Dick Oehrle R.I.P.

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Richard T. Oehrle died on Wednesday. He was one of my oldest friends — I met him in 1965, when I was a first-year undergraduate and neither of us had any idea that we would end up in related fields.  (Dick's undergraduate and master's degrees were in English and Comparative Literature, before he started grad school in Linguistics at MIT in 1970.) His many contributions to linguistics can be glimpsed in a list of his publications, from his 1976 PhD dissertation, "The grammatical status of the English dative alternation", to four chapters in a 2003 book co-edited with Geert-Jan M. Kruijff, Resource-Sensitivity, Binding and Anaphora.

And one clue to the past 15 years of his career trajectory is offered by his entry in that book's list of "Contributing Authors":

Richard T. Oehrle lives in Berkeley, California, where he frequently contemplates questions of language, logic, and computation while enjoying the beauty of the East Bay hills.

In fact Dick was doing more in those days than contemplating intellectual questions in scenic contexts. Having left his position at the University of Arizona, he was re-inventing himself as Chief Linguist at Cataphora — not the grammatical term meaning "the use of an expression or word that co-refers with a later, more specific, expression in the discourse", but rather a company founded to provide software and services for e-discovery, which Wikipedia defines as "discovery in legal proceedings […] where the information sought is in electronic format", and the company's LinkedIn page described as "innovative software technologies for finding patterns and anomalies in digital communications […] discerning context across multiple sources of electronic data such as emails, documents, IM, phone logs, text messages and social networks".

The legal division of Cataphora was acquired in 2011 by Ernst & Young — according to the press release,

Cataphora Legal's senior leadership team, including Jonathan Nystrom, Executive Vice President, and Richard Oehrle, Chief Linguist, will be joining Ernst & Young LLP and will remain in similar roles.  An additional 17 members of the Cataphora Legal team of industry experts, based in Redwood City, CA; Chicago; Washington, DC; New York City and Mumbai, will join the Ernst & Young organization.

"Cataphora Legal has created a one-of-a-kind, innovative model that truly represents the future of discovery and legal technology globally," said Brian Loughman, Americas FIDS Leader, Ernst & Young LLP.

The move from (Dick's variety of) formal linguistics to e-discovery is less of a leap than you might think. Consider the abstract of a 1995-1999 NSF grant on "Grammatical Logics" (to Oehrle and Moortgat at the Universit of Arizona), which begins this way:

The general problem this research addresses is the nature of multi-dimensional linguistic composition. Natural language expressions display properties in a variety of dimensions: they have properties linking them to the physical world; they are syntactically categorized; they support pragmatic and semantic interpretation. The properties of basic expressions may be assumed to be finitely stipulated or listed, as in a dictionary or its mental counterpart. The properties of complex expressions cannot be assumed to be encodable this way, but must be derivable in a way that depends both on the correlative properties of their component parts and on their mode of combination. This question of linguistic composition arises with regard to each dimension; moreover, it arises in a generalized form across dimensions, since composition in one dimension may affect or depend on composition in another. Although there are a variety of solutions to this problem instantiated in existing grammatical architectures, the question deserves to be studied more systematically, since the interrelation of properties of different kinds forms the basis of the unbounded creative character of natural language and its expressive power.

(See Dick's book chapter "Multi-Modal Type-Logical Grammar", 1988, if you want more details.)

And in a 1990 paper with C.L. Devito ("A language based on the fundamental facts of science",  Journal of the British Interplanetary Society), Dick had engaged the question of how to communicate with extra-terrestrials. So he was well prepared for the challenge of communicating with lawyers, corporate executives, and other extra-academic intelligences.

In an email yesterday, Tom Wasow encouraged me to find a way of "explaining what made Dick so extraordinary", and wrote:

I have spent my entire adult life around amazingly smart people, and I can think of few people I have met who could match Dick for insight and creativity.  But he had a frustrating way of communicating those insights in cryptic ways.  During the years when we were colleagues with adjacent offices (in the mid-1970s), I remember on several occasions discussing with him some linguistic issue I was puzzling over, and coming away from the discussion feeling more confused than when I started.  But then, a few days later, I would have an insight about the issue we had been talking about, and I could trace that insight back to something Dick had said that had baffled me at the time.  I think I did my best work as a generative grammarian during the years his office was next to mine.

As someone mostly working in phonetics rather than syntax, I saw this aspect of Dick's communication style from an outsider's perspective. I watched him engage potentially difficult disagreements, not with the polemical onslaughts characteristic of the "Linguistics Wars", but with a gentle Socratic subversion of assumptions and conclusions that he felt deserved to be questioned. Geoff Nunberg's evaluation of such interactions is that "If you were Dick’s friend, he would show a flattering if sometimes unwarranted respect for your intelligence by refusing to condescend, which could leave you scratching your head for a while until things fell into place, as they often did."

In any case, Dick's presentation of his own ideas was anything but cryptic. Here's the entire abstract from his 1976 PhD dissertation, "The grammatical status of the English dative alternation", which I've often offered to students as a model of linguistic argumentation:

This thesis is concerned with the syntactic alternation between structures of the form X-Vi-NPj-NPk-Y and structures of the form X-Vi-NPk-P-NPj-Y (where 'P' is either 'to' or 'for').

Two theories of this alternation are considered: on one theory, in cases where the alternation is applicable, one of these structures is base-generated and the other is derived by means of transformation; on the other theory, both structures are base-generated and the relation between them is characterized by means of a lexical redundancy rule which reduces the independent information content of the lexicon (along lines proposed by Jackendoff). The thesis is divided into three parts. In Part One, on the basis of a detailed semantic analysis of sentences which conform to one or the other of these structures, the following conclusions are reached: first, that independent of the alternation in question, both structures are generated by the phrase-structure rules of the base; second, that there are semantic restrictions on the alternation; third, that semantic interpretation is not always invariant under the alternation; fourth, that semantic considerations alone cannot provide sufficient conditions for the applicability of the alternation. In Part Two, syntactic considerations which bear on the choice between these two hypotheses are discussed. The main conclusion of this part is that with respect to syntactic operations, there is no evidence that favors a distinction between base-generated instances of the double object construction and transformationally-derived instances of the double object construction. In Part Three, a variety of arguments are presented which favor the theory based on a lexical redundancy rule over a transformational theory.

You need to get past the subscripts in the first sentence to understand that the "Dative Alternation" refers to pairs of phrases like "Kim gave a book to Leslie" and "Kim gave Leslie a book"; and there's a bit of technical terminology from 1970s-era theory, like "phrase-structure rules of the base". But given that much background, the structure and conclusions of Dick's argument are plain.

I'll close with two mid-60s memories. Neither one is about linguistics, since that's mostly not what we talked about in those days, but they both illustrate aspects of Dick's personality.

One day (I think in the fall of 1966) we were having coffee in Elsie's, and our conversation turned to Galileo's famous (thought?) experiment about dropping two metal spheres of different sizes from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I idly wondered how big a difference air resistance would make in the arrival time, and Dick took up the challenge and began trying to frame and solve the equations. I joined in, and we had soon covered several napkins with inconclusive (and mostly incorrect) equations. A physics postdoc who happened to be sitting nearby took pity on us, and interrupted with a fresh stack of napkins. She quickly and cogently laid out the correct solution to the question as we had originally posed it. But that wasn't the end of the conversation. Dick had many questions about different versions of the problem: What about variations in density and shape? What about air pressure differences? What if you did the experiment under water? An hour (and many napkins and cups of coffee) later, this impromptu lecture had gathered a large enough audience for the management to suggest politely that we might want to take it outside. I don't recall the conclusions, but I do remember Dick's enthusiastic curiosity about a set of questions far removed from his normal concerns.

The previous winter, I spent a few days in the hospital with pneumonia. Dick found out about this somehow — without cell phones and the internet, it must have been by ESP — and came to visit. In the course of our conversation, he told me about the new (cheap, used) sports car he'd recently acquired, and as he left, he promised to show it to me by driving it past on the street outside my window. It was nighttime and had been snowing heavily, so the unplowed street was completely deserted. Dick drove up, leaned out the car door and waved to me, and then proceeded to perform a series of perfectly executed "doughnuts" up and down the street. This combination of technical competence, enthusiasm, and joy fixed the scene in my memory as an emblem of his approach to life.

Many others will doubtless have more professionally relevant memories to tell us about, and personal memories as well.

Dick is survived by his wife of over 40 years, the linguist Susan Steele, their two children, and three grandchildren.

Update — There's an obituary page at The Association for Logic, Language and Information, "R.I.P. Richard T. Oehrle (June 18, 1946 – February 21, 2018".

Update #2 — Some 50th reunion notes by Dick for his high school magazine.

Update #3 — "Remembering Dick Oehrle", by Elizabeth Charnock, who hired him at Cataphora.

Update #4 == Thoughts from Dick's sister, Mary French.




  1. Geoff Nunberg said,

    February 25, 2018 @ 12:36 am

    I can only second what Tom Wasow said about Dick's extraordinary breadth and powers of insight. If it sometimes took me a while to catch up with him, I think it was because out of respect for his friends' intelligence he adamantly refused to condescend, even when (in my case at least) a little condescension might have helped.

    Oh, and it should be added that Dick was one of the MIT linguists responsible for bringing to light the research of the fugitive Amazonian linguist Crosley Shelvador, whose contributions Mark has described elsewhere on this blog.

  2. GJ Kruijff said,

    February 25, 2018 @ 5:20 am

    Personal memories — his humour, putting things into (relativizing) perspective over a cup of coffee. His creativity, and his genuine interest in the story you were pursuing (no matter how crazy). His never-ending kindness, patience, belief that you could do it. So long, dear friend, sorely missed.

  3. Jason Baldridge said,

    February 25, 2018 @ 10:07 am

    Dick’s work on categorial grammar inspired and informed many of the choices I made on multimodal CCG. Also, his writings on type logical grammar had far greater clarity than most—without those and Geert-Jan Kruijff's help, I would have given up in frustration. Dick was the external examiner for my dissertation, and his excellent feedback made the final version much stronger. We’ve lost a kind, generous and deep thinker.

  4. Fernando Pereira said,

    February 25, 2018 @ 11:01 am

    I met Dick now and then during the 90s, when my research interests in logic-based grammars overlapped with his. I was an interloper from computer science into linguistics so he could have brushed me off easily, but Dick always encouraged me with nudges in the right direction, and with that memorable smile that suggested we should not get too worked up by the imperfection of our theories. Dick's " String-based categorial type systems" had a strong influence on the work that I did with Mary Dalrymple, Vijay Saraswat, and John Lamping back then. Dick was welcoming of our technical approach to the syntax-semantics interface based on multiplicative linear logic, although in hindsight he might have been too kind to say that maybe we were overcomplicating things a bit. When I moved back to the Bay Area in 2008, we reconnected a couple of times through our shared interests in natural-language processing. Last time, five years ago or so, we had lunch at one of Google's cafés. We exchanged a couple of emails after that, when Dick kindly offered to talk to someone close to me about jobs in e-discovery. For someone who I only met a few times over decades, Dick had a disproportionately positive influence on my career. And I'm sure I'm not recalling here every kindness and insight he offered me. What a loss!

  5. Josh Minor said,

    February 25, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

    Dick was my boss at Cataphora. He hired me after grad school (at U of Washington with Emily Bender) for my first job in technology. He had collected a talented group of computational linguists to do client work and r&d. Dick was a great boss, encouraging and supportive, and the embodiment of servant leadership. The team he built was truly special, made up of smart, creative and kind linguists that Dick had collected. He was our Chief, but also a friend and mentor to all of us, even after we moved on to other jobs.

    He also commuted every day from Monterrey to Redwood City (90+ mins), in a Prius with two very energetic dogs, often letting them run around at the beach before beginning the commute. It was an amazing display of energy, commitment and love. To the job, to the dogs, to us. And he did it everyday for years.

    He also tried to teach me advanced abstract algebra's relevance to our work. And he seemed to live on dark chocolate, espresso shots and mixed nuts. His insight and intelligence, his joy at problem solving, and his determination are well documented above, and were a source of inspiration and encouragement every day. I'm so glad to see how he touched so many others, though his academic and industry work. And to also reminded of why he's been one of my few heroes in life. He will be missed.

  6. Olivia Marbutt said,

    February 25, 2018 @ 9:46 pm

    I was certainly the beneficiary of my dad’s intellectual curiousity. Whenever I wanted his help, he would ask me to leave my textbook and come back in an hour. Then we would talk through the material. Even in college, I would sometimes spend evenings at my parents’ house hashing out chemistry with him. Maybe this is why when my diploma arrived, he was so ecastic at my honors that he squirreled it away. I haven’t seen it since.

    When I wanted to take a trip to hike the Andes in 2000, and couldn’t interest any of my friends, he said he wanted to go with me. That trip holds some of my fondest memories. We would hike all day which was incredibly strenuous. He was often way ahead of me as we ascended thousands of feet. And then he would spend the evenings playing chess.

    He loved to play games. We played backgammon, parcheesi, and gin rummy for hours. I’ll never forget the evening I beat him at gin in one hand. I was so proud of myself. I came to learn later that he was trying to uncover the worst possible hand one could have.

    His cancer took his crossword puzzle abilities. But prior to that, he was the most skilled person at crosswords I’ve ever seen. He could do the puzzle in his head in minutes.. This resulted in him sending me copies of the NYT puzzles from early in the week with a few answers filled in—the ones he thought I wouldn’t be able to get on my own. It was always deeply satisfying to discover an answer that he hadn’t yet figured out.

    I miss him immensely.

  7. Chas Belov said,

    February 26, 2018 @ 4:35 am

    Sorry for your loss.

  8. Cecile McKee said,

    February 26, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

    When he headed the Linguistics Department at the University of Arizona, his leave-a-message message promised to "respond with alacrity." It made me laugh every time I had to leave a message rather than talk directly.

  9. Cynthia L. Hallen said,

    February 26, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

    Dr. Oehrle (first names were recommended, but respect still prevails) was our Theoretical Syntax professor at the University of Arizona in 1985. He also taught a seminar on Poetics & Linguistics that introduced us to Jakobson and the Prague Circle. What I remember best, however, is when he played the piano for us at faculty/grad student gatherings. He was brilliant and kind. I offer sincere condolences to Susan Steele and family. As graduate coordinator and professor, she treated us with respect and generosity.

  10. David Fay said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 12:36 am

    I met Dick only briefly and a very long time ago, but I heard a lot about his considerable abilities from his older brother John, a good friend of mine when we were undergraduates together at MIT.

    I do remember that his first job after getting his Master's in English at Columbia was as an editor at the New York Review of Books. In that capacity, he traveled to Cambridge to meet with Chomsky concerning an article Chomsky was writing for the NYReview (one of many in those times). After the meeting Dick decided to switch fields to Linguistics so he applied and was accepted to the MIT program.

    Here's an amusing account of Dick's career (and more) in his own words: https://issuu.com/haverfordschool/docs/hst_2013n1_v7/52

  11. Michael White said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 10:00 am

    Dick was also a most wonderfully kind, thorough and enthusiastic external reader of my dissertation, for which I will always be grateful. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to learn from him as a visitor to Penn at the time. It’s lovely to hear how much of a positive impact he had on so many people!

  12. Collin Marbutt said,

    February 27, 2018 @ 6:57 pm

    I once asked my grandmother (Susan Steele) if she could describe Papadoo in one word and she answered with genius. I agree. I remember spending many hours talking and cooking with Papadoo.

  13. Robert Levine said,

    February 28, 2018 @ 8:47 am

    There is a whole cohort of graduate students now at OSU whose work is largely built on the platform of Dick's incredible 1994 L & P article, 'Term- labeled categorial type systems'. I remember reading that paper for the first time, and feeling almost stunned by the brilliant simplicity of his account of quantifier scope ambiguities. It seemed almost like magic to me then, many years ago, and it still does now.

    Dick was in a class by himself—true genius without the least hint of
    vanity or arrogance.

  14. Philip Resnik said,

    March 3, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    I was lucky enough to get to engage with Dick while at Penn and we caught up more recently about his work at Cataphora. What a brilliant and diverse thinker. My heart goes out to his family.

  15. Cynthia McLemore said,

    March 3, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

    This loss hit really hard. It made me realize I’ve always imagined, and hoped, that my next conversation with Dick was just around the corner. I feel so lucky to have known him, thought through ideas with him, gotten those gentle questions with kind intent. I have great memories of him in Austin over good texmex and conversations with friends. While I was driving him around there I got us lost, before GPS, and said, “You know the benefit of getting lost?” and he said, “You find interesting things.” That made such an impression on me; nobody else in my world would’ve said it — and with such amusement, considering I was making him late for a talk he was about to give. Not long after, Mark and I were in a cab coming into Utrecht when I looked out the window and saw Dick riding a bicycle next to us, like a dream — but it really was him. Since he and Mark were old friends, we got to see him occasionally over the years, sometimes along with his family. I have such a wonderful memory of Dick, Susan, Olivia, and Aaron hanging out in our breakfast room, just before Olivia was about to head off to law school. Dick and Susan came to the memorial service for Mark’s dad in Connecticut, and more recently, Dick and Mark and Mac went for walks in Valley Forge. So glad to have those memories. We didn’t get to see him nearly enough. My heart goes out to his family especially; it’s an enormous loss.

  16. Susan Steele said,

    March 3, 2018 @ 1:09 pm

    We are planning two events to remember Dick. One — the west coast one — will be held on Sunday, March 11, in the Livermore hills. Another — the east coast one — will be held on Sunday, June 3, at the Bertolet Burial Ground outside Philadelphia. If you're interested in attending either one (or both), please contact me (ssteele@redshift.com) and I will get you the particulars. And, thank you all, especially my grandson, Collin, for your thoughts.

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