Simplicity and learning to distinguish arguments from modifiers


  • Leon Bergen University of California San Diego
  • Edward Gibson Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Timothy J. O'Donnell McGill University, Canada CIFAR AI Chair, Mila


linguistics, machine learning, computational linguistics, syntax, statistics


We present a learnability analysis of the argument-modifier distinction, asking whether there is information in the distribution of English constituents that could allow learners to identify which constituents are arguments and which are modifiers. We first develop a general description of some of the ways in which arguments and modifiers differ in distribution. We then identify two models from the literature that can capture these differences, which we call the argument-only model and the argument-modifier model. We employ these models using a common learning framework based on two simplicity biases which tradeoff against one another. The first bias favors a small lexicon with highly reusable lexical items, and the second, opposing, bias favors simple derivations of individual forms – those using small numbers of lexical items.

Our first empirical study shows that the argument-modifier model is able to recover the argument-modifier status of many individual constituents when evaluated against a gold standard. This provides evidence in favor of our general account of the distributional differences between arguments and modifiers. It also suggests a kind of lower bound on the amount of information that a suitably equipped learner could use to identify which phrases are arguments or modifiers.

We then present a series of analyses investigating how and why the argument-modifier model is able to recover the argument-modifier status of some constituents. In particular, we show that the argumentmodifier model is able to provide a simpler description of the input corpus than the argument-only model, both in terms of lexicon size, and in terms of the complexity of individual derivations. Intuitively, the argument-modifier model is able to do this because it is able to ignore spurious modifier structure when learning the lexicon. These analyses further support our general account of the differences between arguments and modifiers, as well as our simplicity-based approach to learning.


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How to Cite

Bergen, L., Gibson, E., & O’Donnell, T. J. (2022). Simplicity and learning to distinguish arguments from modifiers. Journal of Language Modelling, 10(2), 241–286.