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Context-sensitive constructions in English

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 26 Aug 2008.

Anybody who has read about basics of computational linguistics (i.e. the cross-over area between language and computing) will have come across the (very useful) definition of a context-free grammar. Many computer-readable languages such as programming languages are designed to be context-free, since this makes them more manageable for both the computers and the humans operating them.

There are also grammars which are more powerful than context-free grammars, and which allow more complex statements; the next level of complexity are context-sensitive grammars.

Ever since these mathematical definitions were made, people have wondered how our human languages fit into this framework. There has been a lot of discussion about this in the academic community, and currently the general opinion seems to be that most human languages are more or less context-free, but there are a few exceptions, such as a context-sensitive construction in Swiss German.

In my work at the moment I am trying to help improve the accuracy of computer understanding of certain statements in natural language. We get fragments of text off the web and want to automatically extract structured information from it, which can then be used in other parts of the program.

And in this context I have come across constructions in English which, annoyingly, cannot be defined using context-free grammars. Two examples are:

"The square roots of 16, 9 and 4 are 4, 3 and 2, respectively."
"The wardrobe has dimensions of 230x120x50 cm (HxWxD)."

In both cases, the problem is that there is a linear matching-up which needs to occur: in the first example, 16 is matched with 4, 9 is matched with 3, and 4 is matched with 2. In the second example, 230 is matched with H (height), 120 with W (width) and 50 with D (depth).

I’m still in the process of figuring out how to best analyse this kind of sentence. Because it’s context-sensitive, a lot of the typical parsing libraries won’t do it out of the box. Which adds to the fun :)