Ethan Wilcox


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A Systematic Assessment of Syntactic Generalization in Neural Language Models
Jennifer Hu | Jon Gauthier | Peng Qian | Ethan Wilcox | Roger Levy
Proceedings of the 58th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics

While state-of-the-art neural network models continue to achieve lower perplexity scores on language modeling benchmarks, it remains unknown whether optimizing for broad-coverage predictive performance leads to human-like syntactic knowledge. Furthermore, existing work has not provided a clear picture about the model properties required to produce proper syntactic generalizations. We present a systematic evaluation of the syntactic knowledge of neural language models, testing 20 combinations of model types and data sizes on a set of 34 English-language syntactic test suites. We find substantial differences in syntactic generalization performance by model architecture, with sequential models underperforming other architectures. Factorially manipulating model architecture and training dataset size (1M-40M words), we find that variability in syntactic generalization performance is substantially greater by architecture than by dataset size for the corpora tested in our experiments. Our results also reveal a dissociation between perplexity and syntactic generalization performance.

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SyntaxGym: An Online Platform for Targeted Evaluation of Language Models
Jon Gauthier | Jennifer Hu | Ethan Wilcox | Peng Qian | Roger Levy
Proceedings of the 58th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics: System Demonstrations

Targeted syntactic evaluations have yielded insights into the generalizations learned by neural network language models. However, this line of research requires an uncommon confluence of skills: both the theoretical knowledge needed to design controlled psycholinguistic experiments, and the technical proficiency needed to train and deploy large-scale language models. We present SyntaxGym, an online platform designed to make targeted evaluations accessible to both experts in NLP and linguistics, reproducible across computing environments, and standardized following the norms of psycholinguistic experimental design. This paper releases two tools of independent value for the computational linguistics community: 1. A website,, which centralizes the process of targeted syntactic evaluation and provides easy tools for analysis and visualization; 2. Two command-line tools, ‘syntaxgym‘ and ‘lm-zoo‘, which allow any user to reproduce targeted syntactic evaluations and general language model inference on their own machine.

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Structural Supervision Improves Few-Shot Learning and Syntactic Generalization in Neural Language Models
Ethan Wilcox | Peng Qian | Richard Futrell | Ryosuke Kohita | Roger Levy | Miguel Ballesteros
Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP)

Humans can learn structural properties about a word from minimal experience, and deploy their learned syntactic representations uniformly in different grammatical contexts. We assess the ability of modern neural language models to reproduce this behavior in English and evaluate the effect of structural supervision on learning outcomes. First, we assess few-shot learning capabilities by developing controlled experiments that probe models’ syntactic nominal number and verbal argument structure generalizations for tokens seen as few as two times during training. Second, we assess invariance properties of learned representation: the ability of a model to transfer syntactic generalizations from a base context (e.g., a simple declarative active-voice sentence) to a transformed context (e.g., an interrogative sentence). We test four models trained on the same dataset: an n-gram baseline, an LSTM, and two LSTM-variants trained with explicit structural supervision. We find that in most cases, the neural models are able to induce the proper syntactic generalizations after minimal exposure, often from just two examples during training, and that the two structurally supervised models generalize more accurately than the LSTM model. All neural models are able to leverage information learned in base contexts to drive expectations in transformed contexts, indicating that they have learned some invariance properties of syntax.

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Investigating Novel Verb Learning in BERT: Selectional Preference Classes and Alternation-Based Syntactic Generalization
Tristan Thrush | Ethan Wilcox | Roger Levy
Proceedings of the Third BlackboxNLP Workshop on Analyzing and Interpreting Neural Networks for NLP

Previous studies investigating the syntactic abilities of deep learning models have not targeted the relationship between the strength of the grammatical generalization and the amount of evidence to which the model is exposed during training. We address this issue by deploying a novel word-learning paradigm to test BERT’s few-shot learning capabilities for two aspects of English verbs: alternations and classes of selectional preferences. For the former, we fine-tune BERT on a single frame in a verbal-alternation pair and ask whether the model expects the novel verb to occur in its sister frame. For the latter, we fine-tune BERT on an incomplete selectional network of verbal objects and ask whether it expects unattested but plausible verb/object pairs. We find that BERT makes robust grammatical generalizations after just one or two instances of a novel word in fine-tuning. For the verbal alternation tests, we find that the model displays behavior that is consistent with a transitivity bias: verbs seen few times are expected to take direct objects, but verbs seen with direct objects are not expected to occur intransitively.


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Representation of Constituents in Neural Language Models: Coordination Phrase as a Case Study
Aixiu An | Peng Qian | Ethan Wilcox | Roger Levy
Proceedings of the 2019 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing and the 9th International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing (EMNLP-IJCNLP)

Neural language models have achieved state-of-the-art performances on many NLP tasks, and recently have been shown to learn a number of hierarchically-sensitive syntactic dependencies between individual words. However, equally important for language processing is the ability to combine words into phrasal constituents, and use constituent-level features to drive downstream expectations. Here we investigate neural models’ ability to represent constituent-level features, using coordinated noun phrases as a case study. We assess whether different neural language models trained on English and French represent phrase-level number and gender features, and use those features to drive downstream expectations. Our results suggest that models use a linear combination of NP constituent number to drive CoordNP/verb number agreement. This behavior is highly regular and even sensitive to local syntactic context, however it differs crucially from observed human behavior. Models have less success with gender agreement. Models trained on large corpora perform best, and there is no obvious advantage for models trained using explicit syntactic supervision.

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Hierarchical Representation in Neural Language Models: Suppression and Recovery of Expectations
Ethan Wilcox | Roger Levy | Richard Futrell
Proceedings of the 2019 ACL Workshop BlackboxNLP: Analyzing and Interpreting Neural Networks for NLP

Work using artificial languages as training input has shown that LSTMs are capable of inducing the stack-like data structures required to represent context-free and certain mildly context-sensitive languages — formal language classes which correspond in theory to the hierarchical structures of natural language. Here we present a suite of experiments probing whether neural language models trained on linguistic data induce these stack-like data structures and deploy them while incrementally predicting words. We study two natural language phenomena: center embedding sentences and syntactic island constraints on the filler–gap dependency. In order to properly predict words in these structures, a model must be able to temporarily suppress certain expectations and then recover those expectations later, essentially pushing and popping these expectations on a stack. Our results provide evidence that models can successfully suppress and recover expectations in many cases, but do not fully recover their previous grammatical state.

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Neural language models as psycholinguistic subjects: Representations of syntactic state
Richard Futrell | Ethan Wilcox | Takashi Morita | Peng Qian | Miguel Ballesteros | Roger Levy
Proceedings of the 2019 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies, Volume 1 (Long and Short Papers)

We investigate the extent to which the behavior of neural network language models reflects incremental representations of syntactic state. To do so, we employ experimental methodologies which were originally developed in the field of psycholinguistics to study syntactic representation in the human mind. We examine neural network model behavior on sets of artificial sentences containing a variety of syntactically complex structures. These sentences not only test whether the networks have a representation of syntactic state, they also reveal the specific lexical cues that networks use to update these states. We test four models: two publicly available LSTM sequence models of English (Jozefowicz et al., 2016; Gulordava et al., 2018) trained on large datasets; an RNN Grammar (Dyer et al., 2016) trained on a small, parsed dataset; and an LSTM trained on the same small corpus as the RNNG. We find evidence for basic syntactic state representations in all models, but only the models trained on large datasets are sensitive to subtle lexical cues signaling changes in syntactic state.

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Structural Supervision Improves Learning of Non-Local Grammatical Dependencies
Ethan Wilcox | Peng Qian | Richard Futrell | Miguel Ballesteros | Roger Levy
Proceedings of the 2019 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies, Volume 1 (Long and Short Papers)

State-of-the-art LSTM language models trained on large corpora learn sequential contingencies in impressive detail, and have been shown to acquire a number of non-local grammatical dependencies with some success. Here we investigate whether supervision with hierarchical structure enhances learning of a range of grammatical dependencies, a question that has previously been addressed only for subject-verb agreement. Using controlled experimental methods from psycholinguistics, we compare the performance of word-based LSTM models versus Recurrent Neural Network Grammars (RNNGs) (Dyer et al. 2016) which represent hierarchical syntactic structure and use neural control to deploy it in left-to-right processing, on two classes of non-local grammatical dependencies in English—Negative Polarity licensing and Filler-Gap Dependencies—tested in a range of configurations. Using the same training data for both models, we find that the RNNG outperforms the LSTM on both types of grammatical dependencies and even learns many of the Island Constraints on the filler-gap dependency. Structural supervision thus provides data efficiency advantages over purely string-based training of neural language models in acquiring human-like generalizations about non-local grammatical dependencies.


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What do RNN Language Models Learn about Filler–Gap Dependencies?
Ethan Wilcox | Roger Levy | Takashi Morita | Richard Futrell
Proceedings of the 2018 EMNLP Workshop BlackboxNLP: Analyzing and Interpreting Neural Networks for NLP

RNN language models have achieved state-of-the-art perplexity results and have proven useful in a suite of NLP tasks, but it is as yet unclear what syntactic generalizations they learn. Here we investigate whether state-of-the-art RNN language models represent long-distance filler–gap dependencies and constraints on them. Examining RNN behavior on experimentally controlled sentences designed to expose filler–gap dependencies, we show that RNNs can represent the relationship in multiple syntactic positions and over large spans of text. Furthermore, we show that RNNs learn a subset of the known restrictions on filler–gap dependencies, known as island constraints: RNNs show evidence for wh-islands, adjunct islands, and complex NP islands. These studies demonstrates that state-of-the-art RNN models are able to learn and generalize about empty syntactic positions.