LINGUIST List 9.328

Thu Mar 5 1998

Disc: Natural Language Processing and Syntax

Editor for this issue: Julie Wilson <>


  1. Pius ten Hacken, Re: Disc: NLP and Syntax (Re 9-255)

Message 1: Re: Disc: NLP and Syntax (Re 9-255)

Date: Tue, 03 Mar 1998 14:57:46 +0100
From: Pius ten Hacken <>
Subject: Re: Disc: NLP and Syntax (Re 9-255)


>P.P.S. As the field of linguistics is dominated by very intelligent, very
>informed individuals who are also quite competitive, you can measure
>the success of this argument on the field overall by the reactions of the
>readers to this post--the smaller the response, the higher the acceptance
>(begrudging though it may be). That is, people are certainly willing to
>criticize any argument they can, but they merely keep quiet if they cannot.
>Praise for a competitor's arguments is not likely. Thus, a lack of
>criticism should be interpreted as acceptance of these arguments.

I would not otherwise have reacted to Phil Bralich's claims, but this
remark made me feel obliged to explain why I think many linguists will
consider his message as simply irrelevant to their concerns.

A syntactic theory is part of linguistics as an empirical science.
Empirical sciences are concerned with explaining chosen aspects of a domain
of observations in the real world. In the case of linguistics, the domain
is natural language, but different aspects of language can be chosen as a
goal for explanation, e.g. acquisition in Chomskyan linguistics, processing
in LFG. The success of a linguistic theory depends on the degree to which
an explanatory account is reached. The fact that different linguistic
theories take different questions about language as a basis for research
implies that in some cases a common ground for evaluation is missing. The
following article gives an analysis of a number of theories along these
lines and of the type of misunderstanding occurring when adherents of
different theories are in discussion:

ten Hacken, Pius (1997), 'Progress and Incommensurability in Linguistics',
Beitraege zur Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft 7:287-310.

Instead of addressing the explanatory nature of linguistic theories,
Bralich only considers their descriptive qualities. In this way he neglects
the purpose of linguistic theories, so that he has no right to judge them
on these standards.

Independently of any evaluation of a syntactic theory qua theory of
linguistics, we might consider their usefulness in Computational
Linguistics (CL). Since the application in CL is not an aspect chosen by
any of the major theories of linguistics, the results of such an evaluation
do not affect the extent to which a theory reaches its explanatory goal. Of
course the evaluation is relevant to CL, but only in the sense that it is
practical to have an applicable theory, not in the sense that linguists do
not do their job properly otherwise.

By the way, the evaluation criteria Bralich proposes look rather like a
design specification to me. They depend on a (to my mind) highly specific,
not so straightforward analysis of the parsing problem. If there is an
underlying theory for the choice of specifications I would expect it to
generate a corresponding set of specifications for, say, French. At any
rate it does not seem good scientific practice to me to apply one's own
design specifications as evaluation criteria for competing products without
stating so explicitly.

Pius ten Hacken


Dr. Pius ten Hacken
Institut fuer Informatik/Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft
Universitaet Basel
Petersgraben 51 || Tel. +41-61-267'33'38
CH-4051 Basel || Fax +41-61-267'32'51
Switzerland || email:

web page:

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