I came across an interesting Collection of Ambiguous or Inconsistent/Incomplete Statements compiled by Jeff Gray, which illustrates that IDF as measure of the discriminating power of a term is not enough. Gray writes:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the 500 words used most in the English language each have an average of 23 different meanings. The word “round,” for instance, has 70 distinctly different meanings. The variance of word meanings in natural language has always posed problems for those who attempt to construct an unambiguous and consistent statement. It is often the case that a written statement could be interpreted in several ways by different individuals, thus rendering the statement subjective rather than objective. The first detailed examination of this problem with respect to the specifications of computer systems is contained in [Hill, 72]. Hill provides a plethora of examples to illustrate this common problem. Peter G. Neumann illustrated this point by constructing a sentence which contained the restrictive qualifier “only.” He then showed that by placing the word “only” in 15 different places in the sentence resulted in over 20 different interpretations [Neumann, 84]. Moreover, other words like “never,” “should,” “nothing,” and “usually” are sometimes applied in a manner in which a double meaning can be ascribed. In particular, the word “nothing” was a favorite word often used by Lewis Carroll.

Under these circumstances, why should we assume that the discriminating power of terms in a collection, particularly of polysemes and ambiguous terms, is the same (unique) regardless of their meanings or neighboring query terms? *

This is where IDF as a term specificity measure breaksdown. This problem is intimate linked to The Original Sin of IR models: The Term Independence Assumption.

* I have modified a bit this assertive question to make the point more clear.



Hill, I.D., “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could write computer programs in ordinary English – or would it?” The Computer Bulletin, June 1972, pp. 306-312.

Neumann, Peter G., “Only his Only Grammarian Can Only Say What Only He Means,” ACM SIGSOFT Software Engineering Notes, January 1984, pg. 6.