This document aims to specify the structure and interpretation of semantic predicates in the DELPH-IN ecosystem.

What are Predicates?

Predicates (often abbreviated as preds) are symbols representing semantic entities or constructions. Examples of predicates in the English Resource Grammar are:

_dog_n_1 : a nominal (n) predicate for a dog or dogs in general
_a_q     : a quantifier (q) predicate for the "a" as in "a dog"
_eat_v_1 : a verbal (v) predicate for an eating event
named    : an abstract predicate for named entities
poss     : an abstract predicate indicating possession

These predicates are used in predications (a predicate with its semantic arguments and other constraints), as in the following MRS for Kim’s cake was eaten by a dog (see the MRS specification at MrsRfc for more explanation of MRS semantics):

[ LTOP: h0
  INDEX: e2 [ e SF: prop TENSE: past MOOD: indicative PROG: - PERF: - ]
  RELS: < [ proper_q<0:3> LBL: h4 ARG0: x5 [ x PERS: 3 NUM: sg IND: + ] RSTR: h6 BODY: h7 ]
          [ named<0:3> LBL: h8 CARG: "Kim" ARG0: x5 ]
          [ def_explicit_q<3:5> LBL: h10 ARG0: x3 [ x PERS: 3 NUM: sg ] RSTR: h11 BODY: h12 ]
          [ poss<3:5> LBL: h13 ARG0: e14 [ e SF: prop TENSE: untensed MOOD: indicative PROG: - PERF: - ] ARG1: x3 ARG2: x5 ]
          [ _cake_n_1<6:10> LBL: h13 ARG0: x3 ]
          [ _eat_v_1<15:20> LBL: h1 ARG0: e2 ARG1: x15 [ x PERS: 3 NUM: sg IND: + ] ARG2: x3 ]
          [ _a_q<24:25> LBL: h16 ARG0: x15 RSTR: h17 BODY: h18 ]
          [ _dog_n_1<26:30> LBL: h19 ARG0: x15 ] >
  HCONS: < h0 qeq h1 h6 qeq h8 h11 qeq h13 h17 qeq h19 >
  ICONS: < e2 topic x3 > ]

Surface predicates represent overt words in a sentence. Note that not all words have a predicate, as in the semantically-empty but syntactically-required “to” in Kim gave a book to Sandy (compare: Kim gave Sandy a book, which has the same semantics). Abstract predicates are used for all other non-lexical situations, such as implicit quantifiers (e.g., the proper_q quantifier for “Kim”) or semantic constructions (such as poss for the possessive construction above). Abstract and surface predicates are further discussed below.

Surface and Abstract Predicates

Surface (also called “real” or “object-level”) predicate symbols and abstract (also called “grammar” or “meta-level”) predicate symbols can be identified by their form, where the presence of a leading underscore indicates a surface predicate, and conversely the lack of a leading underscore indicates an abstract predicate (compare _the_q_rel and udef_q_rel). Surface predicates have an internal structure that combines a lemma, a pos (part of speech), and a sense, all separated by underscores. Thus we have two basic forms for predicates:

_(lemma)_(pos)_(sense) : surface predicate form
(name)                 : abstract predicate form

Limitations and Conventions

Conventionally, the grammar-internal types for predicates end with _rel which creates a namespace so they don’t collide with non-predicate types. The semantic outputs of a grammar are usually “exported” according to the grammar’s SEM-I and VPM and the _rel suffix is removed.

Spaces may not occur in a predicate, except for possibly escaped or non-breaking spaces, but these usages should be discouraged. When a predicate represents a lexical unit that contains spaces, the + may be used (e.g., _all+too_x_comp, _a+bit_a_1, _act_v_seem+to). The - character is used where it appears in the original word, or to show alternates in the sense (e.g., _tri-state_a_1, _ally_v_to-with, _from_p_place-in). Other non-word characters sometimes appear in the lemma (e.g., / in _24/7_a_1). Unicode characters may also be used (e.g., _お昼_n_unk).

Type vs String

Both surface and abstract predicates can be specified as a grammar type or as a quoted string. Grammar-type predicates are defined somewhere in the grammar, perhaps in a type hierarchy (also see Limitations and Conventions, above). A predicate type-hierarchy means that predicates used in an MRS may unify with other predicates (e.g., via underspecification or a common subtype). Preds specified as a string are atomic types that do not exist in a hierarchy, and are not required to be specified in a grammar except by their lexical entries or lexical types. Quoted string preds may only use surrounding double quotes (e.g., “_quote_n_1_rel”). An open-single-quoted variant (e.g., ‘null_coord_rel) used to be available, but it has been deprecated.

Surface Predicates

Surface predicates always have three fields: lemma, pos, and sense. The sense field is occasionally unspecified (e.g., _and_c).

The lemma field of a surface pred may be just about anything that does not contain underscores or spaces.

The POS field must be a single character, and specifically one of n, v, a, j, r, s, c, p, q, x, u, or d (see RmrsPos; also note that use of the d POS is discouraged).

The sense field is specified like a lemma, although for practical reasons it should not be a single letter (so as to distinguish it from the POS field). Often the sense field is just a number (e.g, _angstrom_n_1), but it may be more descriptive (e.g., _argue_v_about” vs _argue_v_for, etc.).

Serialization: Real vs Surface

When *MRS representations are serialized, surface predicates may appear decomposed to their lemma, pos, and sense values. In this context, they are called real predicates and are contrasted with surface predicates that use the underscore-delimited form discussed above. For example, in the XML format for MRS:

<realpred lemma="dog" pos="n" sense="1" />

Abstract Predicates

Abstract predicates do not have the 3-part internal structure that surface predicates do. The only constraints on their form are that they do not start with an underscore and do not contain spaces. Some example from the ERG include: season, some_q, place_n, free_relative_ever_q, interval_p_end.

Note for Developers

Notice that, despite the lack of internal structure, the abstract predicates listed above do seem to generally follow the format governing surface predicates, with POS and sometimes sense values. Tools may benefit from decomposing abstract predicates as if they were surface predicates, i.e. in order to detect quantifiers by looking for the q POS value, but this is not a sanctioned use of abstract predicates and should not be relied upon.

Predicate Equivalence

Predicates are always case-insensitive. Quotes and _rel suffixes are ignored. Therefore the following predicates are equivalent:


Furthermore, a surface predicate and its corresponding decomposed “real” pred (see the Real vs Surface section above) are equivalent:

<realpred lemma="dog" pos="n" sense="1" />

An abstract predicate and a surface predicate with the same apparent values (e.g., place_n and a hypothetical _place_n) are not equivalent, and grammar writers should avoid creating such similar predicates in order to avoid confusion.

Last update: 2022-09-12 by EricZinda [edit]