjik (Eds.), The Blackwell companion to syntax (339-380). Oxford: Blackwell.
Robinson, P. (1998). State of the art: SLA theory and second language syllabus design. Japan Association of Language Teaching Journal, 22(4). Retrieved from:
Saric, A. (2016). Developmental patterns in the interlanguage research. European Journal of Social Sciences, Education and Research, 3(2). 242-255.
Shahidipour, V., & Tahririan, M. H. (2018). Difficulties facing Iranian EFL senior high school learners and strategies they use to understand English idioms. Issues in Language Teaching, 7(2), 121-146.
Shiamizadeh, Z., Caspers, J., & Schiller, N. (2018). When is a wh-in-situ question identified in standard Persian? Language Cognition and Neuroscience, 33(9), 1168-1183.
Spinner, P., & Jung, S. (2018). Production and comprehension in processability theory: A self-paced reading study. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 40(2), 295-318.
Tabibzadeh, O. (2012). Persian grammar. Tehran: Markaz [In Persian].
Taghvaipour, M. (2004). An HPSG analysis of Persian relative clauses. In S. Müller (Ed.), Proceedings of the 11th international conference on head-driven phrase structure grammar (pp. 274-293). Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
Taghvaipour, M. (2005). Persian free relatives. In S. Müller (Ed.), Proceedings of the 12th international conference on head-driven phrase structure grammar (pp. 364–374). Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
Taghvaipour, M. (2014). Resumption in Persian relative clauses: An HPSG analysis. In P. Monachesi, J. Gerhard, G. Penn, & S. Wintner (Eds.), Proceedings of formal grammar conference (pp. 145-154). Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
Turnbull-Sailor, C. (2000). Syntactic pattern of wh-embedded clauses (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of California, Berkeley.
White, L. (2003). Second language acquisition and universal grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Yang, J. (2018). Linguistic status of markedness and its defining criteria. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 151, 400-406.