Structural Persistence in Language Models: Priming as a Window into Abstract Language Representations

Arabella Sinclair, Jaap Jumelet, Willem Zuidema, Raquel Fernández

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)
3 Downloads (Pure)


We investigate the extent to which modern neural language models are susceptible to structural priming, the phenomenon whereby the structure of a sentence makes the same structure more probable in a follow-up sentence. We explore how priming can be used to study the potential of these models to learn abstract structural information, which is a prerequisite for good performance on tasks that require natural language understanding skills. We introduce a novel metric and release Prime-LM, a large corpus where we control for various linguistic factors that interact with priming strength. We find that Transformer models indeed show evidence of structural priming, but also that the generalizations they learned are to some extent modulated by semantic information. Our experiments also show that the representations acquired by the models may not only encode abstract sequential structure but involve certain level of hierarchical syntactic information. More generally, our study shows that the priming paradigm is a useful, additional tool for gaining insights into the capacities of language models and opens the door to future priming-based investigations that probe the model’s internal states.1

Bibliographical note

We would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their extensive and thoughtful feedback and suggestions, which greatly improved our work, as the action editor for his helpful guidance. We would also like to thank members of the ILLC past and present for their useful comments and feedback, specifically, Dieuwke Hupkes, Mario Giulianelli, Sandro Pezzelle, and Ece Takmaz. Arabella Sinclair worked on this project while affiliated with the University of Amsterdam. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 819455).

Data Availability Statement

Our code and data can be found at


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