Generating Coherent Paragraphs

  1. 1. Greg Lessard

    Department of French - Queen's University

  2. 2. Michael Levison

    Department of Computing and Information Science - Queen's University

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Recent years have seen something of a divorce
between models of computer-aided instruction
and theories of second language learning. For
example, it has come to be recognized that a
satisfactory model of language teaching must incorporate the notion of ‘communicative competence’, that is, not only the production of grammatically correct utterances, but also the appropriate
use of utterances according to situations. At the
same time, it has been recognized that linguistic
competence goes beyond sentence-length utterances to include textual relations such as anaphora,
inference, logical connectives and the like. Finally, it has been suggested that decontextualized
utterances with little or no reference to reality do
not necessarily serve the interests of language
learners; rather, they should be exposed to ‘authentic’ texts which contain information about the
cultural context of the language being taught. Such
limitations affect not only instructional systems,
but also subject testing environments aimed at
capturing in finer detail the nuances of linguistic
One solution to this problem lies in the construction of finely crafted environments in which complex linguistic, discourse and pragmatic relations
may be represented. On a basic level, there exists
a broad range of authoring systems (Calis, from
Duke University, to name but one) which allow
the manual entry and tagging of authentic texts to
produce comprehension exercises. At a more sophisticated level, one finds the use of programmed
‘microworlds’ which may be navigated by learners. For example, Hamburger (1994) proposes a
language learning environment based on a ‘Kitchen World’ in which learners may manipulate
objects (turning on a faucet, for example), read
descriptions and produce utterances ordering that
actions be performed.
The development of more ‘authentic’ examples of
the sort will depend crucially on progress in
dealing with textual inference and incorporating
encyclopedic knowledge. Work of the sort has
been done. For example, the BORIS program
(Lehnert 1983) is capable of understanding a complex narrative concerning divorce. On a broader
scale, the CYC project (Lenat 1990) involves the
attempt to capture a broad range of encyclopedic
information and related inferences.
Despite their promise, all of these approaches have
a number of weaknesses. BORIS is capable of
understanding relatively complex texts dealing
with divorce and shows an impressive ability to
extract implicit information from such texts. However, the underpinnings of this information are
buried in the complex code of the program, with
the result that extensions to other domains are
difficult. Similarly, extension of Hamburger’s microworld would involve significant reprogramming. Despite its broad coverage, the CYC project
is not directly applicable to language learning.
Finally, traditional hand coding of authentic texts
provides precise control and textual authenticity,
but at the cost of time and effort, since the author
must make explicit all the implicit components of
a text. Also, such authentic texts tend to ‘date’
quite rapidly, so that what was current one year
may be outmoded a few years later.
In this paper we investigate an intermediate path:
a simple metalanguage capable of generating at
least basic paragraphs which deal with real-world
phenomena, with some facilities for generalization to a range of examples. In this way, one could
go beyond simple decontextualized sentences,
while retaining control over the structure of paragraph-length utterances.
The VINCI environment was selected for the experiment, given its generalized power of expression, its multilingual capacities and its use of a
linguist-friendly metalanguage. The VINCI system has been described elsewhere in a number of
papers (Levison and Lessard 1992, for example).
In essence, it is composed of a number of formalisms for describing the syntax, semantics, lexicon
and morphology of some subset of a language and
for generating utterances according to the description.
A first attempt at producing coherent and contextualized utterances was made in French. An
existing French lexicon was extended to include a
range of encyclopedic information, including names of French authors, their dates of birth and
death, and titles of their major works. The links
between these pieces of information are specified
by ‘lexical pointers’ as the following examples
"Benjamin Constant"|ENCYC|>humain.Fonction||#1...|
"‘Mémoires d’outre-tombe’"|ENCYC|>écrit.Fonction||#1...|
"1767"|ENCYC|>année||#1...|siècle:"18ième siècle"|
"1768"|ENCYC|>année||#1...|siècle:"18ième siècle"|
Here we see that “Chateaubriand” points at a birthdate (naissance) of “1767”. This date is itself a
lexical entry, which points at the century to which
it belongs “18ième siècle”. Similarly, the two novels “René” and “Mémoires d’outre-tombe” point
at their author.
Using this information, with appropriate syntactic
mechanisms, VINCI constructs simple dialogues
such as the following, where ‘Q’ represents the
computer’s question written to the screen and ‘A’
the expected answers which it stores in a hidden
file for comparison with user input.
Q: Qui a écrit ‘René’?
A: Chateaubriand
Q: Quand est-ce que Benjamin Constant est né?
A: Il est né en 1767.
A: Il est né au 18ième siècle.
A: Il est né dans le 18ième siècle.
This framework was used for subject testing in an
attempt to tease out more detailed data on the use
of “dans” as opposed to “au” for temporal reference by anglophone learners of French (the third
answer in the second example above). An indication of the extent to which the environment successfully hid its grammatical agenda is provided
by the remark made by several subjects that they
were ashamed of their poor knowledge of French
literature and planned to enrol straightaway in a
While this framework illustrates the possibilities
of including encyclopedic information in a generative system, as well as the possibilities of dialogue, links between individual utterances continue
to be purely random. Any attempt to address this
problem must take account of the grammar of texts
and of a range of discourse processes. We will
provide two examples of such constraints.
(1) Consider first the level of the sentence. There
has been considerable discussion of the role of
‘thematic hierarchies’ in the presentation of textual information. For example, Allen (1987) argues
that the ordering of sentence elements reflects the
influence of a series of overlapping hierarchies
whose overall effect is to place familiar information before new, animates before inanimates, and
so on. Corpus work on Preferred Argument Structure appears to provide empirical support for a
number of grammatical constraints of a similar
kind. Thus Ashby and Bentivoglio (1993) found
that in two-argument verbs in French, there is a
strong tendency for initial elements to be pronouns
rather than full noun phrases.
(2) At the paragraph level, a variety of approaches
have been suggested to account for the structure
of text, ranging from schemas (McKeown) to frameworks such as Rhetorical Structure Theory
(RST) (Mann and Thompson 1987) which provides a typology of paragraph types linking argument structures and formal paragraph patterns, to
mixtures of the two (Hovy 1988). There has been
a great deal of research on such questions in the
area of Natural Language Generation. However,
we are not aware of attempts to apply it to second
language performance research or language teaching. In particular, there is need for empirical
research on the ability of second language learners
to conceptualize textual structures while handicapped by limited lexical and syntactic resources.
In an attempt to work with this problem, we have
proposed mini-grammars of paragraph structure.
Somewhat simplified, these contain the following
– lexical items tagged with a rich set of lexical
pointers to encyclopedically related items. Thus,
as the following example shows, the item “apple”
includes pointers to positive (p) and negative (n)
evaluations of taste, texture and colour, as well as
pointers to kinds of apples.
ptaste:"sweet"/ADJ; ntaste:"sour"/ADJ;
ptexture:"crunchy"/ADJ, "crisp"/ADJ, "juicy"/ADJ;
ntexture:"mushy"/ADJ,"pulpy"/ADJ, "soft"/ADJ;
– syntactic rules (phrase structure and transformations) capable of operating on initial elements in
order to generate coherent paragraphs, as in the
following example, which defines a paragraph
presenting an initial value judgement followed by
supporting evidence and finally additional detail.
In essence, this rule states that the structure
PARA1 is composed of a combination of metavariables (in capital letters) each of which defines a
particular syntactic operation on a base form.
Thus, MAKESUBJECTIVE defines a sentence
which expresses a subjective opinion with respect
to the base form and the attitude chosen (for example: “I like x”). MAKEOBJECTIVE expresses
the same attitude as an objective statement, as in
“x are nice”. The vertical bar causes a random
choice to be made between the two. Similarly,
metavariables like MAKEPTASTE use pointer
information from the base form to construct utterances which attribute an appropriate positive description of the taste, texture or colour of the base
form. MAKEHEALTH produces a judgement on
the healthy properties of the base form while MAKELIKEKIND uses pointer information on the
base to talk about subsidiary kinds.
Application of this ‘paragraph grammar’ to particular lexical items produces simple paragraphs, as
the following examples (generated from the previous grammar) illustrate:
I like apples. They are sweet, red and crunchy.
Apples are good for you. I particularly like MacIntosh.
Oranges are nice. They are sweet. They are orange.
They are firm. They are good for you. I especially
like navel oranges.
Similar structures provide examples of justification (I like apples because...) or exceptions (I like
apples even though...). Additional operations allow the formulation of questions based on the
original paragraph, for comprehension testing and
the like.
Clearly, the model shown here represents only a
first step in a long process. In particular, despite
the fact that they generate authentic-looking paragraphs, the models used here do not yet embody
historically contingent information, as for example the fact that over the past half-century the
genetic diversity of apple stocks has been seriously reduced by the growing and marketing of only
a few species such as MacIntosh. The optimal
representation of such information will be a challenge for our model. Similarly, the range of logical
relations dealt with is still small.
Despite this, the approach shown here has the
advantage of allowing relatively easy manipulation of discourse elements in a controlled fashion.
While the two examples shown are quite simple,
the principles for producing much more complex
structures are already present.
In the presentation, we will describe use of structures of the sort in a subject-testing environment
in which paragraphs are shown on the screen, then
caused to disappear, to be replaced by comprehension and other questions.
Hamburger, H. (1994) Foreign Language Immersion: Science, Practice and a System. Journal
of Artificial Intelligence in Education
Hovy, D. (1991) Approaches to the Planning of
Coherent Text. In Paris, Swartout and Mann,
(eds.) Natural Language Generation in Artificial Intelligence and Computational Linguistics. Boston: Kluwer.
Lehnert, W. et al. (1983) BORIS – An experiment
in in-depth understanding of narratives, Artificial Intelligence 20:15–62.
Lenat, D. (1990) Building large knowledge-based
systems: representation and inference in the
CYC project. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Levison, M., Lessard, G. (1992) A System for
Natural Language Generation, Computers and
the Humanities 26:43–58.
Mann, W.C. and Thompson, S.A. (1987) Rhetorical Structure Theory: Description and Construction of Text Structures. In Kempen, G.
(ed.) Natural Language Generation. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Bergen

Bergen, Norway

June 25, 1996 - June 29, 1996

147 works by 190 authors indexed

Scott Weingart has print abstract book that needs to be scanned; certain abstracts also available on dh-abstracts github page. (

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (16), ALLC/EADH (23), ACH/ALLC (8)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC