Students Staff

27 January 2009

Volunteer to read between the lines

Colchester Campus

Researchers at the University of Essex are looking for more people to read short stories and curious Wikipedia articles as part of a fun online game.

Over 40,000 annotations have been made in four weeks by players on Phrase Detectives, which was developed by the University’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. However, researchers need more people to get involved and help them understand human language.

The University’s Jon Chamberlain explains: ‘Human language is not an unconnected series of words, phrases and sentences but a series of people, objects and ideas that refer to each other in different ways. The complexity of language makes it sound "natural" to a reader but it can be difficult to define the rules that allow us to understand it.

‘Consider the statement: "Mary is a teacher who is 25 years old. She lives in England." A human reader can easily ascertain facts about Mary's occupation, age and residence by, for example, knowing that the word "she" refers to the person "Mary". However, this is a difficult skill to teach learners of a new language. In addition, comprehending this type of language referencing is a challenge facing programmers when designing computer systems that try to understand text, such as search and translation systems.’

After registering at:, players (or detectives) read through texts and make annotations to highlight relationships between words and phrases. For example, detectives are asked to 'name the culprit', so will be given a word or phrase and must look for it appearing earlier in the text, as in: 'Sherlink Holmes went to the shop. He got some tobacco for his pipe.' The word ‘he’ refers to 'Sherlink Holmes'.

Jon added: ‘We believe Phrase Detectives is the first attempt to collect linguistic judgements using a fun, collaborative online game. Data like this ultimately benefits us all, for example, it could help search engines find information more relevant to your searches.'


Notes to editors:
More information about Phrase Detectives is available at:

For further information please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on telephone: 01206 872807 or e-mail:

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