Théo Desbordes

Also published as: Theo Desbordes


pdf bib
Assessing the influence of attractor-verb distance on grammatical agreement in humans and language models
Christos Zacharopoulos | Théo Desbordes | Mathias Sablé-Meyer
Proceedings of the 2023 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing

Subject-verb agreement in the presence of an attractor noun located between the main noun and the verb elicits complex behavior: judgments of grammaticality are modulated by the grammatical features of the attractor. For example, in the sentence ``The girl near the boys likes climbing'', the attractor (boys) disagrees in grammatical number with the verb (likes), creating a locally implausible transition probability. Here, we parametrically modulate the distance between the attractor and the verb while keeping the length of the sentence equal. We evaluate the performance of both humans and two artificial neural network models: both make more mistakes when the attractor is closer to the verb, but neural networks get close to the chance level while humans are mostly able to overcome the attractor interference. Additionally, we report a linear effect of attractor distance on reaction times. We hypothesize that a possible reason for the proximity effect is the calculation of transition probabilities between adjacent words. Nevertheless, classical models of attraction such as the cue-based model might suffice to explain this phenomenon, thus paving the way for new research. Data and analyses available at


pdf bib
Can Transformers Process Recursive Nested Constructions, Like Humans?
Yair Lakretz | Théo Desbordes | Dieuwke Hupkes | Stanislas Dehaene
Proceedings of the 29th International Conference on Computational Linguistics

Recursive processing is considered a hallmark of human linguistic abilities. A recent study evaluated recursive processing in recurrent neural language models (RNN-LMs) and showed that such models perform below chance level on embedded dependencies within nested constructions – a prototypical example of recursion in natural language. Here, we study if state-of-the-art Transformer LMs do any better. We test eight different Transformer LMs on two different types of nested constructions, which differ in whether the embedded (inner) dependency is short or long range. We find that Transformers achieve near-perfect performance on short-range embedded dependencies, significantly better than previous results reported for RNN-LMs and humans. However, on long-range embedded dependencies, Transformers’ performance sharply drops below chance level. Remarkably, the addition of only three words to the embedded dependency caused Transformers to fall from near-perfect to below-chance performance. Taken together, our results reveal how brittle syntactic processing is in Transformers, compared to humans.


pdf bib
The emergence of number and syntax units in LSTM language models
Yair Lakretz | German Kruszewski | Theo Desbordes | Dieuwke Hupkes | Stanislas Dehaene | Marco Baroni
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)

Recent work has shown that LSTMs trained on a generic language modeling objective capture syntax-sensitive generalizations such as long-distance number agreement. We have however no mechanistic understanding of how they accomplish this remarkable feat. Some have conjectured it depends on heuristics that do not truly take hierarchical structure into account. We present here a detailed study of the inner mechanics of number tracking in LSTMs at the single neuron level. We discover that long-distance number information is largely managed by two “number units”. Importantly, the behaviour of these units is partially controlled by other units independently shown to track syntactic structure. We conclude that LSTMs are, to some extent, implementing genuinely syntactic processing mechanisms, paving the way to a more general understanding of grammatical encoding in LSTMs.