Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Computer Science

First Advisor

Vasant Honavar


Probabilistic grammars define joint probability distributions over sentences and their grammatical structures. They have been used in many areas, such as natural language processing, bioinformatics and pattern recognition, mainly for the purpose of deriving grammatical structures from data (sentences). Unsupervised approaches to learning probabilistic grammars induce a grammar from unannotated sentences, which eliminates the need for manual annotation of grammatical structures that can be laborious and error-prone. In this thesis we study unsupervised learning of probabilistic context-free grammars and probabilistic dependency grammars, both of which are expressive enough for many real-world languages but remain tractable in inference. We investigate three different approaches.

The first approach is a structure search approach for learning probabilistic context-free grammars. It acquires rules of an unknown probabilistic context-free grammar through iterative coherent biclustering of the bigrams in the training corpus. A greedy procedure is used in our approach to add rules from biclusters such that each set of rules being added into the grammar results in the largest increase in the posterior of the grammar given the training corpus. Our experiments on several benchmark datasets show that this approach is competitive with existing methods for unsupervised learning of context-free grammars.

The second approach is a parameter learning approach for learning natural language grammars based on the idea of unambiguity regularization. We make the observation that natural language is remarkably unambiguous in the sense that each natural language sentence has a large number of possible parses but only a few of the parses are syntactically valid. We incorporate this prior information into parameter learning by means of posterior regularization. The resulting algorithm family contains classic EM and Viterbi EM, as well as a novel softmax-EM algorithm that can be implemented with a simple and efficient extension to classic EM. Our experiments show that unambiguity regularization improves natural language grammar learning, and when combined with other techniques our approach achieves the state-of-the-art grammar learning results.

The third approach is grammar learning with a curriculum. A curriculum is a means of presenting training samples in a meaningful order. We introduce the incremental construction hypothesis that explains the benefits of a curriculum in learning grammars and offers some useful insights into the design of curricula as well as learning algorithms. We present results of experiments with (a) carefully crafted synthetic data that provide support for our hypothesis and (b) natural language corpus that demonstrate the utility of curricula in unsupervised learning of real-world probabilistic grammars.

Copyright Owner

Kewei Tu



Date Available


File Format


File Size

104 pages