Students Staff

14 January 2010

Helping computers understand language

Colchester Campus

Phrase Detectives, a fun online game designed by University researchers to gather data about language, is celebrating its first birthday with a special £400 prize competition.


Since its launch, Phrase Detectives has seen a steady increase in players, whilst collecting valuable data to help computers learn our language better.

Modern computer methods for understanding human language requires hundreds of thousands of examples to ‘learn’ how to interpret certain expressions – just like humans do.

With the word game Phrase Detectives, it is possible to not only get many people to help explain the ambiguities of language, but means large amounts of data can be collected in a surprisingly short space of time.

Explained Jon Chamberlain, a research officer at the University’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering: ‘Creating the large amounts of data that computers need to understand human language would take a very long time if it was done by a handful of people. So we created the Phrase Detectives game to involve the public in creating scientific resources. By simply reading a story or article during a spare five minutes anyone can help us improve computer systems like search engines and predictive text.’


Phrase Detectives, which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, has already collected more than 700,000 examples of human language expressions, a collaborative effort of 1,500 hours.


To celebrate the first year of being online, researchers want to create, through Phrase Detectives, the largest collection of examples of context-dependent interpretation in the world – one million words of text, the equivalent of twice the entire works of Shakespeare.

The research team has put together a diverse collection of texts, from classic novels to popular online information sites and to encourage people to play, there will be cash prizes for the top players, as well as a daily prize draw until the end of January.

Find out more at



Notes to editors:

More information about Phrase Detectives and the prize competition is available at:

For more information, please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on telephone: 01206 872400 or e-mail:






...more news releases