Getting Started with Natural Language Processing in Python

A significant portion of the data that is generated today is unstructured. Unstructured data includes social media comments, browsing history and customer feedback. Have you found yourself in a situation with a bunch of textual data to analyse, and no idea how to proceed? Natural language processing in Python can help.

The objective of this tutorial is to enable you to analyze textual data in Python through the concepts of Natural Language Processing (NLP). You will first learn how to tokenize your text into smaller chunks, normalize words to their root forms, and then, remove any noise in your documents to prepare them for further analysis.

Let’s get started!

Prerequisites

In this tutorial, we will use Python’s nltk library to perform all NLP operations on the text. At the time of writing this tutorial, we used version 3.4 of nltk. To install the library, you can use the pip command on the terminal:

pip install nltk==3.4

To check which version of nltk you have in the system, you can import the library into the Python interpreter and check the version:

import nltk
print(nltk.__version__)

To perform certain actions within nltk in this tutorial, you may have to download specific resources. We will describe each resource as and when required.

However, if you would like to avoid downloading individual resources later in the tutorial and grab them now in one go, run the following command:

python -m nltk.downloader all

Step 1: Convert into Tokens

A computer system can not find meaning in natural language by itself. The first step in processing natural language is to convert the original text into tokens. A token is a combination of continuous characters, with some meaning. It is up to you to decide how to break a sentence into tokens. For instance, an easy method is to split a sentence by whitespace to break it into individual words.

In the NLTK library, you can use the word_tokenize() function to convert a string to tokens. However, you will first need to download the punkt resource. Run the following command in the terminal:

nltk.download('punkt')

Next, you need to import word_tokenize from nltk.tokenize to use it.

from nltk.tokenize import word_tokenize
print(word_tokenize("Hi, this is a nice hotel."))

The output of the code is as follows:

['Hi', ',', 'this', 'is', 'a', 'nice', 'hotel', '.']

You’ll notice that word_tokenize does not simply split a string based on whitespace, but also separates punctuation into tokens. It’s up to you if you would like to retain the punctuation marks in the analysis.

Step 2: Convert Words to their Base Forms

When you are processing natural language, you’ll often notice that there are various grammatical forms of the same word. For instance, “go”, “going” and “gone” are forms of the same verb, “go”.

While the necessities of your project may require you to retain words in various grammatical forms, let us discuss a way to convert various grammatical forms of the same word into its base form. There are two techniques that you can use to convert a word to its base.

The first technique is stemming. Stemming is a simple algorithm that removes affixes from a word. There are various stemming algorithms available for use in NLTK. We will use the Porter algorithm in this tutorial.

We first import PorterStemmer from nltk.stem.porter. Next, we initialize the stemmer to the stemmer variable and then use the .stem() method to find the base form of a word.

from nltk.stem.porter import PorterStemmer 
stemmer = PorterStemmer()
print(stemmer.stem("going"))

The output of the code above is go. If you run the stemmer for the other forms of “go” described above, you will notice that the stemmer returns the same base form, “go”. However, as stemming is only a simple algorithm based on removing word affixes, it fails when the words are less commonly used in language.

When you try the stemmer on the word “constitutes”, it gives an unintuitive result.

print(stemmer.stem("constitutes"))

You will notice the output is “constitut”.

This issue is solved by moving on to a more complex approach towards finding the base form of a word in a given context. The process is called lemmatization. Lemmatization normalizes a word based on the context and vocabulary of the text. In NLTK, you can lemmatize sentences using the WordNetLemmatizer class.

First, you need to download the wordnet resource from the NLTK downloader in the Python terminal.

nltk.download('wordnet')

Once it is downloaded, you need to import the WordNetLemmatizer class and initialize it.

from nltk.stem.wordnet import WordNetLemmatizer 
lem = WordNetLemmatizer()

To use the lemmatizer, use the .lemmatize() method. It takes two arguments — the word and the context. In our example, we will use “v” for context. Let us explore the context further after looking at the output of the .lemmatize() method.

print(lem.lemmatize('constitutes', 'v'))

You would notice that the .lemmatize() method correctly converts the word “constitutes” to its base form, “constitute”. You would also notice that lemmatization takes longer than stemming, as the algorithm is more complex.

Let’s check how to determine the second argument of the .lemmatize() method programmatically. NLTK has a pos_tag function which helps in determining the context of a word in a sentence. However, you first need to download the averaged_perceptron_tagger resource through the NLTK downloader.

nltk.download('averaged_perceptron_tagger')

Next, import the pos_tag function and run it on a sentence.

from nltk.tag import pos_tag
sample = "Hi, this is a nice hotel."
print(pos_tag(word_tokenize(sample)))

You will notice that the output is a list of pairs. Each pair consists of a token and its tag, which signifies the context of a token in the overall text. Notice that the tag for a punctuation mark is itself.

[('Hi', 'NNP'),
 (',', ','),
 ('this', 'DT'),
 ('is', 'VBZ'),
 ('a', 'DT'),
 ('nice', 'JJ'),
 ('hotel', 'NN'),
 ('.', '.')]

How do you decode the context of each token? Here is a full list of all tags and their corresponding meanings on the web. Notice that the tags of all nouns begin with “N”, and for all verbs begin with “V”. We can use this information in the second argument of our .lemmatize() method.

def lemmatize_tokens(stentence):
    lemmatizer = WordNetLemmatizer()
    lemmatized_tokens = []
    for word, tag in pos_tag(stentence):
        if tag.startswith('NN'):
            pos = 'n'
        elif tag.startswith('VB'):
            pos = 'v'
        else:
            pos = 'a'
        lemmatized_tokens.append(lemmatizer.lemmatize(word, pos))
    return lemmatized_tokens

sample = "Legal authority constitutes all magistrates."
print(lemmatize_tokens(word_tokenize(sample)))

The output of the code above is as follows:

['Legal', 'authority', 'constitute', 'all', 'magistrate', '.']

This output is on expected grounds, where “constitutes” and “magistrates” have been converted to “constitute” and “magistrate”, respectively.

Step 3: Data Cleaning

The next step in preparing data is to clean the data and remove anything that does not add meaning to your analysis. Broadly, we will look at removing punctuation and stop words from your analysis.

Removing punctuation is a fairly easy task. The punctuation object of the string library contains all the punctuation marks in English.

import string
print(string.punctuation)

The output of this code snippet is as follows:

'!"#$%&\'()*+,-./:;<=>?@[\\]^_`{|}~'

In order to remove punctuation from tokens, you can simply run:

for token in tokens:
    if token in string.punctuation:
        # Do something

Next, we will focus on removing stop words. Stop words are commonly used words in language like “I”, “a” and “the”, which add little meaning to text when analyzing it. We will therefore, remove stop words from our analysis. First, download the stopwords resource from the NLTK downloader.

nltk.download('stopwords')

Once your download is complete, import stopwords from nltk.corpus and use the .words() method with “english” as the argument. It is a list of 179 stop words in the English language.

from nltk.corpus import stopwords
stop_words = stopwords.words('english')

We can combine the lemmatization example with the concepts discussed in this section to create the following function, clean_data(). Additionally, before comparing if a word is a part of the stop words list, we convert it to the lower case. This way, we still capture a stop word if it occurs at the start of a sentence and is capitalized.

def clean_data(tokens, stop_words = ()):

    cleaned_tokens = []

    for token, tag in pos_tag(tokens):
        if tag.startswith("NN"):
            pos = 'n'
        elif tag.startswith('VB'):
            pos = 'v'
        else:
            pos = 'a'

        lemmatizer = WordNetLemmatizer()
        token = lemmatizer.lemmatize(token, pos)

        if token not in string.punctuation and token.lower() not in stop_words:
            cleaned_tokens.append(token)
    return cleaned_tokens

sample = "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."
stop_words = stopwords.words('english')

clean_data(word_tokenize(sample), stop_words)

The output of the example is as follows:

['quick', 'brown', 'fox', 'jump', 'lazy', 'dog']

As you can see, the punctuation and stop words have been removed.

Word Frequency Distribution

Now that you are familiar with the basic cleaning techniques in NLP, let’s try and find the frequency of words in text. For this exercise, we’ll use the text of the fairy tale, The Mouse, The Bird and The Sausage, which is available freely on Gutenberg. We’ll store the text of this fairy tale in a string, text.

First, we tokenize text and then clean it using the function clean_data that we defined above.

tokens = word_tokenize(text)
cleaned_tokens = clean_data(tokens, stop_words = stop_words)

To find the frequency distribution of words in your text, you can use FreqDist class of NLTK. Initialize the class with the tokens as an argument. Then use the .most_common() method to find the commonly occurring terms. Let us try and find the top ten terms in this case.

from nltk import FreqDist

freq_dist = FreqDist(cleaned_tokens)
freq_dist.most_common(10)

Here are the ten most commonly occurring terms in this fairy tale.

python
[('bird', 15),
('sausage', 11),
('mouse', 8),
('wood', 7),
('time', 6),
('long', 5),
('make', 5),
('fly', 4),
('fetch', 4),
('water', 4)]

Unsurprisingly, the three most common terms are the three main characters in the fairy tale.

The frequency of words may not be very important when analysing text. Typically, the next step in NLP is to generate a statistic — TF – IDF (term frequency – inverse document frequency), which signifies the importance of a word in a list of documents.

Conclusion

In this post, you were introduced to natural language processing in Python. You converted text to tokens, converted words to their base forms and finally, cleaned the text to remove any part which didn’t add meaning to the analysis.

Although you looked at simple NLP tasks in this tutorial, there are many techniques to explore. One may wish to perform topic modelling on textual data, where the objective is to find a common topic that a text might be talking about. A more complex task in NLP is the implementation of a sentiment analysis model to determine the feeling behind any text.

What procedures do you follow when you are given a pile of text to work with? Let us know in the comments below.

Replies

  1. Step 1 describes syntactical recognition, right?

    Does Step 2 apply to all words or just to verbs? For verbs you are describing verb tense, right?

    For Step 3, punctuation is sometimes useful, correct? I suppose it depends on the extent to which we want to understand the words. Some words might be just noise or might be important. The word “the” might be considered noise but there is a difference between “a suspect” (usually a general comment) and “the suspect” (usually specific).

  2. I think that if someone is attempting to parse words grammatically to understand what is said as best as possible then verbs can be really complicated. Verbs can have a tense (time), number (singular or plural) and a type of the subject.

  3. Good intro but it would’ve been nice if the example showed how you can use NLP to determine predictive intent(i.e. what does the customer want ? balance status, order status, make a payment etc) when they call up and don’t want to deal with the typical press 1 if you want x press 2 if you want y press 3 if you want z till they drill down to an option that can help them. People most of the time just press 0 to connect with a human and that slows down the entire call center.

  4. Hi,

    Covering advanced topics would have made this article difficult to comprehend for beginners in NLP. The intent from text can be predicted as a next step by analyzing the word associations in language.

  5. It is not a matter of advanced, it is more of a matter of complex. Natural Language is complicated. People do not communicate using simple combinations of letters and words. NLP is by definition not simple. This article is actually not about NLP; more specifically, this article has very minimal or no recognition of grammar. Recognition of the fundamentals of grammar is not advanced NLP.

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