Identifying "aboutness topics": two annotation experiments

Philippa Cook, Felix Bildhauer

Abstract


This paper deals with the annotation of "aboutness topic" (also known as "sentence topic") in naturally occurring data. We report on two annotation experiments in which relatively poor inter-rater agreement was attained for the annotation of topics, although the coders were adhering to the same annotation instructions in each experiment. After presenting some theoretical background on the notion of topic in linguistics, we present the first experiment. Tokens that prove particularly difficult to assess in that experiment are identified, systematized, and discussed in some detail. In sum, the cases that were most likely to lead to non-matching annotations are those that either require a decision between
"thetic" or "topic-comment", or involve an overlap between focus and topic. In order to try and increase inter-rater agreement, we modified the annotation guidelines; trying to eliminate some of the confounds from the first experiment. We then trained other annotators to use the modified guidelines and set them an annotation task. Again, the degree of inter-rater agreement was slightly disappointing. We discuss what we believe to be the problem cases in this task and give some guidance for future modification of the guidelines. The findings raise a number of issues that may contribute to the discussion in theoretical linguistics, and they also may alert other researchers planning a similar enterprise to some pitfalls they may encounter.

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