Geoffrey K. Pullum is a linguist specializing in the study of English, and has published on a wide variety of subjects falling within the scientific study of language, including syntax, phonetics, and the philosophy of linguistics. He is perhaps the only person in the world who is a life member of the Linguistic Society of America, the International Phonetic Association, and the American Philosophical Association.
He was born in Irvine, Scotland in 1945, not because of a Scots heritage, but because his father was in the Royal Air Force and stationed at Turnberry in Ayrshire at the end of the Second World War. He was moved to West Wickham, Kent, while still very young, and that is where he was raised.
Elementary school did not go very well, and high school did not go well at all. He largely wasted that opportunity of attending the prestigious Eltham College in south London. His perception of the situation was that the school did not engage him intellectually. The school's perception was that he simply did not engage with the work they expected of him. Quite possibly both were right. In any event, by the age of 16 he was a high school dropout.
Menial jobs in an industrial laundry and a London bookstore made it look like perhaps there was no further to fall careerwise, but he found a way: he sank to being a piano player in a rock 'n' roll band.
With Sonny Stewart and the Dynamos, he worked around the Rhineland of Germany doing residencies in bars, nightclubs, and American air bases. After a year and a half he returned to England to join his high school friend, guitarist Pete Gage, in forming a soul band: Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band. The Ram Jam Band travelled all over Britain, appeared on the same bill with artists like the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Rufus ("Walking the Dog") Thomas, and many others. They had some recording success in the middle 1960s.
However, life on the road as a rock musician is tedious, and after the break-up of the original Ram Jam Band in 1967, Geoff realized he needed glamour and excitement in his life, so he set about becoming a linguist.
A year of repair work at the British equivalent of a community college was necessary to patch up his extremely sketchy high school record, but he managed to meet minimum conditions for university entrance and applied to six British universities. He got an offer of admission from just one: the University of York, where the founding professor, Robert B. Le Page made a personal decision to take a chance on him. (Le Page died in January 2005, forty years after starting the department, which still flourishes, an enormous credit to his service to British linguistics.)
Geoff enrolled at York in 1968, and began to experience something entirely new: taking intellectual work seriously. By 1972 he had earned the BA in Language with First Class Honours and was offered a year as a Teaching Fellow. He then went on to spend a year as a postgraduate research student at King's College, Cambridge (1973-74), and began teaching linguistics as a lecturer at University College London in 1974 to escape the poverty of graduate student life — he had married in 1967, and now had a wife and son to support.
He became an internal candidate for the doctorate at the University of London, and was awarded the PhD in General Linguistics in 1976. His dissertation was entitled Rule Interaction and the Organization of a Grammar (it was published in 1979 by Garland, New York, in the "Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics" series).
While lecturing at University College London one day in 1976, he remarked, without expecting to be contradicted, that there was absolutely no sign in the literature of any genuine candidates for the status of a language with an object-initial order the basic order of constituents in the typical declarative clause. But newly arrived doctoral student Desmond C. Derbyshire suggested to him that the Carib language Hixkaryana, spoken in the Amazon basin, did indeed seem to have Object-Verb-Subject order as the default in simple active declarative clauses. Geoff began to work with Derbyshire on determining whether Hixkaryana really was OVS (it was) and whether there were other OVS languages in Amazonia (there were).
These interesting discoveries led Geoff to become the main supervisor of Derbyshire's research for a doctoral dissertation on Hixkaryana, finished in 1979. Together, Derbyshire and Pullum obtained Social Sciences Research Council funding for joint research on the languages of Amazonia, leading to the publication of the Handbook of Amazonian Languages (vol. 1, 1986; vol. 2, 1990; vol. 3, 1991; vol. 4, 1998). [Derbyshire died at the end of 2007. See this obituary, a version of which was also published on the LINGUIST List.]
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher stormed into power in Britain on a tide of racism. The vote share of the National Front, an openly Nazi party with a significant profile in urban areas, collapsed almost to nothing as the Conservative party took over their anti-immigrant platform and started talking about repatriation of non-white British residents. The black residents of Britain at the time included Geoff's wife and son, so the idea of repatriating non-white immigrants, which won Thatcher so many votes from the British electorate, did not appeal to Geoff or his family, and they emigrated to the USA. He worked for a year at the University of Washington and at Stanford University on visiting positions (1980-81), and then in 1981 was appointed with tenure at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he served as Professor of Linguistics until June 2007.
In the 1980s he developed in interest in computational linguistics, working for several years as a consultant at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories advising on matters relating to natural language processing (trying to make computers understand English: it hasn't happened yet), and collaborated with Gerald Gazdar, Ewan Klein, and Ivan Sag to produce the book Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar (1985).
He served from 1987 to 1993 as Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Santa Cruz. Being a dean is a job that is warmly recommended to you if you enjoy being blamed for things you didn't do, being begged for things you haven't got, sitting in meetings with people you don't want to meet, signing letters you didn't write, and initialling memos you haven't read to signal that you've read them.
At one point during that period, in 1987, he was invited to the NASA Ames Research Center in his capacity as Dean, but the invitation was withdrawn when the Center learned that he was technically a foreigner in America. This rebuff from the government of his country of residence forced him to realize where he should get his passport status in line with his loyalties. He had done the necessary six years of residence, and became an American citizen later that year.
He was a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1990-91. During that year he returned to rock music on a semi-professional basis for a while, playing guitar with the Palo Alto rock band Dead Tongues between 1991 and 1993. (His first marriage broke up during that period.)
He subsequently embarked on other showbiz ventures: a radio acting career, playing the lead role of Jack Worthing (a.k.a. [plot spoiler!] Ernest Moncrieff) in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest on the KUSP FM radio station in January 1996, and the starring role in a short horror film by director Bernadette Wilson called His Eye, which has been shown at several film festivals.
He never had one second of regret about moving his main professional life from show business to academia. As a rock musician, he visited a total of two foreign countries: Germany and France. Being a linguist didn't just bring more travel than being a rock musician, it brought vastly more. As a linguist he has so far been invited to lecture in 22 countries and 24 American states. To be precise: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Egypt, England, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, and Taiwan (that's 22 countries, just 174 to go), and the US states of Arizona, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin (that's 24 states down, 26 to go).
His most important published work is a major grammar of Standard English written jointly with grammarian Rodney Huddleston in collaboration with a number of other linguists: The Cambridge Grammar of English (2002), which won the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award of the Linguistic Society of America in 2004. During that year he was named a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at UCSC. For the year 2005-2006 he was the Constance E. Smith Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
In 2007 he was named a Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America. He was also offered the position of Professor of General Linguistics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland; he accepted, and moved back to the UK, where in 2009 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy.
He is a regular contributor to Language Log, the most popular linguistics blog on the web, and Lingua Franca, a blog managed by The Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes occasional popular articles on language; he has given a number of popular talks on Australian radio; in February 2005 he published a new grammar textbook jointly with Rodney Huddleston; and in May 2006 a book of pieces from Language Log appeared: Far From the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log (Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum).
Geoff was married to the philosopher Barbara C. Scholz from 1994 until her death in 2011. Together they did a significant amount of joint research on the philosophy of the cognitive and linguistic sciences, the theoretical bases of developmental psycholinguistics, and the technical area of model-theoretic syntax.
From July 2012 to June 2013 Geoff served as Gerard Visiting Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown University in Providence (RI), USA. He currently lives in the Newington area of Edinburgh. He has one son by his first marriage: Calvin James Pullum, a software engineer and video game designer, who lives in Portland, Oregon.