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N-gram probability effects in a cloze task

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What knowledge influences our choice of words when we write or speak? Predicting which word a person will produce next is not easy, even when the linguistic context is known. One task that has been used to assess context dependent word choice is the fill-in-the-blank task, also called the cloze task. The cloze probability of specific context is an empirical measure found by asking many people to fill in the blank. In this paper we harness the power of large corpora to look at the influence of corpus-derived probabilistic information from a word’s micro-context on word choice. We asked young adults to complete short phrases called n-grams with up to 20 responses per phrase. The probability of the responded word and the conditional probability of the response given the context were predictive of the frequency with which each response was produced. Furthermore the order in which the participants generated multiple completions of the same context was predicted by the conditional probability as well. These results suggest that word choice in cloze tasks taps into implicit knowledge of a person’s past experience with that word in various contexts. Furthermore, the importance of n-gram conditional probabilities in our analysis is further evidence of implicit knowledge about multi-word sequences and support theories of language processing that involve anticipating or predicting based on context.
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Keywords: cloze probability; formulaic language; multi-word expressions; n-grams; production

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2014

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