Kyle Mahowald


pdf bib
A Method for Studying Semantic Construal in Grammatical Constructions with Interpretable Contextual Embedding Spaces
Gabriella Chronis | Kyle Mahowald | Katrin Erk
Proceedings of the 61st Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (Volume 1: Long Papers)

We study semantic construal in grammatical constructions using large language models. First, we project contextual word embeddings into three interpretable semantic spaces, each defined by a different set of psycholinguistic feature norms. We validate these interpretable spaces and then use them to automatically derive semantic characterizations of lexical items in two grammatical constructions: nouns in subject or object position within the same sentence, and the AANN construction (e.g., ‘a beautiful three days’). We show that a word in subject position is interpreted as more agentive than the very same word in object position, and that the nouns in the AANN construction are interpreted as more measurement-like than when in the canonical alternation. Our method can probe the distributional meaning of syntactic constructions at a templatic level, abstracted away from specific lexemes.

pdf bib
Counterfactually Probing Language Identity in Multilingual Models
Anirudh Srinivasan | Venkata Subrahmanyan Govindarajan | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the 3rd Workshop on Multi-lingual Representation Learning (MRL)

pdf bib
Inducing Character-level Structure in Subword-based Language Models with Type-level Interchange Intervention Training
Jing Huang | Zhengxuan Wu | Kyle Mahowald | Christopher Potts
Findings of the Association for Computational Linguistics: ACL 2023

Language tasks involving character-level manipulations (e.g., spelling corrections, arithmetic operations, word games) are challenging for models operating on subword units. To address this, we develop a causal intervention framework to learn robust and interpretable character representations inside subword-based language models. Our method treats each character as a typed variable in a causal model and learns such causal structures by adapting the interchange intervention training method of Geiger et al. (2021). We additionally introduce a suite of character-level tasks that systematically vary in their dependence on meaning and sequence-level context. While character-level models still perform best on purely form-based tasks like string reversal, our method outperforms character-level models on more complex tasks that blend form, meaning, and context, such as spelling correction in context and word search games. Compared with standard subword-based models, our approach also significantly improves robustness on unseen token sequences and leads to human-interpretable internal representations of characters.

pdf bib
Counterfactual Probing for the Influence of Affect and Specificity on Intergroup Bias
Venkata Subrahmanyan Govindarajan | David Beaver | Kyle Mahowald | Junyi Jessy Li
Findings of the Association for Computational Linguistics: ACL 2023

While existing work on studying bias in NLP focues on negative or pejorative language use, Govindarajan et al. (2023) offer a revised framing of bias in terms of intergroup social context, and its effects on language behavior. In this paper, we investigate if two pragmatic features (specificity and affect) systematically vary in different intergroup contexts — thus connecting this new framing of bias to language output. Preliminary analysis finds modest correlations between specificity and affect of tweets with supervised intergroup relationship (IGR) labels. Counterfactual probing further reveals that while neural models finetuned for predicting IGR reliably use affect in classification, the model’s usage of specificity is inconclusive.

pdf bib
For Generated Text, Is NLI-Neutral Text the Best Text?
Michail Mersinias | Kyle Mahowald
Findings of the Association for Computational Linguistics: EMNLP 2023

We explore incorporating natural language inference (NLI) into the text generative pipeline by using a pre-trained NLI model to assess whether a generated sentence entails, contradicts, or is neutral to the prompt and preceding text. First, we show that the NLI task is predictive of generation errors made by GPT-3. We use these results to develop an NLI-informed generation procedure for GPT-J. Then, we evaluate these generations by obtaining human annotations on error types and overall quality. We find that an NLI strategy of maximizing entailment improves text generation when the nucleus sampling randomness parameter value is high, while one which maximizes contradiction is in fact productive when the parameter value is low. Overall, though, we demonstrate that an NLI strategy of maximizing the neutral class provides the highest quality of generated text (significantly better than the vanilla generations), regardless of parameter value.

pdf bib
Revisiting the Optimality of Word Lengths
Tiago Pimentel | Clara Meister | Ethan Wilcox | Kyle Mahowald | Ryan Cotterell
Proceedings of the 2023 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing

Zipf (1935) posited that wordforms are optimized to minimize utterances’ communicative costs. Under the assumption that cost is given by an utterance’s length, he supported this claim by showing that words’ lengths are inversely correlated with their frequencies. Communicative cost, however, can be operationalized in different ways. Piantadosi et al. (2011) claim that cost should be measured as the distance between an utterance’s information rate and channel capacity, which we dub the channel capacity hypothesis (CCH) here. Following this logic, they then proposed that a word’s length should be proportional to the expected value of its surprisal (negative log-probability in context). In this work, we show that Piantadosi et al.’s derivation does not minimize CCH’s cost, but rather a lower bound, which we term CCH-lower. We propose a novel derivation, suggesting an improved way to minimize CCH’s cost. Under this method, we find that a language’s word lengths should instead be proportional to the surprisal’s expectation plus its variance-to-mean ratio. Experimentally, we compare these three communicative cost functions: Zipf’s, CCH-lower , and CCH. Across 13 languages and several experimental settings, we find that length is better predicted by frequency than either of the other hypotheses. In fact, when surprisal’s expectation, or expectation plus variance-to-mean ratio, is estimated using better language models, it leads to worse word length predictions. We take these results as evidence that Zipf’s longstanding hypothesis holds.

pdf bib
Elaborative Simplification as Implicit Questions Under Discussion
Yating Wu | William Sheffield | Kyle Mahowald | Junyi Jessy Li
Proceedings of the 2023 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing

Automated text simplification, a technique useful for making text more accessible to people such as children and emergent bilinguals, is often thought of as a monolingual translation task from complex sentences to simplified sentences using encoder-decoder models. This view fails to account for elaborative simplification, where new information is added into the simplified text. This paper proposes to view elaborative simplification through the lens of the Question Under Discussion (QUD) framework, providing a robust way to investigate what writers elaborate upon, how they elaborate, and how elaborations fit into the discourse context by viewing elaborations as explicit answers to implicit questions. We introduce ELABQUD, consisting of 1.3K elaborations accompanied with implicit QUDs, to study these phenomena. We show that explicitly modeling QUD (via question generation) not only provides essential understanding of elaborative simplification and how the elaborations connect with the rest of the discourse, but also substantially improves the quality of elaboration generation.

pdf bib
Lil-Bevo: Explorations of Strategies for Training Language Models in More Humanlike Ways
Venkata S Govindarajan | Juan Diego Rodriguez | Kaj Bostrom | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the BabyLM Challenge at the 27th Conference on Computational Natural Language Learning

pdf bib
A Discerning Several Thousand Judgments: GPT-3 Rates the Article + Adjective + Numeral + Noun Construction
Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the 17th Conference of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics

Knowledge of syntax includes knowledge of rare, idiosyncratic constructions. LLMs must overcome frequency biases in order to master such constructions. In this study, I prompt GPT-3 to give acceptability judgments on the English-language Article + Adjective + Numeral + Noun construction (e.g., “a lovely five days”). I validate the prompt using the CoLA corpus of acceptability judgments and then zero in on the AANN construction. I compare GPT- 3’s judgments to crowdsourced human judgments on a subset of sentences. GPT-3’s judgments are broadly similar to human judgments and generally align with proposed constraints in the literature but, in some cases, GPT-3’s judgments and human judgments diverge from the literature and from each other.


pdf bib
When classifying arguments, BERT doesn’t care about word order...except when it matters
Isabel Papadimitriou | Richard Futrell | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the Society for Computation in Linguistics 2022

pdf bib
When classifying grammatical role, BERT doesn’t care about word order... except when it matters
Isabel Papadimitriou | Richard Futrell | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the 60th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (Volume 2: Short Papers)

Because meaning can often be inferred from lexical semantics alone, word order is often a redundant cue in natural language. For example, the words chopped, chef, and onion are more likely used to convey “The chef chopped the onion,” not “The onion chopped the chef.” Recent work has shown large language models to be surprisingly word order invariant, but crucially has largely considered natural prototypical inputs, where compositional meaning mostly matches lexical expectations. To overcome this confound, we probe grammatical role representation in English BERT and GPT-2, on instances where lexical expectations are not sufficient, and word order knowledge is necessary for correct classification. Such non-prototypical instances are naturally occurring English sentences with inanimate subjects or animate objects, or sentences where we systematically swap the arguments to make sentences like “The onion chopped the chef”. We find that, while early layer embeddings are largely lexical, word order is in fact crucial in defining the later-layer representations of words in semantically non-prototypical positions. Our experiments isolate the effect of word order on the contextualization process, and highlight how models use context in the uncommon, but critical, instances where it matters.

pdf bib
Investigating Information-Theoretic Properties of the Typology of Spatial Demonstratives
Sihan Chen | Richard Futrell | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the 4th Workshop on Research in Computational Linguistic Typology and Multilingual NLP

Using data from Nintemann et al. (2020), we explore the variability in complexity and informativity across spatial demonstrative systems using spatial deictic lexicons from 223 languages. We argue from an information-theoretic perspective (Shannon, 1948) that spatial deictic lexicons are efficient in communication, balancing informativity and complexity. Specifically, we find that under an appropriate choice of cost function and need probability over meanings, among all the 21146 theoretically possible spatial deictic lexicons, those adopted by real languages lie near an efficient frontier. Moreover, we find that the conditions that the need probability and the cost function need to satisfy are consistent with the cognitive science literature regarding the source-goal asymmetry. We also show that the data are better explained by introducing a notion of systematicity, which is not currently accounted for in Information Bottleneck approaches to linguistic efficiency.

pdf bib
Why is Winoground Hard? Investigating Failures in Visuolinguistic Compositionality
Anuj Diwan | Layne Berry | Eunsol Choi | David Harwath | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the 2022 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing

Recent visuolinguistic pre-trained models show promising progress on various end tasks such as image retrieval and video captioning. Yet, they fail miserably on the recently proposed Winoground dataset, which challenges models to match paired images and English captions, with items constructed to overlap lexically but differ in meaning (e.g., “there is a mug in some grass” vs. “there is some grass in a mug”). By annotating the dataset using new fine-grained tags, we show that solving the Winoground task requires not just compositional language understanding, but a host of other abilities like commonsense reasoning or locating small, out-of-focus objects in low-resolution images. In this paper, we identify the dataset’s main challenges through a suite of experiments on related tasks (probing task, image retrieval task), data augmentation, and manual inspection of the dataset. Our analysis suggests that a main challenge in visuolinguistic models may lie in fusing visual and textual representations, rather than in compositional language understanding. We release our annotation and code at

pdf bib
longhorns at DADC 2022: How many linguists does it take to fool a Question Answering model? A systematic approach to adversarial attacks.
Venelin Kovatchev | Trina Chatterjee | Venkata S Govindarajan | Jifan Chen | Eunsol Choi | Gabriella Chronis | Anubrata Das | Katrin Erk | Matthew Lease | Junyi Jessy Li | Yating Wu | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the First Workshop on Dynamic Adversarial Data Collection

Developing methods to adversarially challenge NLP systems is a promising avenue for improving both model performance and interpretability. Here, we describe the approach of the team “longhorns” on Task 1 of the The First Workshop on Dynamic Adversarial Data Collection (DADC), which asked teams to manually fool a model on an Extractive Question Answering task. Our team finished first (pending validation), with a model error rate of 62%. We advocate for a systematic, linguistically informed approach to formulating adversarial questions, and we describe the results of our pilot experiments, as well as our official submission.

pdf bib
What do tokens know about their characters and how do they know it?
Ayush Kaushal | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the 2022 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies

Pre-trained language models (PLMs) that use subword tokenization schemes can succeed at a variety of language tasks that require character-level information, despite lacking explicit access to the character composition of tokens. Here, studying a range of models (e.g., GPT- J, BERT, RoBERTa, GloVe), we probe what word pieces encode about character-level information by training classifiers to predict the presence or absence of a particular alphabetical character in a token, based on its embedding (e.g., probing whether the model embedding for “cat” encodes that it contains the character “a”). We find that these models robustly encode character-level information and, in general, larger models perform better at the task. We show that these results generalize to characters from non-Latin alphabets (Arabic, Devanagari, and Cyrillic). Then, through a series of experiments and analyses, we investigate the mechanisms through which PLMs acquire English-language character information during training and argue that this knowledge is acquired through multiple phenomena, including a systematic relationship between particular characters and particular parts of speech, as well as natural variability in the tokenization of related strings.


pdf bib
Deep Subjecthood: Higher-Order Grammatical Features in Multilingual BERT
Isabel Papadimitriou | Ethan A. Chi | Richard Futrell | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the 16th Conference of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Main Volume

We investigate how Multilingual BERT (mBERT) encodes grammar by examining how the high-order grammatical feature of morphosyntactic alignment (how different languages define what counts as a “subject”) is manifested across the embedding spaces of different languages. To understand if and how morphosyntactic alignment affects contextual embedding spaces, we train classifiers to recover the subjecthood of mBERT embeddings in transitive sentences (which do not contain overt information about morphosyntactic alignment) and then evaluate them zero-shot on intransitive sentences (where subjecthood classification depends on alignment), within and across languages. We find that the resulting classifier distributions reflect the morphosyntactic alignment of their training languages. Our results demonstrate that mBERT representations are influenced by high-level grammatical features that are not manifested in any one input sentence, and that this is robust across languages. Further examining the characteristics that our classifiers rely on, we find that features such as passive voice, animacy and case strongly correlate with classification decisions, suggesting that mBERT does not encode subjecthood purely syntactically, but that subjecthood embedding is continuous and dependent on semantic and discourse factors, as is proposed in much of the functional linguistics literature. Together, these results provide insight into how grammatical features manifest in contextual embedding spaces, at a level of abstraction not covered by previous work.

pdf bib
How (Non-)Optimal is the Lexicon?
Tiago Pimentel | Irene Nikkarinen | Kyle Mahowald | Ryan Cotterell | Damián Blasi
Proceedings of the 2021 Conference of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics: Human Language Technologies

The mapping of lexical meanings to wordforms is a major feature of natural languages. While usage pressures might assign short words to frequent meanings (Zipf’s law of abbreviation), the need for a productive and open-ended vocabulary, local constraints on sequences of symbols, and various other factors all shape the lexicons of the world’s languages. Despite their importance in shaping lexical structure, the relative contributions of these factors have not been fully quantified. Taking a coding-theoretic view of the lexicon and making use of a novel generative statistical model, we define upper bounds for the compressibility of the lexicon under various constraints. Examining corpora from 7 typologically diverse languages, we use those upper bounds to quantify the lexicon’s optimality and to explore the relative costs of major constraints on natural codes. We find that (compositional) morphology and graphotactics can sufficiently account for most of the complexity of natural codes—as measured by code length.

pdf bib
Multilingual BERT, ergativity, and grammatical subjecthood
Isabel Papadimitriou | Ethan A. Chi | Richard Futrell | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the Society for Computation in Linguistics 2021

pdf bib
A Massively Multilingual Analysis of Cross-linguality in Shared Embedding Space
Alexander Jones | William Yang Wang | Kyle Mahowald
Proceedings of the 2021 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing

In cross-lingual language models, representations for many different languages live in the same space. Here, we investigate the linguistic and non-linguistic factors affecting sentence-level alignment in cross-lingual pretrained language models for 101 languages and 5,050 language pairs. Using BERT-based LaBSE and BiLSTM-based LASER as our models, and the Bible as our corpus, we compute a task-based measure of cross-lingual alignment in the form of bitext retrieval performance, as well as four intrinsic measures of vector space alignment and isomorphism. We then examine a range of linguistic, quasi-linguistic, and training-related features as potential predictors of these alignment metrics. The results of our analyses show that word order agreement and agreement in morphological complexity are two of the strongest linguistic predictors of cross-linguality. We also note in-family training data as a stronger predictor than language-specific training data across the board. We verify some of our linguistic findings by looking at the effect of morphological segmentation on English-Inuktitut alignment, in addition to examining the effect of word order agreement on isomorphism for 66 zero-shot language pairs from a different corpus. We make the data and code for our experiments publicly available.


pdf bib
With Little Power Comes Great Responsibility
Dallas Card | Peter Henderson | Urvashi Khandelwal | Robin Jia | Kyle Mahowald | Dan Jurafsky
Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP)

Despite its importance to experimental design, statistical power (the probability that, given a real effect, an experiment will reject the null hypothesis) has largely been ignored by the NLP community. Underpowered experiments make it more difficult to discern the difference between statistical noise and meaningful model improvements, and increase the chances of exaggerated findings. By meta-analyzing a set of existing NLP papers and datasets, we characterize typical power for a variety of settings and conclude that underpowered experiments are common in the NLP literature. In particular, for several tasks in the popular GLUE benchmark, small test sets mean that most attempted comparisons to state of the art models will not be adequately powered. Similarly, based on reasonable assumptions, we find that the most typical experimental design for human rating studies will be underpowered to detect small model differences, of the sort that are frequently studied. For machine translation, we find that typical test sets of 2000 sentences have approximately 75% power to detect differences of 1 BLEU point. To improve the situation going forward, we give an overview of best practices for power analysis in NLP and release a series of notebooks to assist with future power analyses.


pdf bib
Quantifying Word Order Freedom in Dependency Corpora
Richard Futrell | Kyle Mahowald | Edward Gibson
Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Dependency Linguistics (Depling 2015)