Choosing the wrong word in a machine translation or natural language generation system can convey unwanted connotations, implications, or attitudes. The choice between near-synonyms such as error, mistake, slip, and blunder—words that share the same core meaning, but differ in their nuances—can be made only if knowledge about their differences is available.

We present a method to automatically acquire a new type of lexical resource: a knowledge base of near-synonym differences. We develop an unsupervised decision-list algorithm that learns extraction patterns from a special dictionary of synonym differences. The patterns are then used to extract knowledge from the text of the dictionary.

The initial knowledge base is later enriched with information from other machine-readable dictionaries. Information about the collocational behavior of the near-synonyms is acquired from free text. The knowledge base is used by Xenon, a natural language generation system that shows how the new lexical resource can be used to choose the best near-synonym in specific situations.

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