Pretrained neural models such as BERT, when fine-tuned to perform natural language inference (NLI), often show high accuracy on standard datasets, but display a surprising lack of sensitivity to word order on controlled challenge sets. We hypothesize that this issue is not primarily caused by the pretrained model’s limitations, but rather by the paucity of crowdsourced NLI examples that might convey the importance of syntactic structure at the fine-tuning stage. We explore several methods to augment standard training sets with syntactically informative examples, generated by applying syntactic transformations to sentences from the MNLI corpus. The best-performing augmentation method, subject/object inversion, improved BERT’s accuracy on controlled examples that diagnose sensitivity to word order from 0.28 to 0.73, without affecting performance on the MNLI test set. This improvement generalized beyond the particular construction used for data augmentation, suggesting that augmentation causes BERT to recruit abstract syntactic representations.
If the same neural network architecture is trained multiple times on the same dataset, will it make similar linguistic generalizations across runs? To study this question, we fine-tuned 100 instances of BERT on the Multi-genre Natural Language Inference (MNLI) dataset and evaluated them on the HANS dataset, which evaluates syntactic generalization in natural language inference. On the MNLI development set, the behavior of all instances was remarkably consistent, with accuracy ranging between 83.6% and 84.8%. In stark contrast, the same models varied widely in their generalization performance. For example, on the simple case of subject-object swap (e.g., determining that “the doctor visited the lawyer” does not entail “the lawyer visited the doctor”), accuracy ranged from 0.0% to 66.2%. Such variation is likely due to the presence of many local minima in the loss surface that are equally attractive to a low-bias learner such as a neural network; decreasing the variability may therefore require models with stronger inductive biases.