Richard Oehrle

Posted: February 2018

The LSA has learned with regret of the February 21, 2018 death of former LSA Life Member Richard Oehrle. 

The LSA has established the Richard T. Oehrle Memorial Fund thanks to generous donations from Oehrle’s family and friends.  Click here to donate to the fund today!
See below for an obituary written by Mark Liberman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and friend of Dr. Oehrle.


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.