I.A. Bolshakov, A. Gelbukh. A Very Large Database of Collocations and Semantic Links. Proc. NLDB'2000: 5th International Conference on Applications of Natural Language to Information Systems, Versailles, France, June 28-30, 2000. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer-Verlag.


A Very Large Database
of Collocations and Semantic Links

Igor Bolshakov and Alexander Gelbukh

Center for Computing Research, National Polytechnic Institute,
Av. Juan Dios B
átiz s/n esq. Mendizabal, col. Zacatenco, 07738, México DF., Mexico.


Abstract. A computational system manages a very large database of collocations (word combinations) and semantic links. The collocations are related (in the meaning of a dependency grammar) word pairs, joint immediately or through prepositions. Synonyms, antonyms, subclasses, superclasses, etc. represent semantic relations and form a thesaurus. The structure of the system is universal, so that its language-dependent parts are easily adjustable to any specific language (English, Spanish, Russian, etc.). Inference rules for prediction of highly probable new collocations automatically enrich the database at runtime. The inference is assisted by the available thesaurus links. The aim of the system is word processing, foreign language learning, parse filtering, and lexical disambiguation.

Keywords: dictionary, collocations, thesaurus, syntactic relations, semantic relations, lexical disambiguation.


Word processing and computerized learning of foreign languages include mastering not only the vocabulary of separate words, but also common relations between them. The most important relations are

·         dependency links between words, with give word combinations (collocations) occurring in texts with or without interruption (e.g., fold ® [in one’s] arms, way ® [of] speakingdeep ¬ admirationkiss ® passionately, etc.), and

·         semantic links of all kinds (smalllittle, smallbig, apple-treetree, houseroom, treatmentdoctor, etc.).

To enable writing a correct text in an unknown language (or sublanguage) with the aid of computer, author needs a linguistic database with registered links of the mentioned types and with the most possible completeness.

In [1, 2], a preliminary description of the CrossLexica system was given. It was planned as a very large (unrealizable in the printed form) database reflecting multiplicity of relations between Russian words.

The further research has shown that the basic ideas of CrossLexica are equally applicable to other languages, between them English, Spanish or French. The structure of the system contains only few features dependent on the specific language. Properties of morphology, the use of obligatory articles or other determinants of nouns, the word order, and some other morphosyntactic features can be rather easily adjusted to some universal structure. However, each version of the system is dedicated to a specific language, and another language can be optionally embedded only for queries.

In the past, the valuable printed dictionary of English collocations was created by Benson, Benson, and Ilson [3], while the WordNet project [4] has produced a very large database of only semantic links between English words. The analogous works for Italian [5] and other European languages are also known, whereas in [6] large-scale database of uninterrupted Japanese collocations was reported. However, we are unaware so far of systems covering both semantic and syntactic relations and deriving benefits from this coexistence. It is worth to claim that the combined system is in no way WordNet-like, since its collocation-oriented part can be much more bulky and contain information unprecedented in the modern word processors.

The continuing research has proved a broader applicability of the important property of CrossLexica to use semantic relations already available in its database for predicting collocations that were not yet available in it in the explicit form. Let us call this feature self-enrichment of the database.

Step by step, the set of relations between words, i.e., textual, semantic, and other, has slightly broadened and stabilized in CrossLexica. It became clear how to incorporate to it and to rationally use any complementary language (we have selected English for the Russian version). This dictionary permits to enter the query words in the native user’s language and to receive the output data in the language to be referenced.

The opinion has also settled that such systems, in their developed form, permit to create more correct and flexible texts while word processing, to learn foreign languages, to filter results of parsing, to disambiguate lexical homonyms, and to converse the phonetic writing to ideographic one for Japanese [6].

In this paper, the description of the universal structure of the system is given, with broader explanations of its relations, labeling of words and relations, and the inference capability. The fully developed version of the system – Russian – is described in some detail, as well as some peculiarities of underdeveloped English and Spanish versions. Examples are mainly given in English.

Structure of the system

The structure of the system under investigation is a set of many-to-many relations upon a general lexicon. The types of relations are chosen in such a way that they cover the majority of relations between words and do not depend on the specific language, at least for major European languages.

Textual relations link words of different parts of speech, as it is shown in Fig. 1. Four main parts of speech are considered, i.e., nouns N, verbs V, adjectives Adj, and adverbs Adv, in their syntactic roles. The syntactic role of an adjective or an adverb can be played by a prepositional group as well, e.g., man ® (from the South) or speak ® (at random). Each arrow in Fig. 1 represents an oriented syntactic link corresponding to dependency approach in syntax. It is possible to retrieve such relations from the side of both ruling and dependent word, i.e. moving along the oriented dependency chain or against it.

A syntactic relation between two words can be realized in a text through a preposition in between, a special grammatical case of noun (e.g., in Slavonic languages), a specific finite form of verb, a word order of linked words, or a combination of any these ways. All these features are reflected in the system entries. Since nouns in different grammatical numbers can correspond to different sets of collocations, the sets are to be included into the system dictionary separately.

All types of commonly used collocations are registered in the system: quite free combinations like white dress or to see a book, lexically restricted combinations like strong tea or to give attention (cf. the notion of lexical function in [9]) and idiomatic (phraseologically fixed) combinations like kick the bucket or hot dog. The criterion of involving of a restricted and praseological combination is the very fact that the combination can be ascribed to one of these classes. The involving of the free combinations is not so evident, and we have taken them rather arbitrary. Nevertheless, as features of Russian version show (see later), the semantics itself essentially restricts the number of possible “free” combinations.

Fig. 1. Various types of syntactic links[1].



Some idiomatic or commonly used uninterrupted combinations are additionally included to the lexicon as its direct entries. As to 3-ary collocations, the system is not destined to contain them, but a very simple mean, namely dots, is used to represent 2-ary collocation with obligatory third participant or fourth participant.

Semantic relations link words of different parts of speech in any-to-any manner. Usually they form a full graph, cf. Fig. 1. We proceed from the idea that many separate meaning can be expressed in any language by words or word combinations of four main parts of speech. For verbs this is rather evident (see later an example). For living creatures, things, and artifacts this is dubious (what id the verb equivalent in meaning to fly or stone?). For such terms, the verb group in the set of four POS groups is empty.

User interface

The easiest way to describe an interactive system is to characterize its user’s interface. For English version, it is shown in Fig. 3, with necessary explanations given later.

In standard mode, the screen of the system seems like a page of a book, in which the formatted results of retrieval operations are output. The operations are prompted by the query consisting of a separate keyword of a short uninterrupted collocation and are performed within the system database. (The keyword is shown in the small window at left higher corner.)

There are two bookmarks with inscriptions at the upper edge and not less that 14 additional labeled bookmarks at the right edge.

The first upper-side bookmark, Dictionary, permits a user to enter queries, directly extracting them from the system dictionary. This is dictionary of the basic language of the version, i.e., of the language to get references about or to learn. The entries of the dictionary are presented in alphabetic order in the left sub-window with a slider. To select necessary dictionary item, it is necessary to enter its initial disambiguated part.



Fig. 2. Two dictionaries of the Russian version.


In the parallel sub-window at the right side, all possible normalized forms of the string already entered are given. For example, if English wordform were is entered, the standard form be is given there. In some cases, the results of normalization can be multiple. For example, for the English form lacking the normalized forms are lack V and lacking Adj, labeled with part-of-speech tags.

The second upper-side bookmark permits a user to select the query in the complementary (usually native language of the user), e.g. in English, within the Russian version of the system. The system does not contain data about the second language, it only permits to introduce queries.

The window of the supplementary language presents a lexicographically ordered list of words of this language. In contrast to the basic language dictionary, the forms can be not normalized and the amount of short collocations in it is much higher, since all these entries are translations from the basic language.

One important function of the system is to assist in the translation of each word of the basic language. It translates them separately, without translating the whole collocation. However, in the opposite direction, i.e., from supplementary language to the basic one, through a special filtering, the system automatically forms correct translation of a whole collocation even in cases, when word-by-word translation might give wrong result. For example, the translation of the English combination strong tea to Russian also gives the idiomatic combination krepkiy chay, though krepkiy has numerous autonomous translations: firm, robust, strong, etc.

Main types of relations

The numerous bookmarks at the right side of the “book page” correspond to the referential functions of the system. These functions are divided to three groups corresponding to various relations between words, i.e., semantic, syntactic, and the rest.

We describe these functions through English examples.

Semantic relations

Synonyms gives synonymy group for the query keyword. The group is headed with its dominant, with the most generalized and neutral meaning. Note that only synonyms are used now in the commercial word processors.

Antonyms gives the list of antonyms of the keyword, like small for big and vice versa.

Genus is the generic notion (superclass) for the keyword. For example, all the words radio, newspapers, and television have the common superclass mass media.

Species are specific concepts (subclasses) for the keyword. This relation is inverse to Genus.

Whole represents a holistic notion with respect to the keyword. For example, all the words clutch, brakes, and motor give car as a possible value of the whole. Of course, each of these words can have different other value(s) of the holistic concept and all the concepts contained in the database are output as a list.

Parts represent parts with respect to the keyword, so that this reflects the relation inverse to Whole.

Sem. Squad represents semantic derivatives of the keyword. For example, each word of the structure

N                   possession
V                   possess
                      be possessed

Adj               possessive
Adv               in possession

while forming a query, gives the other words of the same structure as its semantic derivatives. All these words correspond to the same meaning, but express it by various parts of speech and from various viewpoints (can play different semantic roles).

Syntactic relations

Has Attributes represents a list of collocations, in which the keyword, being a noun, an adjective or a verb, is attributed with some other word: an adjective or an adverb. For example, the noun act can be attributed with barbaric, courageous, criminal; the noun period, with incubation, prehistoric, transitional, etc.

Is Attribute Of is reverse to the previous relation and represents a list of collocations, in which keyword, being adjective or adverb, attributes the other word of any part of speech. For example, the adjective national can be an attribute for the nouns autonomy, economy, institute, currency; the adjective economic, for the nouns activities, aid, zone, etc.


Fig. 3. English version.


In Romance and Slavonic languages, an adjective usually agrees its morphologic form with its ruling noun, e.g., in Spanish, trabajos científicos. In all necessary cases, the agreement is made by the system automatically.

Predicates represents a list of collocations, in which the queried noun is the grammatical subject and various verbs are common predicates for it. For example, the noun heart commonly uses predicates sinks, aches, bleeds; the noun money uses burns, is close, is flush, etc.

Mng. Verbs represents the list of collocations, in which the queried noun is a complement and a common verb is its governor. For example, the noun head can have governing verbs bare, beat (into), bend, shake; the noun enemy can have arrange (with), attack, chase, etc.

Mng. Nouns represent the list of collocations, in which the queried noun is ruled by various other nouns. For example, the noun clock can be ruled by hand (of), regulation (of), etc.

Mng. Adjectives represent the list of collocations, in which substantial keyword is ruled by different adjectives. For example, the noun rage can be ruled by mad (with).

Gov. Patterns represent schemes, according which the keyword (usually verb or noun) rules other words, usually nouns, and give also the lists of specific collocations for each subpattern. In the case of verbs, these are just their subcategorization frames, but with unfixed word order in the pair. For example, the verb have has the pattern what / whom? with examples of dependents capacity, money, family; the pattern in what? with examples hand, reach; and pattern between what / whom? with examples friends, eyes. Conceptually, this function is inverse to Mng. Nouns, Mng. Verbs and Predicates relations. The system forms the patterns automatically, through the inversion of functions mentioned above.

Coordinated Pairs represent a word complementary to the keyword, if the both constitute a stable coordinated pair: back and forth, black and white, body and soul, good and evil, now and then, etc.

Relacions of other types

Paronyms represent the list of words of the same part of speech and the same root, but with potentially quite different meaning and collocations. For example, sensation is a representative of the paronymous group: sensationalism, sense, sensitivity, sensibility, sensuality, sentiment.

Key Forms represent the list of all morphologic forms (morphologic paradigm) possible for this keyword. Irregular English verbs have here all their forms explicitly.In Slavonic languages like Russian, the paradigms of nouns and adjectives are rather numerous, not speaking about verbs.


Each homonymous word in the database forms a separate entry of a system dictionary. Each entry is supplied with numeric label and a short explanation of meaning. User can choose the necessary entry or observe them in parallel. It is important, that each homonym have its specific syntactic and semantic links.

Usage marks

The simple set of usage marks selected for the items of the database seems sufficient for a common user. In contrast to many other dictionaries, it contains only two “coordinates”:

·         Idiomacity reflects metaphoric (figurative) use of words and collocations. For an idiomatic collocation, the meaning is not simply a combination of the meanings of its components. Three different grades are considered: (1) literal use (no label); (2) idiomatic and non-idiomatic interpretations are possible (kick the bucket), and (3) only idiomatic interpretation possible (hot dog).

·         Scope of usage has five grades: (1) neutral: no label and no limitations on the use; (2) special, bookish or obsolete: use in writing is recommended when meaning is well known to the user; (3) colloquial: use in writing is not recommended; (4) vulgar: both writing and oral use is prohibitive; and (5) incorrect (contradicts to the language norm).

As a rule, the labels of the scope given at a word are transferred to all its collocations.

Inference ability

The unique property of the system is the online inference ability to enrich its base of collocations. The idea is that if the system has no information on some type of relations (e.g., on attributes) of a word, but does have it for another word somehow similar to the former, the available information is transferred to the unspecified or underspecified word. The types of the word similarity are as follows.

Genus. Suppose the complete combinatorial description of the notion refreshing drink. For example, verbs are known that combine with it: to bottle, to have, to pour, etc. In contrast, the same information on Coca-Cola is not given in the system database, except that this notion is a subclass of refreshing drink. In this case, the system transfers the information connected with the superclass to any its subclass that does not have its own information of the same type. Thus, it is determined that the indicated verbs are also applicable to Coca Cola, see Fig. 4.

Synonym. Suppose that he noun coating has no collocations in the database, but it belongs to the synonymy group with layer as the group dominant. If layer is completely characterized in the database, the system transfers the information connected with it to all group members lacking the complete description. Thus, a user can recognize that there exist collocations of the type cover with a coating.

Supplementary number of noun. If a noun is given in the system dictionary in both singular and plural forms, but only one of these forms is completely characterized in the system, then the collocations of one number are transferred to the supplementary one.

These types of self-enrichment are applied to all syntactic relations except Gov. Patterns, since this transfer reflects semantic properties not always not always corresponding to syntactic ones.

Enrichment of antonyms. Besides of antonyms recorded in common dictionaries, synonyms of these antonyms and antonyms of the synonymous dominant of the word are output as quasi-antonyms. This is the only semantic relation, which is subject to the enrichment.

Precautions in inferences

In each case, the inherited information is visually indicated on the screen as not guaranteed. Indeed, some inferences are nevertheless wrong. For example, berries as superclass can have nearly any color, smell and taste, but its subclass blueberries are scarcely yellow. Hence, our inference rules have to avoid at least the most frequent errors.

Classifying adjectives. The adjectival attributes sometimes imply incorrect combinations while inferring like *European Argentina (through the inference chain Argentina Þ country & European country). To avoid them, the system does not use the adjectives called classifying for the enrichment. They reflect properties that convert a specific notion to its subclasses, e.g., country Þ European / American / African country. In contradistinction to them, non-classifying adjectives like agrarian, beautiful, great, industrial, small do not translate the superclass country to any subclass, so that collocation beautiful Argentina is considered valid by the system while the enrichment.

Idiomatic and scope labeled collocations are not transferred to any subclasses either. It is obvious that the collocation hot poodle based on the chain (poodle Ü dog) & (hot ¬ dog) is wrong.

With all these precautions, the hundred-per-cent correctness of the inferences is impossible, without further semantic research.

Parse filtering and lexical disambiguation

The system in its standard form has a user’s interface and interacts with a user in word processing or foreign language learning. However, the database with such contents can be directly used for advanced parsing and lexical disambiguation.

If a collocation is directly occurs in a sentence, it proves the part of dependency tree, in which its components plays the same syntactic roles. The collocation database functions like a filter of possible parse trees. It can be realized through augmented weighting of optional trees with subtrees already found in the database. This idea is the directly connected with that of [7].

Different homonyms usually have their own collocations (more rarely, they overlap). For example, bank1 (financial) has attributes commercial, credit, reserve, saving, etc., while bank2 (at shore) has attributes rugged, sloping, steep, etc. Thus, if the word bank is attributed, it can be disambiguated with high probability on the stage of parsing.

Three versions of the system

Russian. The Russian version of the system is near to its completion, though there are no reasonable limits for the database and lexicon size. Now it has the lexicon (including common uninterrupted collocations and prepositional phrases) of ca. 110,000 entries.

The statistics of unilateral semantic links in this version is as follows:

Semantic derivatives














Note, that for semantic derivatives, synonyms, and paronyms, the numbers of unilateral links were counted as Si ni (ni – 1), where ni is number of members in ith group. That is why the links connecting semantic derivatives and synonyms are much more numerous than the derivatives and synonyms themselves.

For syntactic unilateral links, the statistics is:

Verbs – their noun complements


Verbs – their subjects


Nouns – short-form adjectives


Attributive collocations


Nouns – their noun complements


Verbs – their infinitive complements


Nouns – their infinitive complements


Copulative collocations


Coordinated pairs




Summarizing all relations gives ca. 2.5 million explicitly recorded links. Foe evaluation of the text coverage, 12 text fragments of ca. 1 KB length were taken from various sources (books on computer science, computational linguistics, and radars; abstract journals on technologies; newspaper articles on politics, economics, popular science, belles-lettres, and sport; advertising leaflets). The count of covered collocations was performed by hand, with permanent access to the database. The results varied from 43% (abstracts) to 65% (ads). The inference capability gives not more than 5% rise in coverage so far, since the names of underspecified subclasses turned to be rather rare in texts, and the thesauric part of the system is not yet brought to perfection.

Some statistics on the fertility of different words in respect of collocations is pertinent. If to divide the number of the collocations “verbs – their noun complements” to the number of the involved nouns, the mean value is 15.7, whereas the division to the number of the involved verbs gives 17.9. If to divide the number of the collocations “nouns – their noun complements” to the number of the dependent nouns, the mean value is 13.6, whereas the division to the number of the ruling nouns gives 12.8. The mean number of attributes is 15.5.

This series of fertility indicators can be broadened, all of them being in a rather narrow interval 11 to 18. This proves that even the inclusion into the database of collocations considered linguistically quite free gives on average only ca. 20 different words syntactically connected with each given word, in each category of collocations (both dependent and ruling syntactic positions are considered). The evident reason of this constraint is semantics of words, so that the total variety of collocations in each specific case does not exceed the some limits.


Fig. 4. An example of enrichment: the key Coca Cola (Russian version).


The source database of any language has the shape of formatted text files. Besides labels of lexical homonymity, idiomacity, and scope, the Russian version contains numerical labels at homonymous prepositions (they imply different grammatical cases of dependent nouns) and sparse accentuation information. The Russian source files with collocations “verbs – their noun complements” and “nouns – their noun complements” contain also dots replacing obligatory complements, which are not participants of the given relation. The dots are not used in the automatic formation of government patterns, since every complement in Russian is expressed through its own combination of a preposition and the corresponding grammatical case.

The methods of automatic acquisition of collocations are well known in the literature on computing linguistics [7, 8]. We used them in a rather limited and “russified” manner. E.g., one acquisition program searched for only attributes of each textual noun positioned about it as (-3, +1) and agreed with it in number, gender, and case. The major part of the database was gathered manually, by scanning a great variety of texts: newspapers, magazines, books, manuals, leaflets, ads, etc.

At the stage of automatic compiling of the runtime database, morphological lemmatizer reduces indirect cases of nouns and finite verb forms to their dictionary norm. A similar lemmatizer normalizes forms in the query.

English. An example of how English version functions is given in Fig. 3, for the query ability. This version is under development, the size of its source base is now less that one tenth of Russian database. The special labeling of its source files includes: a delimiter of prepositions coming after English verbs, like in put on | (a) bandage. The problems of what tenses, more numerous in English, are to be represented in each “predicate – subject” collocation and what articles (definite/indefinite/zero) are to given at each noun are not yet solved.

The best semantic subsystem for the English version might be WordNet [5].

Spanish. This version is also under development. The morphological lemmatizer is needed here for personal forms of verbs.


A system for word processing and learning foreign languages is described. It contains a very large database consisting of semantic and syntactic relations between words of the system lexicon. The structure of such a system is in essence language-independent. The developed Russian version has shown the promising nature of such combined systems.


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2.         Bolshakov, I. A. Multifunction thesaurus for Russian word processing. Proceedings of 4th Conference on Applied Natural language Processing, Stuttgart, 13-15 October, 1994, p. 200-202.

3.         Benson, M., et al. The BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English. John Benjamin Publ., Amsterdam, Philadelphia, 1989.

4.         Fellbaum, Ch. (ed.) WordNet as Electronic Lexical Database. MIT Press, 1998.

5.         Calzolari, N., R. Bindi. Acquisition of Lexical Information from a Large Textual Italian Corpus. Proc. of COLING-90, Helsinki, 1990.

6.         Yasuo Koyama, et al. Large Scale Collocation Data and Their Application to Japanese Word Processor Technology. Proc. Intern. Conf. COLING-ACL’98, v. I, p. 694-698.

7.         Satoshi Sekine., et al. Automatic Learning for Semantic Collocation. Proc. 3rd Conf. ANLP, Trento, Italy, 1992, p. 104-110.

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9.         Leo Wanner (ed.) Lexical Functions in Lexicography and Natural Language Processing. Studies in Language Companion Series ser.31. John Benjamin Publ., Amsterdam, Philadelphia 1996.

[1] A syntactic link between two adjectives is possible in some languages with the governor of a special class, for example, Russian samyj vazhnyj ‘most important’.