Embedding in English Grammer

Nesting dolls on a window sill
Another term for embedding in English grammar is nesting. Sharon Vos-Arnold/Getty Images

In generative grammar, embedding is the process by which one clause is included (embedded) in another. Also known as nesting.

More broadly, embedding refers to the inclusion of any linguistic unit as part of another unit of the same general type. A major type of embedding in English grammar is subordination.

Examples and Observations

"A clause that stands on its own is called a root, matrix, or main clause.

Sometimes, however, we can find examples of clauses within clauses:

24) [Peter said [that Danny danced]].
25) [Bill wants [Susan to leave]].

In each of these sentences there are two clauses. In sentence (24) there is the clause (that) Danny danced which is inside the root clause Peter said that Danny danced. In (25) we have the clause Susan to leave which has the subject Susan, and the predicate phrase (to) leave. This is contained within the main clause Bill wants Susan to leave.

"Both of these clauses within clauses are called embedded clauses." (Andrew Carnie, Syntax: A Generative Introduction. Wiley, 2002)

"One clause may be embedded within another, that is, it may be used as a constituent part of another clause. Such a clause is called an embedded clause (or a subordinate clause) and the clause within which it is embedded is called the matrix clause. The embedded clause is a constituent of the matrix clause.

A clause that could occur on its own as a sentence is called a main clause. In the following examples the embedded clauses are given in boldface; each of the matrix clauses is also a main clause:

The boy who came is his cousin.
I told him that I would go.
He left when the bell rang.

The three kinds of embedded clauses illustrated here are a relative clause (who came), a noun clause (that I would go), and an adverb clause (when the bell rang).

Note that embedded clauses are usually marked in some way, e.g., by the initial who, that, and when in the above sentences." (Ronald Wardhaugh, Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach. Wiley, 2003)

Effective and Ineffective Embedding

"A sentence can . . . be expanded by embedding. Two clauses that share a common category can often be embedded one within the other. Thus,

My brother opened the window. The maid had closed it.

becomes

My brother opened the window the maid had closed.

But extensive embedding, like adding optional categories, can overload a sentence:

My brother opened the window the maid the janitor Uncle Bill had hired had married had closed.

[M]ost writers would express these propositions in two or more sentences:

My brother opened the window the maid had closed. She was the one who had married the janitor Uncle Bill had hired."

(Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Harcourt, 1970)

Embedding and Recursion

"In English, recursion is often used to create expressions that modify or change the meaning of one of the elements of the sentence. For example, to take the word nails and give it a more specific meaning, we could use an object relative clause such as that Dan bought, as in

Hand me the nails that Dan bought.

In this sentence, the relative clause that Dan bought (which could be glossed as Dan bought the nails) is contained within a larger noun phrase: the nails (that Dan bought (the nails)). So the relative clause is nested within a larger phrase, kind of like a stack of bowls." (Matthew J. Traxler, Introduction to Psycholinguistics: Understanding Language Science. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)