What Is Recursion in English Grammar?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Two stacks of colorful bowls used to represent recursion

Lisa Stokes / Getty Images 

Recursion is the repeated sequential use of a particular type of linguistic element or grammatical structure. Another way to describe recursion is linguistic recursion.

More simply, recursion has also been described as the ability to place one component inside another component of the same kind.

A linguistic element or grammatical structure that can be used repeatedly in a sequence is said to be recursive.

How to Use Recursion

"If you build an earthen home now, think of the wonder on the face of your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchild!"

(Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, and Linda Smiley, The Hand-Sculpted House: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage. Chelsea Green, 2002)

"Some affixes are mildly recursive: re-re-write, anti-anti-war, great-great-grandmother. This type of morphological recursion (where the same affixal form is repeated without intervening morphemes) appears to be unique to this functional category across languages, though most ... affixes are not recursive." (Edward J. Vajda, "Referential and Grammatical Function in Morphological Typology."

(Linguistic Diversity and Language Theories, ed. by Zygmunt Frajzyngier, Adam Hodges, and David S. Rood. John Benjamins, Pub., 2005)

"He can take a letter from you to her and then one from her to you and then one from you to her and then one from her to you and then one from you to her and then one ..."

(P.G. Wodehouse, Thank You, Jeeves, 1934)

"Didn't matter if the fe-fe was a VP, VIP, stay-at-home wife, his wife, his sister, a lover, an employee, an associate, a groupie, a counterpart, smart, fine, dumb, ugly, dumb and ugly, a model, a hooker, a Christian, his best friend, or his mother."

(Mary B. Morrison, He's Just a Friend. Kensington, 2003)

"The fact that English permits more than one adjective in a sequence in this manner is an example of a more general feature of languages that linguists call recursion. In English, prenominal adjectives are recursive. Simply put, this means that prenominal adjectives can be 'stacked,' with several appearing successively in a string, each of them attributing some property to the noun. In principle, there is no limit to the number of adjectives that can modify a noun. Or better, there is no grammatical limit."

(Martin J. Endley, Linguistic Perspectives on English Grammar: A Guide for EFL Teachers. Information Age, 2010)

Recursion and Meaning

"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)

Recursion and Infinitude

"[One] factor that encourages linguists to believe that human languages are infinite sets stems from a presumed connection between linguistic creativity and the infinite cardinality of languages. Note, for example, this statement by [Noam] Chomsky (1980: 221-222):
... the rules of the grammar must iterate in some manner to generate an infinite number of sentences, each with its specific sound, structure, and meaning. We make use of this 'recursive' property of grammar constantly in everyday life. We construct new sentences freely and use them on appropriate occasions ...
He is suggesting that because we construct new sentences, we must be using recursion, so the grammar must generate infinitely many sentences. Note also the remark of Lasnik (2000: 3) that 'The ability to produce and understand new sentences is intuitively related to the notion of infinity.'
No one will deny that human beings have a marvelous, highly flexible array of linguistic abilities. These abilities are not just a matter of being able to respond verbally to novel circumstances, but of being capable of expressing novel propositions, and of re-expressing familiar propositions in new ways. But infinitude of the set of all grammatical expressions is neither necessary nor sufficient to describe or explain linguistic creativity.
... The infinitude of human languages has not been independently established--and could not be. It does not represent a factual claim that can be used to support the idea that the properties of human language must be explicated via generative grammars involving recursion. Positing a generative grammar does not entail infinitude for the generated language anyway, even if there is recursion present in the rule system."

(Geoffrey K. Pullum and Barbara C. Scholz, "Recursion and the Infinitude Claim." Recursion and Human Language, ed. by Harry Van Der Hulst. Walter de Gruyter, 2010)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Recursion in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/recursion-grammar-1691901. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Is Recursion in English Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/recursion-grammar-1691901 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Recursion in English Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/recursion-grammar-1691901 (accessed June 2, 2023).