Probing BERT’s general ability to reason about syntax is no simple endeavour, primarily because of the uncertainty surrounding how large language models represent syntactic structure. Many prior accounts of BERT’s agility as a syntactic tool (Clark et al., 2013; Lau et al., 2014; Marvin and Linzen, 2018; Chowdhury and Zamparelli, 2018; Warstadt et al., 2019, 2020; Hu et al., 2020) have therefore confined themselves to studying very specific linguistic phenomena, and there has still been no definitive answer as to whether BERT “knows” syntax.The advent of perturbed masking (Wu et al., 2020) would then seem to be significant, because this is a parameter-free probing method that directly samples syntactic trees from BERT’s embeddings. These sampled trees outperform a right-branching baseline, thus providing preliminary evidence that BERT’s syntactic competence bests a simple baseline. This baseline is underwhelming, however, and our reappraisal below suggests that this result, too, is inconclusive.We propose RH Probe, an encoder-decoder probing architecture that operates on two probing tasks. We find strong empirical evidence confirming the existence of important syntactic information in BERT, but this information alone appears not to be enough to reproduce syntax in its entirety. Our probe makes crucial use of a conjecture made by Roark and Holling-shead (2008) that a particular lexical annotation that we shall call RH distance is a sufficient encoding of unlabelled binary syntactic trees, and we prove this conjecture.
When working with problems in natural language processing, we can find ourselves in situations where the traditional measurements of descriptive complexity are ineffective at describing the behaviour of our algorithms. It is easy to see why — the models we use are often general frameworks into which difficult-to-define tasks can be embedded. These frameworks can have more power than we typically use, and so complexity measures such as worst-case running time can drastically overestimate the cost of running our algorithms. In particular, they can make an apparently tractable problem seem NP-complete. Using empirical studies to evaluate performance is a necessary but incomplete method of dealing with this mismatch, since these studies no longer act as a guarantee of good performance. In this paper we use statistical measures such as entropy to give an updated analysis of the complexity of the NP-complete Most Probable Sentence problem for pCFGs, which can then be applied to word sense disambiguation and inference tasks. We can bound both the running time and the error in a simple search algorithm, allowing for a much faster search than the NP-completeness of this problem would suggest.