Language use is only sparsely compositional: The case of English adjective-noun phrases in humans and large language models

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Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 2024


Compositionality is considered a key hallmark of human language. However, most research focuses on item-level compositionality, e.g., to what extent the meanings of phrases are composed of the meanings of their sub-parts, rather than on language-level compositionality, which is the degree to which possible combinations are utilized in practice during language use. Here, we propose a novel way to quantify the degree of language-level compositionality and apply it in the case of English adjective-noun combinations. Using corpus analyses, large language models, and human acceptability ratings, we find that (1) English only sparsely utilizes the compositional potential of adjective–noun combinations; and (2) LLMs struggle to predict human acceptability judgments of rare combinations. Taken together, our findings shed new light on the role of compositionality in language and highlight a challenging area for further improving LLMs.