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Building an NLP Pipeline, Step-by-Step

Let’s look at a piece of text from Wikipedia:

London is the capital and most populous city of England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south east of the island of Great Britain, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. It was founded by the Romans, who named it Londinium.


This paragraph contains several useful facts. It would be great if a computer could read this text and understand that London is a city, London is located in England, London was settled by Romans and so on. But to get there, we have to first teach our computer the most basic concepts of written language and then move up from there.


Step 1: Sentence Segmentation

The first step in the pipeline is to break the text apart into separate sentences. That gives us this:

  1. “London is the capital and most populous city of England and the United Kingdom.”
  2. “Standing on the River Thames in the south east of the island of Great Britain, London has been a major settlement for two millennia.”
  3. “It was founded by the Romans, who named it Londinium.”

We can assume that each sentence in English is a separate thought or idea. It will be a lot easier to write a program to understand a single sentence than to understand a whole paragraph.

Coding a Sentence Segmentation model can be as simple as splitting apart sentences whenever you see a punctuation mark. But modern NLP pipelines often use more complex techniques that work even when a document isn’t formatted cleanly.



Step 2: Word Tokenization


Now that we’ve split our document into sentences, we can process them one at a time. Let’s start with the first sentence from our document:

“London is the capital and most populous city of England and the United Kingdom.”


The next step in our pipeline is to break this sentence into separate words or tokens. This is called tokenization. This is the result:

“London”, “is”, “ the”, “capital”, “and”, “most”, “populous”, “city”, “of”, “England”, “and”, “the”, “United”, “Kingdom”, “.”


Tokenization is easy to do in English. We’ll just split apart words whenever there’s a space between them. And we’ll also treat punctuation marks as separate tokens since punctuation also has meaning.


Step 3: Predicting Parts of Speech for Each Token

Next, we’ll look at each token and try to guess its part of speech — whether it is a noun, a verb, an adjective and so on. Knowing the role of each word in the sentence will help us start to figure out what the sentence is talking about.

We can do this by feeding each word (and some extra words around it for context) into a pre-trained part-of-speech classification model:

The part-of-speech model was originally trained by feeding it millions of English sentences with each word’s part of speech already tagged and having it learn to replicate that behavior.

Keep in mind that the model is completely based on statistics — it doesn’t actually understand what the words mean in the same way that humans do. It just knows how to guess a part of speech based on similar sentences and words it has seen before.

After processing the whole sentence, we’ll have a result like this:

With this information, we can already start to glean some very basic meaning. For example, we can see that the nouns in the sentence include “London” and “capital”, so the sentence is probably talking about London.

Step 4: Text Lemmatization

In English (and most languages), words appear in different forms. Look at these two sentences:

I had a pony.

I had two ponies.

Both sentences talk about the noun pony, but they are using different inflections. When working with text in a computer, it is helpful to know the base form of each word so that you know that both sentences are talking about the same concept. Otherwise the strings “pony” and “ponies” look like two totally different words to a computer.

In NLP, we call finding this process lemmatization — figuring out the most basic form or lemma of each word in the sentence.

The same thing applies to verbs. We can also lemmatize verbs by finding their root, unconjugated form. So “I had two ponies” becomes “I [have] two [pony].

Lemmatization is typically done by having a look-up table of the lemma forms of words based on their part of speech and possibly having some custom rules to handle words that you’ve never seen before.

Here’s what our sentence looks like after lemmatization adds in the root form of our verb:

The only change we made was turning “is” into “be”.*


Step 5: Identifying Stop Words

Next, we want to consider the importance of a each word in the sentence. English has a lot of filler words that appear very frequently like “and”, “the”, and “a”. When doing statistics on text, these words introduce a lot of noise since they appear way more frequently than other words. Some NLP pipelines will flag them as stop words —that is, words that you might want to filter out before doing any statistical analysis.

Here’s how our sentence looks with the stop words grayed out:

Stop words are usually identified by just by checking a hardcoded list of known stop words. But there’s no standard list of stop words that is appropriate for all applications. The list of words to ignore can vary depending on your application.

For example if you are building a rock band search engine, you want to make sure you don’t ignore the word “The”. Because not only does the word “The” appear in a lot of band names, there’s a famous 1980’s rock band called The The!

Step 6: Dependency Parsing

The next step is to figure out how all the words in our sentence relate to each other. This is called dependency parsing.

The goal is to build a tree that assigns a single parent word to each word in the sentence. The root of the tree will be the main verb in the sentence. Here’s what the beginning of the parse tree will look like for our sentence:

But we can go one step further. In addition to identifying the parent word of each word, we can also predict the type of relationship that exists between those two words:

This parse tree shows us that the subject of the sentence is the noun “London” and it has a “be” relationship with “capital”. We finally know something useful — London is a capital! And if we followed the complete parse tree for the sentence (beyond what is shown), we would even found out that London is the capital of the United Kingdom.

Just like how we predicted parts of speech earlier using a machine learning model, dependency parsing also works by feeding words into a machine learning model and outputting a result. But parsing word dependencies is particularly complex task and would require an entire article to explain in any detail. If you are curious how it works, a great place to start reading is Matthew Honnibal’s excellent article Parsing English in 500 Lines of Python.

But despite a note from the author in 2015 saying that this approach is now standard, it’s actually out of date and not even used by the author anymore. In 2016, Google released a new dependency parser called Parsey McParseface which outperformed previous benchmarks using a new deep learning approach which quickly spread throughout the industry. Then a year later, they released an even newer model called ParseySaurus which improved things further. In other words, parsing techniques are still an active area of research and constantly changing and improving.

It’s also important to remember that many English sentences are ambiguous and just really hard to parse. In those cases, the model will make a guess based on what parsed version of the sentence seems most likely but it’s not perfect and sometimes the model will be embarrassingly wrong. But over time our NLP models will continue to get better at parsing text in a sensible way.

Want to try out dependency parsing on your own sentence? There’s a great interactive demo from the spaCy team here.

Step 6b: Finding Noun Phrases

So far, we’ve treated every word in our sentence as a separate entity. But sometimes it makes more sense to group together the words that represent a single idea or thing. We can use the information from the dependency parse tree to automatically group together words that are all talking about the same thing.

For example, instead of this:

We can group the noun phrases to generate this:

Whether or not we do this step depends on our end goal. But it’s often a quick and easy way to simplify the sentence if we don’t need extra detail about which words are adjectives and instead care more about extracting complete ideas.

Step 7: Named Entity Recognition (NER)

Now that we’ve done all that hard work, we can finally move beyond grade-school grammar and start actually extracting ideas.

In our sentence, we have the following nouns:

Some of these nouns present real things in the world. For example, “London”, “England” and “United Kingdom” represent physical places on a map. It would be nice to be able to detect that! With that information, we could automatically extract a list of real-world places mentioned in a document using NLP.

The goal of Named Entity Recognition, or NER, is to detect and label these nouns with the real-world concepts that they represent. Here’s what our sentence looks like after running each token through our NER tagging model:

But NER systems aren’t just doing a simple dictionary lookup. Instead, they are using the context of how a word appears in the sentence and a statistical model to guess which type of noun a word represents. A good NER system can tell the difference between “Brooklyn Decker” the person and the place “Brooklyn” using context clues.

Here are just some of the kinds of objects that a typical NER system can tag:

  • People’s names
  • Company names
  • Geographic locations (Both physical and political)
  • Product names
  • Dates and times
  • Amounts of money
  • Names of events

NER has tons of uses since it makes it so easy to grab structured data out of text. It’s one of the easiest ways to quickly get value out of an NLP pipeline.

Want to try out Named Entity Recognition yourself? There’s another great interactive demo from spaCy here.

Step 8: Coreference Resolution

At this point, we already have a useful representation of our sentence. We know the parts of speech for each word, how the words relate to each other and which words are talking about named entities.

However, we still have one big problem. English is full of pronouns — words like he, she, and it. These are shortcuts that we use instead of writing out names over and over in each sentence. Humans can keep track of what these words represent based on context. But our NLP model doesn’t know what pronouns mean because it only examines one sentence at a time.

Let’s look at the third sentence in our document:

“It was founded by the Romans, who named it Londinium.”

If we parse this with our NLP pipeline, we’ll know that “it” was founded by Romans. But it’s a lot more useful to know that “London” was founded by Romans.

As a human reading this sentence, you can easily figure out that “it” means “London”. The goal of coreference resolution is to figure out this same mapping by tracking pronouns across sentences. We want to figure out all the words that are referring to the same entity.

Here’s the result of running coreference resolution on our document for the word “London”:

With coreference information combined with the parse tree and named entity information, we should be able to extract a lot of information out of this document!

Coreference resolution is one of the most difficult steps in our pipeline to implement. It’s even more difficult than sentence parsing. Recent advances in deep learning have resulted in new approaches that are more accurate, but it isn’t perfect yet. If you want to learn more about how it works, start here.

Want to play with co-reference resolution? Check out this great co-reference resolution demo from Hugging Face.

Here’s an overview of our complete NLP pipeline:

Coreference resolution is an optional step that isn’t always done.

Whew, that’s a lot of steps!

Note: Before we continue, it’s worth mentioning that these are the steps in a typical NLP pipeline, but you will skip steps or re-order steps depending on what you want to do and how your NLP library is implemented. For example, some libraries like spaCy do sentence segmentation much later in the pipeline using the results of the dependency parse.

So how do we code this pipeline? Thanks to amazing python libraries like spaCy, it’s already done! The steps are all coded and ready for you to use.

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