How to find Mrs. Billington? Approximate string matching applied to misspelled names

  1. 1. Gerhard Brey

    King's College London

  2. 2. Manolis Christodoulakis

    University of East London

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In this paper we discuss some of the problems that arise when
searching for misspelled names. We suggest a solution to
overcome these and to disambiguate the names found.
The Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition (NCSE) is a digital
edition of six nineteenth-century newspaper and periodical
titles. It is a collaborative project between Birkbeck College,
King’s College London, the British Library and Olive Software
Inc. funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.
The corpus consists of about 100,000 pages that were microfi
lmed, scanned in and processed using optical character
recognition software (OCR) to obtain images for display in
the web application as well as the full text of the publications.
In the course of this processing (by Olive Software) the text
of each individual issue was also automatically segmented
into its constituent parts (newspaper departments, articles,
advertisements, etc.).
The application of text mining techniques (named entity
extraction, text categorisation, etc.) allowed names, institutions
and places etc. to be extracted as well as individual articles to
be classifi ed according to events, subjects and genres. Users
of the digital edition can search for very specifi c information.
The extent to which these searches are successful depends, of
course, on the quality of the available data.
The problem
The quality of some of the text resulting from the OCR process
varies from barely readable to illegible. This refl ects the poor
print quality of the original paper copies of the publications. A
simple search of the scanned and processed text for a person’s
name, for example, would retrieve exact matches, but ignore
incorrectly spelled or distorted variations.
Misspellings of ordinary text could be checked against an
authoritative electronic dictionary. An equivalent reference
work for names does not exist. This paper describes the
solutions that are being investigated to overcome these
diffi culties.
This theatrical notice on page 938 of the Leader from
17.11.1860 highlights the limitations of OCR alone.
The actress Mrs. Billington is mentioned twice. OCR recognised
the name once as Mrs. lUllinijton and then as Mrs.
BIIMngton. A simple search for the name Billington would
therefore be unsuccessful.
By applying a combination of approximate string matching
techniques and allowing for a certain amount of spelling errors
(see below) our more refi ned approach successfully fi nds the
two distorted spellings as Mrs. Billington. However, it
also fi nds a number of other unrelated names (Wellington
and Rivington among others). This additional problem is
redressed by mapping misspelled names to correctly spelled
names. Using a combination of string similarity and string
distance algorithms we have developed an application to rank
misspelled names according to their likelihood of representing
a correctly spelled name.
The algorithm
As already briefl y mentioned above we are applying several
well known pattern matching algorithms to perform
approximate pattern matching, where the pattern is a given
name (a surname normally), and the “text” is a (huge) list of
names, obtained from the OCR of scanned documents. The
novelty of this work comes from the fact that we are utilizing
application-specifi c characteristics to achieve better results
than are possible through general-purpose pattern matching
Currently we are considering the pattern to be error-free
(although our algorithms can easily be extended to deal with
errors in the pattern too). Moreover, all the algorithms take as
input the maximum “distance” that a name in the list may have
from the pattern to be considered a match; this distance is
given as a percentage. As one would expect, there is a tradeoff
in distance - quality of matches: low distance threshold yields
less false positives, but may miss some true matches; on the
other hand, a high distance threshold has less chances of
missing true matches, but will return many fake ones. At the heart of the algorithms lies a ranking system, the
purpose of which is to sort the matching names according to
how well they match. (Recall that the list of matching names
can be huge, and thus what is more important is really the
ranking of those matches, to distinguish the good ones from
random matches.) Obviously, the ranking system depends on
the distance-metric in use, but there is more to be taken into
account. Notice that, if a name matches our pattern with some
error, e, there are two cases:
- either the name is a true match, and the error e is due to
bad OCR, or
- the name (misspelled or not, by OCR) does not
correspond to our pattern, in which case it is a bad match
and should receive a lower rank.
It is therefore essential, given a possibly misspelled (due to
OCR) name, s’, to identify the true name, s, that it corresponds
to. Then, it is obvious that s’ is a good match if p = s, and a bad
match otherwise, where p is the pattern. To identify whether a
name s’ in our list is itself a true name, or has been mispelled
we use two types of evaluation:
- We count the occurrences of s’ in the list. A name that
occurs many times, is likely to be a true name; if it had been
misspelled, it is very unlikely that all its occurrences would
have been misspelled in exactly the same manner, by the
OCR software.
- We have compiled a list L of valid names; these names are
then used to decide whether s’ is a valid name (s’ ∈ L) or
not (s’ ∉ L).
In the case where s’ is indeed mispelled by OCR, and is thus
not a true name, one must use distance metrics to identify
how closely it matches the pattern p. Given that the pattern is
considered to be error-free, if the distance of the name from
the pattern is large then it is very unlikely (but not impossible)
that too many of the symbols of the name have been mispelled
by OCR; instead, most probably the name does not really
match the pattern.
Taking into account the nature of the errors that occur in our
application, when computing the distance of a name in the
list from our pattern, we consider optical similarities. That is,
we drop the common tactic where one symbol is compared
against another symbol, and either they match - so the distance
is 0, or they don’t - so the distance is 1; instead, we consider
a symbol (or a group of symbols) to have a low distance
from another symbol (or group of symbols) if their shapes
look similar. As an example, check that “m” is optically very
similar to “rn”, and thus should be assigned a small distance,
say 1, while “m” and “b” do not look similar to each other and
therefore should have a big distance, say 10.
The results of our efforts to date have been very promising.
We look forward to investigating opportunities to improve
the effectiveness of the algorithm in the future.
NCSE website:
Cavnar, William B. and John M. Trenkle. “N-Gram-Based
Text Categorization”, in: Proceedings of SDAIR-94, 3rd Annual
Symposium on Document Analysis and Information Retrieval, Las
Vegas 1994, 161-175;;
accessed Nov 2007.
Cavnar, William B. “Using An N-Gram-Based Document
Representation With A Vector Processing Retrieval Model”,
in: TREC, 1994, 269--277;
papers/; accessed Nov 2007.
Gusfi eld, Dan. Algorithms on strings, trees, and sequences:
computer science and computational biology, Cambridge (CUP)
Hall, Patrick A. V. and Geoff R. Dowling. “Approximate String
Matching”, in: ACM Computing Surveys, 12.4 (1980), 381--
402;; accessed
November 2007
Jurafsky, Daniel Saul and James H. Martin. Speech and Language
Processing: An Introduction to Natural Language Processing,
Computational Linguistics, and Speech Recognition, Upper Saddle
River, NJ (Prentice Hall) 2000, Chapter 5.
Lapedriza, Àgata and Jordi Vitrià. “Open N-Grams and
Discriminant Features in Text World: An Empirical Study”;; accessed
November 2007.
Navarro, Gonzalo. “A guided tour to approximate string
matching”, in: ACM Computing Surveys, 33.1 (2001), 31--
88;; accessed
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Navarro, Gonzalo and Mathieu Raffi not. Flexible pattern
matching in strings: practical on-line search algorithms for texts
and biological sequences, Cambridge (CUP) 2002.
Oakes, Michael P. Statistics for corpus linguistics, Edinburgh
(Edinburgh Univ. Press) 1998, (Edinburgh textbooks in
empirical linguistics, XVI), Chapter 3.4

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2008

Hosted at University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

June 25, 2008 - June 29, 2008

135 works by 231 authors indexed

Conference website:

Series: ADHO (3)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None