Natural Language Querying (Session Overview)

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Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



The interface between a user and a software system should match the needs and background of the user. Many query languages are built to aid clerks and managers in the performance of their jobs. Therefore, a good query language would require no low level programming skills of its users. Usually very high level nonprocedural languages are used because they eliminate low level artifacts such as loops. An appealing high level language would be the user's natural language. Natural language should require no training or refresher courses for successful use.

Unfortunately, natural language interfaces have their own problems. Ambiguity is a major problem and can arise in a variety of ways. Ambiguous modifiers (e.g., “List the growers of orange trees.”) and ambiguous pronoun references (“Who was Doug Flutie's high school coach? Also, what are his statistics?”) are just two examples. A casual user of the system may also assume a shared background with the system. The Doug Flutie query assumes the system knows that Flutie is a football player and that his (or his coach's) statistics refer to football achievement; not academic, physical or other measures. Resolving these and other problems requires an extremely complex and, as yet, unachieved interactive interface.

This complexity can be reduced if we settle for something less than unrestricted natural language. One simplification is to restrict the domain of discourse to the specific database being queried. Other possible restrictions would be on the allowable form of a query, vocabulary, pronoun references, etc. Many questions arise about restricted natural language query systems. Some of the possible questions are:

  • How do various types of restrictions affect use of a natural language query system?
  • How can we combine the strengths of restricted natural language, menus and formal language in an integrated query system?
  • How does a restricted natural language query system perform in the “real world” compared to a formal language query system?

The three papers in this session address themselves to these questions, respectively.


CSC '85: Proceedings of the 1985 ACM thirteenth annual conference on Computer Science