How Abstract Is Linguistic Generalization in Large Language Models? Experiments with Argument Structure

• Michael Wilson, Jackson Petty and Robert Frank

[arXiv] [TACL]

Abstract. Language models are typically evaluated on their success at predicting the distribution of specific words in specific contexts. Yet linguistic knowledge also encodes relationships between contexts, allowing inferences between word distributions. We investigate the degree to which pre-trained Transformer-based large language models (LLMs) represent such relationships, focusing on the domain of argument structure. We find that LLMs perform well in generalizing the distribution of a novel noun argument between related contexts that were seen during pre-training (e.g., the active object and passive subject of the verb spray), succeeding by making use of the semantically-organized structure of the embedding space for word embeddings. However, LLMs fail at generalizations between related contexts that have not been observed during pre-training, but which instantiate more abstract, but well-attested structural generalizations (e.g., between the active object and passive subject of an arbitrary verb). Instead, in this case, LLMs show a bias to generalize based on linear order. This finding points to a limitation with current models and points to a reason for which their training is data-intensive.

@article{wilson-2024-AbstractStructure,
  title = {{How Abstract Is Linguistic Generalization in Large Language Models?
  Experiments with Argument Structure}},
  author = {Wilson, Michael and Petty, Jackson and Frank, Robert},
  journaltitle = {Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics},
  volume = {11},
  issue = {2023},
  pages = {1377--1395},
  date = {2023-11-13},
  doi = {10.1162/tacl_a_00608},
  issn = {2307-387X},
  url = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/tacl_a_00608},
}