Why our Subject Verb Agreement model sucks

taken from Quill.org's repository

Here at Quill.org we have been working on improved sentence feedback for students who hope to become better writers. A part of this initiative is detecting subject-verb agreement errors, unintentional tense shifts, and errors within verb phrases such as double modal errors, ("You might should put that pretty bike away.") or bad pairings ("have be"). I group all of these layers under the catch-all title, Subject Verb Agreement, and often abreviate it to SVA. The English language is full of intracacies that make SVA error recognition and feedback difficult; this is a short post-mortem on why our last tensorflow model failed so miserably. This week will be spent creating a new model, hopefully one that can better serve our students! Update soon.

The method

First we gathered a set of correct sentences, and a set with errors

In order to build a successful machine learning model, our strategy was to start with seed sentence's from Project Gutenberg children's books. Literary licence gives authors some freedom from grammar, but children's books tend to take less advantage of that which was to our benefit. In all, we extracted more than 800,000 sentences and explored many of them manually to test our hypothesis. Despite all being classified as children's books by Project Gutenberg, a good number of the books had Flesh-Kincaid reading scores well into the 9th and 10th grade levels. Our exploration of the data, along with that fact, convinced me that these sentences would include a large enough portion of English grammar to be suitable.

After the sentences were selected, we created a set of 'mangled sentences' by changing the tense of single verb at a time in a correct sentence to all of its alternatives. While this method is not sure to produce incorrect sentences, it is extremely likely to for multiverb sentences because along with any number of other problems, a sloppy tense shift is a near certainty. Because Quill.org already had a very successful Subject-Verb agreement checker for sentences with a single verb phrase, we decided that we would continue to use our old rule-based AI for checking single-verb sentences, and use the model for more complex sentences. From the 800,000 correct sentences, we created ~13 million mangled sentences.

Then we reduced the sentences

'Reduction' is the word I came up with to describe the 'important' parts of a sentence that we extract that can be used to train a neural net after being translated into tensors. (This might not be the right word -- I am rather new to this). In the case of SVA, we must decide if the verb agrees with the subject (and the other verbs too really). This means that subjects and verbs are really the only important information in the sentence. It's also incredibly important that we pair the correct subject with its verb phrase. ("They were at the park while I was at the beach" is fine -- "I" has to agree with "was" but not with "were" so this sentence is correct).

For my methodolgy, I chose to pair the noun chunks with the verb phrases and then change the literal noun into either 'SG' or 'PL' (singular or plural) and change the verb literal into a hash of its tenses using the tenses method in the python pattern library. I left pronouns alone since they have funky rules. Here is an example of how it works,

# => [('present', 1, 'singular', 'indicative', 'imperfective')]
# => '6b37717f3391631a174b04eba76ba908596c2b79f33256bfec458cd7d63578a4'

A sentence like, 'Kate is the better poet.' would generate a single reduction, tenses('is') > 'SG'. Other sentences might have 2, 3, or more reductions. Out of around 1.6 million sentences we selected to reduce, ~5500 unique reductions were found with the top reductions being found in thousands of sentences.

To train our models we then vectorize each sentence, which essentially means representing it as an array of its reductions. Then, based on which reductions are correlated with correct and incorrect sentences, the black-box of our neural net can learn to make informed decisions.

We trained our model, and tested it. Testing revealed we were able to catch errors with somewhere between 70 and 80 percent accuracy. That might sound suitable, but trust us, it wasn't.

So why didn't it work?

Stupid in, stupid out.

Our model was missing some critical information, and that is why it did so poorly. Our reductions didn't just 'reduce' the problem, they were changing it entirely. So what did we miss?

  1. Irregulars. Out of the top 100 most common verbs in English, more than half are irregular in the way they shift tenses. Who would have guessed they were irregular in other ways too,

    → I am going running [✓] → I am swimming running [✘]

    Going and swimming have the same tenses, but going follows different rules than the word swimming. Go has so many grammar rules surrounding it that it has its own Wikipedia page

    Verbs like 'Go' shouldn't be tensified, they should just be themselves.

  2. Action / Being verbs. Another tense shift nightmare comes with action verbs and their more zen counterparts.

    → We were swimming. [✓] → We swam swimming. [✘]

    Tenses aside (swam and were have identical tenses according to pattern.en), these sentences have little in common. One is standard, the other is at best a reduntant mess if a comma were inserted after swam.

    → I want candy. [✓] → I be candy. [✘]

    Here is another even more egregious offender, the second has a clear subject verb agreement error, whereas the first is perfectly fine (albeit a bit hedonistic). How dare we treat these sentences the same!

  3. Names. Trusting the pattern library to check subjects for plurality was one of our greatest mistakes. It recognizes names like 'James' and even 'Alice' as plural, creating dangerous situations.

    → James is tired. [✓] → The cars is broken. [✘]

    Interpreting James as plural here creates a disasterous reduction linking plural 3rd person nouns to the verb 'is', which as our example shows, is clearly incorrect.

  4. Mood. Sentences can have different moods. Indicatives express factual information, imperatives issue commands, and the subjunctive deals in hypotheticals. What might be allowed for one mood, might not be in another.

    → He talks as if he were an expert. [✓] → He were an expert. [✘]

    The verb phrase is the same, but while it works in the subjunctive, it doesn't go over well in the indicative.

    → Pick up your clothes. [✓] → Your mom, pick up your clothes, is sad. [✘]

    The subject in the first sentence is an implied 'You', and in the second, is 'your mom'. Our reductions though each include 'Pick' with no subject. In the indicative an unpaired verb should be in participle form ('Picking'), but in imperative form, the infinitive is the only style of verb that will do.

  5. Poor sentence simplification. Sentences must be simplified before reducing them. Removing modifiers, joining compound subjects, and replacing infinitive phrases acting as subjects with gerunds are a few clean-up moves that make life a lot easier.

    → To swim is fun. → is > swim → is ✘ swim

    If we change the infinitive in the subject to swimming we end up with the equivalent (and less awkward) sentence,

    → The cars is broken. [✘] → Swimming is fun. → is > swimming → is ✓ swimming

    We can grade it correctly.

Compound subjects are also a bear. Take

→ Sleeping in the backseat of the car, Katherine and John snored.

This could be converted to,

→ Sleeping in the backseat of the car, they snored. [✓]

But how to know that the subject wasn't 'the car, Katherine and John'?

It's important to remove prepositional phrases so we don't get,

→ Sleeping in the backseat of they snored. [✘]

Instead, we end up with,

→ Sleeping, they snored. [✓]

What a pleasure to vectorize a 3 word sentence!

  1. Idioms. This stuff is bananas! Shouldn't it be 'These things are bananas'? Obviously both are fine (and mean different things). Idioms like this are common in English and often have a funky grammatical structure. To handle them properly, they should be extracted from our training set or deemed negligible in number, and a rule based system could provide a second layer of detection OR idioms could be transformed into more grammatical versions in the preprocessing step. Finally, we could choose to just judge them normally... we are teaching grammar after all?

With these 6 major mistakes in mind, we hope to greatly improve the efficacy of our model. Whether we will be able to accurately extract all this information remains to be seen. I have high hopes.

Updates soon.

Max Buck, Quill.org.

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(c) 2018 maxbuckdeveloper@gmail.com