Gigaword English preprocessing

I recently took a little time out to coerce a recent version of the LDC’s Gigaword English corpus into a format that could be used for training conventional n-gram models. This turned out to be harder than I expected.


Gigaword English (v. 5) ships with 7 directories of gzipped SGML data, one directory for each of the news sources. The first step is, obviously enough, to decompress these files, which can be done with gunzip.


The resulting files are, alas, not XML files, which for all their verbosity can be parsed in numerous elegant ways. In particular, the decompressed Gigaword files do not contain a root node: each story is inside of <DOC> tags at the top level of the hierarchy. While this might be addressed by simply adding in a top-level tag, the files also contain a few  “entities” (e.g., &amp;) which ideally should be replaced by their actual referent. Simply inserting the Gigaword Document Type Definition, or DTD, at the start of each SGML file was sufficient to convert the Gigaword files to valid SGML.

I also struggled to find software for SGML-to-XML conversion; is this not something other people regularly want to do? I ultimately used an ancient library called OpenSP (open-sp in Homebrew), in particular the command osx. This conversion throws a small number of errors due to unexpected presence of UTF-8 characters, but these can be ignored (with the flag -E 0).

XML to text

Each Gigaword file contains a series of <DOC> tags, each representing a single news story. These tags have four possible type attributes; the most common one, story, is the only one which consistently contains coherent full sentences and paragraphs. Immediately underneath <DOC> in this hierarchy are two tags: <HEADLINE> and <TEXT>. While it would be fun to use the former for a study of Headlinese, <TEXT>—the tag surrounding the document body—is generally more useful. Finally, good old-fashioned <p> (paragraph) tags are the only children of <TEXT>. I serialized “story” paragraphs using the lxml library in Python. This library supports the elegant XPath query language. To select paragraphs of “story” documents, I used the XPath query /GWENG/DOC[@type="story"]/TEXT, stripped whitespace, and then encoded the text as UTF-8.

Text to sentences

The resulting units are paragraphs (with occasional uninformative line breaks), not sentences. Python’s NLTK module provides an interface to the Punkt sentence tokenizer. However, thanks to this Stack Overflow post, I became aware of its limitations. Here’s a difficult example from Moby Dick, with sentence boundaries (my judgements) indicated by the pipe character (|):

A clam for supper? | a cold clam; is THAT what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?” | says I, “but that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?”

But, the default sentence tokenizer insists on sentence breaks immediately after both occurrences of “Mrs.”. To remedy this, I replaced the space after titles like “Mrs.”
(the full list of such abbreviations was adapted from GPoSTTL) with an underscore so as to “bleed” the sentence tokenizer, then replaced the underscore with a space after tokenization was complete. That is, the sentence tokenizer sees word tokens like “Mrs._Hussey”; since sentence boundaries must line up with word token boundaries, there is no chance a space will be inserted here. With this hack, the sentence tokenizer does that snippet of Moby Dick just right.

Sentences to tokens

For the last step, I used NLTK’s word tokenizer (nltk.tokenize.word_tokenize), which is similar to the (in)famous Treebank tokenizer, and then case-folded the resulting tokens.


In all, 170 million sentences, 5 billion word tokens, and 22 billion characters, all of which fits into 7.5 GB (compressed). Best of luck to anyone looking to do the same!

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