Geoffrey K. Pullum: Biography

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 possibly 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 at the fail end of the Second World War his father was in the Royal Air Force and stationed at Turnberry in Ayrshire (it wasn't a Trump golf resort then, it was an RAF airfield). He was moved to West Wickham, Kent, while still very young, and that is where he was raised.

Elementary school did not go well, and high school did not go well at all. He largely wasted the opportunity of attending the moderately prestigious Eltham College in south London. By his own account, the school did not teach well enough to engage him intellectually. The school's perception was probably different: that he was the worst sort of lazy and undisciplined teenager and simply would not engage with the work they expected of him. (These are of course entirely compatible: both may have been correct.) What is uncontestable is that by the age of 16 he was a high school dropout with no prospects whatever, and even a further year at a technical college in Croydon did virtually nothing to improve this situation.

He took a low-paying job as a shop assistant in a London bookstore. It looked as if it was hardly possible for him to fall any lower careerwise, but he found a way: he sank to being a piano player in an itinerant rock 'n' roll band: Sonny Stewart and the Dynamos.

With the Dynamos he worked around the Rhineland of Germany doing residencies in bars, nightclubs, and enlisted men's clubs on American air bases. After a year and a half of that he returned to England to join his high school friend, guitarist Pete Gage, who was attempting to form a soul band. They formed the Ram Jam Band, and tried several vocalists before hiring former American airman Geno Washington. The band toured 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 significant recording success with a live album 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 began to realize that his life was lacking glamour and excitement. He therefore did the obvious thing, and set about becoming a professor of linguistics.

Patching up his extremely sketchy high school record was difficult; a year of repair work at the British equivalent of a community college helped. He somehow managed to meet minimum conditions for university entrance and applied to six British universities, five of which rejected him instantly. Just one chose, after an in-person interview, to take the risk. It was the University of York, where the founding professor, Robert B. Le Page made a personal decision to take a chance on offering him a place.

Geoff enrolled at York in 1968, and began to experience something entirely novel: 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, replacing some of the teaching of his former supervisor Dr David A. Reibel. He then went on to spend a year as a postgraduate research student at King's College, Cambridge (1973-74), but 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 registered as an internal candidate for a doctoral degree at the University of London, and was awarded the PhD in General Linguistics in 1976. His dissertation,entitled Rule Interaction and the Organization of a Grammar, 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 explained, 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 a newly arrived doctoral student, Desmond C. Derbyshire, had been studying the Carib language Hixkaryana, spoken in the Amazon basin, and suggested that it 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 on a tide of racism. As she wone the UK premiership, the vote share of the National Front, an overtly racist party with a significant profile in urban areas, collapsed almost to nothing. 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 this idea of repatriation, though it won Thatcher many votes from the white electorate, did not sound good to Geoff or his family. When a chance of emigrating to the USA arose, they took it.

In the USA, Geoff 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 early 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: strangely, this hasn't happened yet), and collaborated with Gerald Gazdar, Ewan Klein, and Ivan Sag to produce the book Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar (1985).

For some reason he was persuaded by colleagues to serve from 1987 to 1993 as Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at US Santa Cruz. This is a job that is warmly recommended if you enjoy being blamed for things you didn't do and 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 had time to read to signal that you've read them. Geoff was horrified to find that he learned to do this awful job fairly well.

During that period the graduate deans of UC were invited to visit the NASA Ames Research Center, but Geoff's invitation was withdrawn when the Center learned that although he was a legal permanent resident he was technically a foreigner. This rebuff from the government of his country of residence forced him to realize that he should really get his passport status in line with his loyalties. The necessary six years of residence were over. He became an American citizen later that year.

He was a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1990–91, and returned to rock music on a semi-professional basis, 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 small showbiz ventures: a radio acting career, playing the lead role of Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest on the KUSP FM radio station in January 1996, with Tom Lehrer supplying piano music, and he had the starring role in a short horror film by director Bernadette Wilson called His Eye, which has been shown at various film festivals.

But he has never had one second of regret about moving his main professional life from show business to academia. As a rock musician, he had seen a total of two (2) 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 lectured in about two dozen countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czechia, Egypt, England, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Romania, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, and Taiwan, — and also half the states of the USA: 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, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia.

His best known 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. In that same 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.

Geoff did a significant amount of joint research with the American philosopher Barbara C. Scholz on the philosophy of the cognitive and linguistic sciences, the theoretical bases of developmental psycholinguistics, and the model-theoretic conception of syntactic theory, and was married to her from 1994 until her death in 2011 (her obituary is here). After that, from July 2012 to June 2013 he served a year as the Gerard Visiting Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown University in Providence (RI), USA. Later he was married to Tricia Shannon until her death in 2016.

He writes occasional popular articles on language and has given a number of popular talks on Australian radio. Between 2003 and 2019 he was a regular contributor to Language Log, then the most popular linguistics blog on the web, 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). From 2011 to 2018 he wrote regularly every week for Lingua Franca, a blog managed by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Currently he works full time as a writer, dividing his time between Edinburgh in the UK and Alexandria (Virginia) in the USA. He is affilate faculty at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia. His popular book Linguistics: Why It Matters (Polity Press) appeared in 2018, and in 2022 he published A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (second edition) jointly with Rodney Huddleston and Brett Reynolds.