Inari Listenmaa


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11 June 2018

My research, part III

So now you know the two different formalisms I’ve worked with. Here I’m rambling a bit about various connections between them, or really anything that pops up in my mind.


The GF grammarian (or an informant) had to come up with phenomena to test, and trees that capture those phenomena. Now both steps are fully automated: the grammarian only needs to input a function or category, and the system outputs a minimal and representative set of sentences. Humans are still needed to read and evaluate the example sentences, as well as write the grammars in the first place. I am an active user of this system, and so happy of its existence that I don’t really need a degree to be happier. There are even external users who are not me, which after 30 years of existing and 10+ years of programming feels pretty amazing.

On the CG side, I have also automated a task, but I’m not sure if it’s a task people were doing widely. Sure, CG grammarians evaluate their grammars—I’ve seen in practice people applying their rules to a corpus, and reading through output and judging if it’s fine. But the kind of systematic, “do some of these rules prevent others from applying” seems to not have been a common activity. Automatic reordering has been a thing, but with a black-box machine learning rather than formal methods such as SAT-solvers.

What I’m saying is that my CG tools haven’t had any adoption. In a sense this is not surprising—I was never a CG writer myself, and the starting point was honestly just “SAT is cool, let’s find a problem”. The SAT-encoding itself works as a parallel CG engine, meaning that it would complain even well-ordered sequences of rules, if they “contradict” each other. Our first version was not of much practical use, but I could make smug remarks like quoting Fred Karlsson (1995, page 11):

More generally, the formalism should be such that individual constraints are unordered and maximally independent of each other. These properties facilitate incremental adding of new constraints to the grammar, especially to a large one.

I don’t know if anyone had bothered to actually try to execute a full existing CG grammar in parallel after this was written. But I made that remark already in my licentiate thesis, so let’s move on.

So, the initial parallel SAT-encoding was not much use neither for writing new CG rules nor executing or testing old CG rules. Thus we made a second one, with added state. This turned out to be more useful: the conflicts it reports are actually conflicts in an actually execution order. I’m still hopeful that people may have liked it if I had made it easier for them—the tool is written in Haskell (which made the only potential user who tried to install it to joke about the relevant xkcd), and it’s not integrated to any existing workflow.


I don’t know about you but “automatic systematic” just makes me think of this.

Anyway, let’s start from CG now because it’s easier to reason about. A CG grammar can be “good” or “bad” according to purely internal criteria. Good means just that the rules are internally consistent, and bad the opposite of that. The point of symbolic evaluation is to explore all possibilities: if there was a way in which some rule would apply (e.g. make another rule not apply and thus preserving a reading; or create a solution in which a particular reading was already false), the SAT-solver would have found it. You know, that’s just how SAT-solvers work. So we can be confident that if the system reports no conflicts, there are no conflicts—“what if we just run a few more tests” doesn’t make sense to worry about.

It is a separate question (not my research question!) whether the CG grammar also does a good job at disambiguating natural language. Such questions are better left for corpus-based methods.

On the GF side, we actually are trying to answer the harder question: does this grammar do an adequate job at producing English/French/…? For that, we need a set of test sentences that covers all phenomena in the grammar. In the CG world, we had a natural restriction: there is only a few hundreds or thousands of different tags in the morphological lexicon, and there are restrictions (in a lucky case also well-documented and not like 3 different Word documents that are deprecated in a different way) how they mix together into readings. So the language of the tags and readings is finite—sounds reasonable that we can do the job thoroughly.

But natural language is infinite. How does that work with a finite set of test cases?

First of all, we are testing a PMCFG representation of natural language. This representation is also infinite: for example, the grammar can parse and produce a sentence with arbitrarily many subordinate clauses (I know that you think that she disagrees that … this example is silly), only limited by physical constraints such as memory or having a source of power after all humans die. But importantly, the grammar still has a finite number of functions. Let’s see, can we test one function with finite test cases?

Take any GF function f : A -> B -> C. All categories A, B and C may contain fields with strings, tables and parameters. Recall that in the PMCFG, first all categories A, B and C are compiled into several concrete categories, one for each combination of parameters. Then, the function f is compiled into several concrete functions, one for each combination of concrete categories. This is still finite, and just makes our job easier! Now we can ask: can we test one concrete function with finite test cases?

Let’s take a bit more concrete example: Mod : Quality -> Kind -> Kind from Foods grammar, Spanish concrete syntax. It compiles into 4 concrete functions:

Mod_pre_fem   : Quality_pre  -> Kind_fem  -> Kind_fem
Mod_post_fem  : Quality_post -> Kind_fem  -> Kind_fem
Mod_pre_masc  : Quality_pre  -> Kind_masc -> Kind_masc
Mod_post_masc : Quality_post -> Kind_masc -> Kind_masc

Mod_pre_fem takes a feminine Kind and a premodifier Quality. As you can guess by the name (just kidding, in the PMCFG it’s like Kind_3493 and Quality_6270 so you can’t guess anything), it chooses the feminine forms (singular and plural) of the Quality argument, and places them before the singular and plural forms of Kind argument. If this function fails, we can totally scold it by saying “you had one job”.

So what inputs does this function need? Duh, one premodifier Quality and one feminine Kind. At this level, all we need to do is to choose maximally representative premodifier and feminine arguments. In other words, we prefer words with maximally unique1 inflection tables. If we find such arguments, then Mod_pre_fem should also construct an inflection table with unique strings. Or if it doesn’t, at least we know that the repetition is due to Mod_pre_fem and not its arguments.

Okay, now we agree that the arguments to the functions are finite. Now it’s just contexts left. In general, a test case needs as many contexts as it has strings—certainly a finite amount. In order to be representative, we need to make sure that the contexts don’t introduce the same words that appear in the test cases: if the test case is likes the dog and the context happens to include the dog as a subject, we cannot be certain which dog comes from the test case and which one from the context.

Summary of what I just said:

“How can we test a whole big infinite grammar?”
Easy: there’s a finite amount of functions, just test each function separately.

“How can we be sure to use one function in all the different ways?”
No problem: split it into several functions that can all be used in only one way, then test each of them.

Summary for those who like their summaries with bullet points:

Failure modes

Now let’s look at how we can still mess things up.

A given CG grammar is internally consistent given a certain tagset, rules to combine tags into readings, and ambiguity classes. All of this information comes from a morphological lexicon, and we all know that morphological lexica are generated at airports at 04:00 after the conference dinner, because that was the cheapest flight and you didn’t have to pay for one more night of accommodation, and the free drinks would keep you up and cheerful until your flight departs.

So, CG analysis is as reliable as is the morphological lexicon where the tags and the readings come from. How about GF test cases?

I just tried to convince you how the system produces a test case for each combination of parameters. But the failure mode here is, simply, not enough parameters. Consider the Mod function again, and say that we don’t have the parameter for pre- and postmodifier at all, and Mod only comes in two variants, one for feminine and one for masculine. Suppose that all adjectives are, incorrectly, postmodifiers. Then we would notice the error only if the single Quality argument for Mod_fem and Mod_masc happened to be a premodifier one.

If the missing parameter handles a common phenomenon, it is more likely that we catch the error even with missing parameters. This was the case with, for example, Dutch preposition contraction (which I’ve explained in Chapter 4 of the thesis). Originally, none of the prepositions contracted, but this is the most common behaviour—only a handful of prepositions don’t contract. Thus we got some test cases which showed the error, and went on to fix the grammar. After the fixes, the system created separate test cases for contracting and non-contracting prepositions.

Moral of the story

Test your grammars! I don’t know. I’ll stop this now anyway, it’s pretty long and I have more to blog! Next up, Koen’s Fancy Fixpoints and/or other interesting statistics we can gather from GF grammars:

Stay tuned!

1: I, me, my is a better example than either you, you, your or she, her, her alone, because I only has unique strings, and you and she repeat some strings. But together you and she cover everything that I does alone.

tags: research