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Paul M Postal

Paul M. Postal

1957 B.A. Columbia College, New York, New York
Majors: Anthropology and Philosophy

1963 Ph.D. Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
Department : Anthropology

Office Address: 

Department of Linguistics
New York University
10 Wasington Place #412
New York, NY 10003





Areas of Research/Interest: 

Grammatical Theory and English Grammar, Grammatical Theory and French Grammar, Relationally oriented grammatical theories, Foundations of linguistics.


Recipient (with Mark Baltin) as of August 1, 1995 and Principal Investigator of two year NSF Grant (SBR-9409340) entitled Extraction from Selective Islands.

To me the most fascinating feature of current linguistics is that although natural languages have been studied by untold linguists for thousands of years, even the most intensively studied languages remain sources of nearly endless mystery. In my own field of concentration, syntax, even the most intensively studied languages like English reveal in domain after domain properties which are unaccounted for. For example, I am confident that not even the most exhaustive search of the literature will provide any basis for such sharp differences as those between (Ba, b), given the apparent parallelism in (Aa, b) (prefixed stars indicate that the expression does not satisfy the rules of English grammar):

  1. a. The director never reached Adam.
    b. That book never reached Adam.
  2. a. Adam was never reached by the director.
    b. *Adam was never reached by that book.

The puzzle of why, as syntacticians say, there is a good passive (Ba) corresponding to (Aa) but none corresponding to (Ab) deepens when one notes such corresponding differences as those in (C)-(F):

  1. a. Adam was difficult for the director to reach.
    b. *Adam was difficult for that book to reach.
  2. a. the reaching of Adam by the director
    b. *the reaching of Adam by that book
  3. a. Adam was unreachable by the director.
    b. *Adam was unreachable by that book.
  4. a. The director didn't reach Adam although she did Louisa.
    b. *That book didn't reach Adam although it did Louisa.

Such facts suggest that there is some systematic difference between the (only) seemingly parallel expressions in (A), but of course they do not tell us what it is. Research into such questions is one small aspect of syntax. The fact that there is no known account of such facts despite the immense body of work on English syntax, provides, I think, a true perspective on the dual status of current syntactic research. On the one hand, a great deal of knowledge has been gathered and many generalizations and insights have been obtained. On the other, the true structure of natural languages remains a significantly open question and the potential scope for original work and possibilities for current entrants in the field to fairly rapidly have the possibility of exploring largely unknown and not well-understood areas even in well-known languages are very great.

When one considers that mass of languages which have not been intensively studied, examples of which are everywhere, the possibilities are even greater. For instance, a few miles from downtown Montreal is a town called Caughnawaga, inhabited by speakers of a Northern Iroquoian language called Mohawk, which I worked on for my doctoral thesis more than thirty years ago. Despite some recent work, this language and its close relatives (Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga) remain poorly known and only episodically investigated. Until quite recently few linguists knew anything about the phenomenon of noun incorporation, which is a dominant feature of the grammar of these languages. It permits the construction of complex verbal words which contain the heads of object phrases. So the language has single words with meanings like 'I like guns'.

Conclusion: the frontiers for someone interested in the mysteries of natural language are quite available everywhere; many are accessible even without leaving one's home. When one adds to the mysterious and uncharted nature of natural language the fact that language (and hence, linguistics) relates closely to a host of other areas, logic, formal studies, computer science, psychology and cognitive studies, the physics of sound, anthropology, to name only a few, this is a field which offers an immense range of exciting possibilities to students seeking a career in research and teaching.

My own primary research interests include (i) grammatical theory, especially relationally oriented grammatical theories; (ii) English grammar with special reference to extractions, islands, parasitic gaps, control phenomena, coordination, pronominalization and reflexivization, passivization and the analysis of different types of objects; (iii) French grammar with especially pronominal cliticization, causative structures, passives and expletives; and (iv) the foundations of linguistics, particularly issues of psychological vs. non-psychological character of natural language.

Online papers:
Skeptical Linguistic Essays

Strong Crossover Violations and Binding Principles

Further Lacunae in the English Parasitic Gap Paradigm (in Word format).
To appear in: Parasitic Gaps, edited by Peter W. Culicover, Paul M. Postal, The MIT Press.

Missing Parasitic Gaps (in Word format).
To appear in: Parasitic Gaps, edited by Peter W. Culicover, Paul M. Postal, The MIT Press.

Selected Publications

(1980) Arc Pair Grammar, (with D. E. Johnson), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

(1984) The Vastness of Natural Languages, (with D. T. Langendoen) Basil Blackwell, Oxford, England.

(1989) Masked Inversion in French, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

(1990) "French Indirect Object Demotion" in P. M. Postal and B. Joseph (eds.) Studies in Relational Grammar 3, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

(1991) "Realism vs. Conceptualism in Linguistics" (with J. J. Katz), Linguistics and Philosophy 14, 515-554.

(1992) "Un passif sans morphologie sp-cifique" in L. Tasmowski and A. Zribi-Hertz (eds.), Hommages à Nicolas Ruwet, Comunication and Cogniton, Ghent, Belgium.

(1993) "Remarks on Weak Crossover Effects", Linguistic Inquiry 24, 539-556.

(1993) "Parasitic Gaps and the Across-the-Board Phenomenon", Linguistic Inquiry 24, 735-754.

(1994) "Parasitic and Pseudo-Parasitic Gaps", Linguistic Inquiry 25, 63-117.

(1994) "Contrasting Extraction Types", Journal of Linguistics 30, 159-186.

(1996) (with M. Baltin) "More on the Inadequacy of Reanalysis Hypotheses" Linguistic Inquiry 27, 127-145.

(1996) "A Glance at French Pseudopassives", in C. Burgess, K. Dziwirek and D. B. Gerdts (eds.), Grammatical Relations, Theoretical Approaches to Empirical Questions, CSLI, Cambridge University Press, New York.

(In Press) Three Investigations of Extraction, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(In Press) "Islands", in M. Baltin and C. Collins (eds.), The Handbook of Syntactic Theory, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, England.

Updated on 11/25/2015