Why Recursion is Problematic in Plain English and How To Limit It

Written by Lauren Carter | Last updated:

Have you ever read a really long sentence that just kept going on and on and on, seemingly with no end? Did you understand what it was saying or did you get lost? Chances are that yes, you have read a really long sentence and yes you haven’t understood it correctly. Now, the reason for this is most likely because of something called “recursion”. If you’re familiar with maths or computer science, then you may have heard of this before. If not, you’ll know all about it by the end of this article. Let’s dive in!

What is recursion?

Although recursion is a word you probably haven’t stumbled across before unless you’re a linguistics junkie like I am, the concept is really quite simple. In its most basic form, it just means that we can repeat parts of language indefinitely. This feature also makes it possible to create super long sentences. In theory, you could create a sentence that’s infinite in length — although we’d all get pretty bored and confused as we tried to keep up with what you were saying!

Recursion is also a term used in maths and computer science. I assume it refers to something similar, but I’m no mathematician or computer scientist, so I’ve got no idea exactly! If you’re here for that, perhaps consult your trusty friend Google for that one! 😉

Here’s an example of (linguistic) recursion in action: “can you believe that the woman over there with the long brown hair and the red sunglasses who just got into the black car yelled at me because she thought that I said that I wanted to steal the avocados out of her shopping trolley but actually I didn’t even say anything because I wasn’t even looking in her direction because I was trying to find the brand of peanut butter that I love the most, which I didn’t end up getting because when I asked the shop assistant where it was he said that it was out of stock because they were having an issue with the wholesale company?”.

Wow, that was a mouthful, but it’s a completely grammatical sentence!

Why does recursion exist?

Recursion is actually a really cool language feature. Why? Because it means we can describe things in great detail and do so really easily. I’ve noticed this myself when reading fiction. In particular, I remember reading A Series of Unfortunate Events and noticing that the author Lemony Snickett enjoyed using recursion to explain scenes in great detail. Here’s a quote from The Slippery Slope:

“And it might seem right to wear a suit of armor to the party, but there could be several other people wearing the same thing, and you could end up being caught in a flood due to a case of mistaken identity, and find yourself drifting out to sea wishing that you were wearing deep-sea diving equipment after all.”

A Series of Unfortunate Events Book Ten: The Slippery Slope, Lemony Snickett pg. 251

59 words in one sentence!?! How nuts is that!?! But . . .this is a great example of using conjunctions recursively (as is my example above)! He adds the conjunctions “but”, “and”, and “due to” to keep the sentence going. In theory, he could have kept adding more conjunctions to continue this sentence indefinitely.

So then, what’s the problem?

What’s the problem with recursion?

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there’s nothing inherently wrong with language. It’s only how we use it and when we use it that’s problematic. The biggest factors to consider when using recursion are:

  1. Your audience
  2. Your text’s purpose

Using recursion to create highly detailed descriptions is totally acceptable when used in fiction. Think about it — no one wants to read a story that’s not very descriptive. Could you imagine how dull novels would be if they lacked descriptive words? No thanks.

On the other hand, using recursion when you’re trying to inform someone about a procedure isn’t so great. Why? Because it just makes things overly complicated, so we lose our train of thought or lose interest when trying to dissect the information. This occurs because of the difference between our linguistic competence and our linguistic performance.

Our linguistic competence just means our unconscious knowledge of language rules and grammar. Our linguistic performance, on the other hand, means how we actually use language in a particular moment. So we could create sentences that go on and on indefinitely because we have the linguistic competence to do so, but we’d only be able to do that theoretically. This is because our memories can only process a certain amount of information before we start scratching our heads and getting confused (i.e. because of our linguistic performance).

How can I limit recursion in my own texts?

Now that we know what recursion is and why it’s sometimes problematic, let’s look at how you can identify and limit it in your own written communication. There are four things you can do:

Be conscious of how many conjunctions you use

Conjunctions join sentences and phrases together. For example:

  • And
  • But
  • Because
  • So
  • Therefore
  • However

If you need to use them, only use one per sentence. If it’s really necessary, use two per sentence as an absolute maximum.

Keep an eye on noun phrases with extra prepositional phrases

Noun phrases are people, places, and things. For example:

  • The dog
  • Her happiness
  • That student

Noun phrases can also include prepositional phrases. These are phrases that show relationships between nouns and that start with prepositions. For example:

  • With the red hair
  • On top of the world
  • At school
  • In the classroom
  • Between those two buildings
  • Of string (e.g. the length of string)

There’s nothing wrong with noun phrases that have prepositional phrases, but ask yourself if they’re really necessary. Do I need to say “the woman with the brown hair over there between the two buildings with red bricks”? Probably not. I’m sure “the woman over there” is enough.

Pay attention to phrases with relative clauses

Relative clauses come after noun phrases and verb phrases. They also start with words like that, which, and who. For example:

  • The house that burned down
  • I know that you know
  • The university, which I studied at in 2015
  • The woman who likes eating salted caramel

Try to limit these relative clauses to only one per sentence. If you really need to and it’s absolutely necessary, use two per sentence. If you find yourself wanting to use more than that, ask yourself if all of that information is really necessary (or consider the next tip).

Break your texts down into smaller chunks

No one wants to hear or read “I know that you know that he likes eating apples that fall off the apple tree up on top of the hill with the path that goes all the way down to the botanical gardens that my sister likes to sit at every time she’s in town”, do they? No.

Really try to edit down your information and ask yourself if it’s actually necessary or not. Once you’ve worked out the required parts, aim for one main idea or thought per sentence.

The bottom line

Like all aspects of language, just be mindful of how you use recursion. There’s nothing wrong with it, but you need to have your audience in mind when using it. As long as you’re doing what’s best for your audience and have them in mind while you’re writing or speaking, you can never be wrong.