Paul Postal, a former disciple of Noam Chomsky’s who used to go around viciously attacking non-Chomskyites, famously apostasized and now turns his rhetorical guns on the Master in an invigorating style not unlike that with which Trotsky assailed his former comrade in arms Lenin [er, either change “former” to “future” or “Lenin” to “Stalin”]. I give you his “Two Case Studies of Chomsky’s Play Acting at Linguistics“:

In his famous review of Skinner, Chomsky introduced the phrase ‘play acting at science’. This work, focusing on his talk of The A-over-A Principle and Recoverability argues in detail that that term precisely characterizes much of Chomsky’s own work in linguistics.

Even if you don’t care about the ins and outs of theoretical linguistics, it’s worth downloading the pdf available at that link in order to enjoy his vinegary blasts of character assassination. If, of course, you like that sort of thing.


  1. Postal’s paper from earlier in the year, “Chomsky’s Foundational Admission,” is, if anything, even harsher.

  2. I have great respect for the past linguistic work of both Postal and Chomsky. This criticism of Chomsky’s remark about his A-over-A principle is very odd, though. I suppose it’s fair to hold Chomsky responsible for remembering the refutation of his A-over-A principle in the dissertation of his very own brilliant advisee, Haj Ross, but really, that was a long time ago, and who cares any more?
    But here is something about that affair that is really interesting, to me anyway, and just shows how out of touch Chomsky became. While Chomsky’s account was unprincipled and wrong (I agree with Postal here), Ross’s new account was much more accurate but also unprincipled (so one can understand Chomsky’s lack of enthusiasm for it, if he even remembered what Ross had said, those many years ago). What makes it still interesting is that there is a principled account of part of the phenomenon, discovered back in the 80s by Gerald Gazdar, which, remarkably, Chomsky, Postal, and (so far as I know) Ross all have remained unaware of. For decades.
    The new principle is: there are no transformations. Constituents don’t move around — they were always where they are seen to be.
    Now, to describe the constructions that TG, with such arbitrary additional principles as A-over-A, requires movement transformations for, some adjustments to a phrase structure grammar must be made. The principle adjustment is the addition of special categories (a finite number of them) to describe those phrases from which a TGian thinks something has been extracted.
    An example of A-over-A is the inability to remove a part of one of two coordinated constituents; in Ross’s new theory, this was called the Coordinate Structure Constraint. For instance, from the S = [S and S] structure “Mary took a walk, and John read some book”, one cannot form a question *”What book did Mary take a walk and John read?”
    But if there are no transformations, this has to be done a different way. The “John read” part is assigned the special category S/NP, meaning an S with a NP missing, and the above example comes to have the structure (after “What book did”) S = [S and S/NP]. What is wrong with this structure is obvious: phrases of unlike category are coordinated — S is a different category from S/NP. So, no special arbitrary principle like A-over-A is needed, nor is Ross’s equally arbitrary Coordinate Structure Constraint.
    But wait — there’s more. The non-transformational account of Gazdar makes an interesting prediction. If you can coordinate phrases of like category and this (admittedly weird) S/NP is really a category, why shouldn’t you be able to coordinate two S/NP phrases? Well, let’s try one. In the question “What did Mary buy?”, the “Mary buy” part is an S/NP. In the question “What did John read?”, the “John read” part is also an S/NP. Coordinating them would give “Mary buy and John read”, which should be of the same category as each phrase coordinated, so we’ll have a structure S/NP = [S/NP and S/NP], and we know an S/NP can go after “What did”, so we should get “What did Mary buy and John read?”. Which turns out to be an acceptable English sentence.
    Isn’t that remarkable?
    (In the example, I’ve suppressed details about the missing tense in the phrase after “what did”.)

  3. Call such inadequate proposals failed principles (F-principles).
    What? Why? This is certainly a fun article but I’m glad I’m not paying school fees to any of the places these people teach. Talk about the blind leading the blind.

  4. This paper is a lot of fun, I literally lolled at the remark about Chomsky’s “promisory notes” where Da Big Kahuna says that a principle X is easy to describe/formalize, but never does so and doesn’t cite anyone else who does.
    For sheer entertainment value, Postal’s “Skeptical Linguistic Essays”* is even better. It actually has a section on ‘Junk Linguistics’ which includes chapters on junk refereeing, junk reasoning and junk ethics. ‘Junk Ethics 1’ offers Screwtapeesque advice to a young theoretical linguist. Fun fun fun all around.
    The chapter titled “The Openness of Natural Languages” is a pretty fascinating piece which deals with Chomsky’s formal definition of Natural Language (a set of finite sentences constructed out of a finite set of words) and it’s properties. It basically takes sentences which report direct speech (same language or foreign, thus including stuff like “Alien said ‘klaatu barrada nikto'”) or describe gestures and argues that the formal definition is, suprise suprise, wrong. Postal makes a great case against what I believe are the last vestiges of undisputed contribution of Chomsky to formal linguistics. (Geoff Pullum’s paper on math in “Syntactic Structures” is another fine example). But much as I enjoyed the argumentation (and Postal ripping Chomsky a new one), I couldn’t help but wonder what the fucking point was and what use is this to anyone who is actually interested in studying actual languages. The answer I got so far, is none whatsoever. So yeah, what Korona Úr said.
    *There is a link to it on Postal’s NYU website, but alas, it leads nowhere.

  5. I wonder whether Chomsky is ill-served by his popularisers. Every article on his stuff that I’ve read has left me feeling either “What?” or “So what?”.

  6. I’ve always thought that a no-holds-barred attack is a good introduction to any contentious subject. The classic in this genre is Gellner’s ‘Words and Things,’ in which Professor Wittgenstein and his followers get deconstructed. My understanding, fwiw, is that this book did not have a positive effect on Gellner’s career.

  7. I wonder whether Chomsky is ill-served by his popularisers.
    No, not at all. I was forced at gunpoint (OK, at threat of not getting to go on to do my dissertation) to take a class in the Master’s theories from His Own Texts, and trust me, he’s not ill served.
    Thanks for the further Postal blasts, Ben and bulbul!

  8. I think Chomsky was very well served by his early popularizers. Notably, Lees, Postal, Ross, Lakoff. After all, Ross attributed the basic idea of his dissertation about general constraints on transformations to Chomsky and, in particular, Chomsky’s A-over-A condition. Lees, in his effort to apply Chomsky’s theories, worked out the details of English nominalizations much more thoroughly than anyone else had done it.
    Later, after Aspects, both Chomsky and students trying to explain his work seemed to lose their way.

  9. What I find most interesting in reading Postal’s paper (at least the part that I read) is the way that he fights fire with fire. In demolishing Chomsky, Postal uses all the turgid language, ugly conventions, and painfully intricate argumentations of the Chomskyan school itself. Very few people would have to patience to refute Chomsky in the language of Chomskyanism. Most people would prefer to go off and do something more useful.

  10. Trond Engen says

    He lost me at “F-principle”.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Ha! Noam Chomsky, inventor of Content-Free Grammar.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Bathrobe: Postal used to be one of the most prominent Chomskyites, so it is not surprising that he is still writing in the same style.

  13. Yes, that’s why I compared him to Trotsky, who enthusiastically (and brilliantly) used the well-honed rhetorical tools of Leninist abuse against his Leninist enemies.

  14. Postal uses all the turgid language, ugly conventions, and painfully intricate argumentations of the Chomskyan school itself.
    Don’t know about turgid language, would possibly agree with ugly conventions on a case-by-case basis, but I’d take issue with painfully intricate. “Two Case Studies” can be summarized in one sentence:

    Chomsky still talks about 2 principles of grammar as if they held whereas it has been proven years ago that they don’t.

    While explaining this, Postal only introduces one new notion (well, more of a shorthand) – the aforementioned ‘F-principle’ and he provides a clear definition. I challenge anyone to similarly summarize the contents of any of Master’s papers of comparable length. Your prize is either a bottle of local pear brandy or a fine Cuban cigar.
    I’m not saying Postal couldn’t use a good editor and possibly a skilled DTP guy, but there won’t be any Postalbots any time soon. This of course applies only to those papers / books where Postal deals with refutations of Chomsky. I cannot vouch for his own theoretical work where I would be quite likely in agreement with Bathrobe.

  15. Ah, memories…Paul Postal is the only Academic who nearly killed me. He nearly did, really.
    It happened a few months after the professor in my (obligatory) doctoral syntax seminar shrugged off my questions in class with the incantation “The facts do not matter, Chomsky must be right” (verbatim quote). The incident subsequently made me wonder whether I was an idiot or whether there really was something dreadfully wrong with academia.
    In the course of seeking an answer I got my hands on a copy of his ADVANCES IN LINGUISTIC RHETORIC, in the journal “Natural Language and linguistic theory” (I believe a slightly modified version is found in his “Skeptical Linguistic Essays”).
    It’s a good thing I read this at the University library late in the evening, when I was the only person within earshot of the reference section: I was laughing SO hard that the noise level would have gotten me expelled had there been people within earshot.
    Indeed oxygen intake was becoming a bit of a health issue by the time I reached the end of the article. Happily, I was in excellent (physical!) health at the time, so I managed to recuperate: but even so an ambulance might have been required had the article been but a few pages longer.
    And that is how Paul Postal nearly killed me.
    However, this article is definitely what “broke the spell” and made me realize that certain kinds of “linguistics” are more akin to a sect than to science. And this realization is what allowed my to soldier on.
    Even when the same syntax professor disparagingly referred to my thesis (historical-comparative in scope) as “nineteenth-century linguistics”, I knew by then that nineteenth-century science is superior to late twentieth-century faddish pseudo-science. However many people might believe or pretend to believe the latter.
    But looking back, it is clear that it took something like Paul Postal’s no-holds-barred, no-nonsense article to make it clear as crystal that there was nothing wrong with me, intellectually: rather, it was this academic establishment which was intellectually bankrupt.
    For hatters who have never been nerdy bookworms for whom scholarship and books were a refuge from an unpleasant life, I cannot emphasize how extraordinarily difficult it is, emotionally and intellectually, to convince yourself of this truth without suspecting that you are either delusional or suffering from extreme egomania. Paul Postal’s article made it clear to me that I was neither, and that this dominant paradigm in fact was utter nonsense.
    Which is why I would like to take this opportunity, on the off chance that he is still alive and might read this thread one day, to offer him my thanks, and wish him (and the other readers, including our esteemed cyberhost himself) a Happy New Year.

  16. Etienne,
    thank you very much for the story.
    The paper you are referring to was indeed reprinted in “Skeptical Linguistic Essays” as chapter “Junk Ethics 1” and contains gems such as the following:

    Again, suppose you are an advocate of some popular linguistic theory and are working on an exotic NL (one not used by European settlers of the thirteen American colonies) and you uncover a neat analysis of some sentences that is unfortunately inconsistent with some principle of the linguistic theory of which you are a vocal defender. This could, unpleasantly, force you to think about which to give up: (i) the theoretical principle; (ii) the analysis; or, boldly, (iii) logic. Obviously, (i) could annoy the many, often illiberal, defenders of the theory, (ii) would waste a lot of your time, and (iii), although not to be excluded a priori, is going to raise some eyebrows even in linguistics.

    LOL and possibly ROFL, indeed

  17. Trond Engen says

    bulbul: Chomsky still talks about 2 principles of grammar as if they held whereas it has been proven years ago that they don’t.
    That’s what I sensed after a few lines, and when I met the F-word, I decided the rest would be obscurized banalities. But it seems I was very mistaken, since…
    Étienne: Ah, memories…Paul Postal is the only Academic who nearly killed me. He nearly did, really. etc.
    That’s beautiful. I’ll give him another chance.
    (Slow family party, kids and guests playing puzzle. We’ll soon be going outdoors to watch the neighbours attempting mutual pyrotechnical arsony.)

  18. an exotic NL (one not used by European settlers of the thirteen American colonies)
    Why make such a qualification? Andreas Koutsoudas’ textbook has this example of passivization in German:
    Er sieht mich : Ich werde gesehen.
    Er hilft mir : Ich werde geholfen.
    After class in my first graduate linguistics course at Indiana U 40 years ago, I went up to the instructor and said, “Excuse me, the passive of Er hilft mir isn’t Ich werde geholfen, it’s Mir wird geholfen.
    Instructor, turning pale, a look of horror spreading over his face: “Are you sure?”
    “But–but–that’s Contrary To Linguistic Science!” [turning on his heel] “I’ve got to go talk to Koutsoudas about this!” [runs down the hall]
    And that’s how my first graduate linguistics course became my last. (Incidentally, the instructor was later head of linguistics at a different Midwestern institution.)

  19. marie-lucie says

    an exotic NL (one not used by European settlers of the thirteen American colonies)
    I think Postal is recalling a personal experience. I heard quite a few years ago that after being at MIT for a while he was told that he should try the theory not just on English but on a completely different language, such as a Native American one, and he chose Mohawk (on which there had already been a fair amount of descriptive work done – the language is endangered but still spoken). So the predicament he describes was his own.

  20. Etienne: Thanks for the story. Though never a nerdy bookwork or member of academe, I think I can appreciate it in full: a great one for the new year.

  21. Etienne: Thanks for the story.
    Likewise, and to Rodger C as well. It does my heart good to hear these accounts!

  22. marie-lucie says

    “But–but–that’s Contrary To Linguistic Science!”
    **Some** linguistic theoreticians seem to think that “other” languages exist to justify their theories, and they are very upset when those languages refuse to fit the theories that have been developed starting from a single language. If “Universal Grammar” had been developed by Mohawk, Japanese, Turkish, Haida, or even Italian etc speakers, it would probably look quite different from the theory developed by English speakers.

  23. For what it’s worth, Linguistic Science has since caught up with Mir wird geholfen. Come back, Rodger C!

  24. Well, here I am. But that’s not the only experience that persuaded me that Chomskyism as practiced at that place and time was an authoritarian cult that propagated itself by intellectual bullying and byzantine politics (ethnic reference not intended).

  25. It seems the Language Wars are alive and well on lingbuzz! Besides the two Postal articles cited above we also have a reply by Ulfsbjorninn, a treply by Behme, and Behme’s own. Great stuff for those of us into soap operas.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m gonna give Rodger C. a break just this one time before siccing the Byzantine-American Anti-Defamation League on him. But don’t let it happen again.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Fun! 🙂
    Out of sheer ignorance, I can’t offer an opinion of my own, but I can quote Opinion 04: “Noam Chomsky should stick to politics, Roger Penrose should stick to interior decorating, and Andrew Lloyd Webber should stick to the ceiling if hurled aloft with sufficient force.”
    And yes, lots of fun can be had with German (especially the diversity therein) and any theory of grammar. And yes, it’s mir wird geholfen. I’m not sure exactly what the TV show Hier werden Sie geholfen! was an allusion to, but it was meant as a joke.

  28. marie-lucie says

    Welcome back, David! und ein fröhliches Neues Jahr!

  29. @J. W. Brewer: well, I was actually referring to the way Andreas Koutsoudas reputedly ran his department. But whatever. Can’t be too careful these days.

  30. Well, now that I’ve read both of Postal’s papers, I see that he is playing Berkeley to Chomsky’s Newton. Berkeley famously knocked Newton’s “fluxions”, on which he founded his differential calculus, thus:

    And what are these Fluxions? The Velocities of evanescent Increments? And what are these same evanescent Increments? They are neither finite Quantities nor Quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?

    Witty, unkind, and essentially correct: Newton’s infinitesimals were nonsense, and when Dedekind reconstructed calculus on a new and sound basis of epsilon-delta arguments (roughly: “For every number however small that you give me, I will give you an even smaller number that approaches the limit better”), that fact was admitted and those parts of Newton’s ideas dropped forever (at least until nonstandard analysis gave them a new lease on life, for infinitesimals are just the reciprocals of the supernatural numbers).
    Now Chomsky can only hope, and Postal quotes him as hoping, that his nonsense too will be resurrected in this fashion. Rhetorically Postal is perfectly right: nobody is entitled to expect such posthumous redemption. But what can Chomsky do but try to brighten the corner where he is, and hope someday that it will connect in a sound way with the rest of the world? It was more than half a century before anyone could make physical sense of the biologists’ claims for billions of years of evolution on a world that, as far as anyone else could tell, couldn’t have possibly lasted for more than a few million. Yet that fact was not permitted to crush all talk of evolution during the nineteenth century: on the contrary.
    So however delightful it is, I can’t take Postal’s critique as seriously as he seems to insist on. As the wise old man said long, long ago in a Middle-earth far, far away:

    Many [theories] that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, [Postal]? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart [as opposed to my head] tells me that [Chomsky] has some part to play yet, for good or evil, before this is over.”

    All this is Yet Another Fine Example of how things have gone horribly wrong not just in historical linguistics but in the whole subject, because the guys running the show have lost the knowledge of when and how to die. To quote myself:

    This is what happens to a scientific discipline, I fear, when it’s not widely practiced: the old Turks control everything, and the only rewards are for toeing the line. Instead of pursuing new ideas openly as a young scientist, you have to wait till your retirement to publish (as Marie-Lucie has had to do). No one will listen to you then either, but at least they can’t take away your pension.

    But now on to the replies, where I expect to see the whole story in Ph.D format (that is, Piled Higher and Deeper).

  31. David Marjanović says

    Welcome back, David! und ein fröhliches Neues Jahr!


    the biologists’ claims for billions of years of evolution on a world that, as far as anyone else could tell, couldn’t have possibly lasted for more than a few million

    Did the biologists actually claim that?
    What I do know is that biologists accepted continental drift much more readily than physicists/geologists; it was immediately apparent that it made sense of a whole lot of biogeography past and present, but it had nary a hint of a mechanism till the 1960s (when the revolution wasn’t televised and all geologists accepted plate tectonics within just a few years).

  32. Long before continental drift, physicists said that the sun couldn’t have been burning for more than a few million years. Then nuclear reactions were discovered. Till then, biologists just looked at physicists and said, well there you are.

  33. David Marjanović says

    True. Lord Kelvin famously got to 24 million years because he thought the sun was only heated by gravitational collapse.
    I tried to ask if the biologists of that time actually claimed that billions of years were necessary to explain the observed biodiversity.

  34. Well, not billions–I can actually remember when the earth was supposed to be only a billion years old–but a lot longer than 27 million years.

  35. *24

  36. All right, I’ll say it, since no one else has: is a disciple attacking his former master now to be known as ‘going Postal’?

  37. If it isn’t, it should be!

  38. J. P. Maher says

    In 1969 I was one of the first to tug at the emperor’s new robes, in an article, short title “Sound Pattern of a Palimpsest”. A lifetime later it’s hilarious to see Postal howling at the old master. Another apostate is Ferenc Kiefer. In 1990, when I was on a Fulbright at the University of Ljubljana, in the old Yugoslavia of blessed memory, I was introduced to guest speaker Kiefer, Member of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences, a position to which he ascended thanks to his rank in the MIT choir. Professor Janez Orešnik made the intro:: “Mr Maher, I would like you to meet Mr. Kiefer; He used to be a follower of Noam Chomsky.” — “Pleased to meet you,” said I, but why did you become a disciple in the first place?” Quoth Ferenc: “It was the Sixties.”

  39. Ha! Thanks for checking in and sharing the anecdote.

  40. Lars Mathiesen says

    infinitesimals are just the reciprocals of the supernatural numbers — do you have a citation for that, John? The supernaturals contain the integers but have no additive inverses, so it looks dodgy on the face of it.

    (TIL I learned that supernatural numbers are a thing).

    The surreals, of course, contain a Ring of infinitesimals — and of course that is the image under multiplicative inverse (in the larger class) of the Ring of infinities. [None of these are sets which is why the Rings get their upper case].

  41. John Cowan says

    infinitesimals are just the reciprocals of the supernatural numbers — do you have a citation for that, John?

    Yes, but it’s wrong. I said that in 2013, and here’s how it played out in 2020. So it’s all about super vs. hyper (not to be confused with the bucky-bit keys).

  42. Lars Mathiesen says

    Those were two long years. “Did I really write all that?”

  43. Lars Mathiesen says

    Now I want a space cadet keyboard.

    “No, you have to press HYPER-META-CTRL-SHIFT-Q to quit Emacs. No SUPER, that would be too easy.” — not RMS, but I’d do that keybinding if I had one. (And start using Emacs again).

  44. David Marjanović says

    Absolutely amazing.


  45. David Eddyshaw says

    Vi don’t hold vith that sort of behaVIour here …

  46. Lars Mathiesen says

    Real Emacs users run their remote command shells inside Emacs, not the other way around, so why would you ever quit? I actually managed to set up a VNC server to start Emacs as my login “shell” once, but then that project was shelved. (That reminds me about the command to exit to the command shell in MSDOS Basic: SYSTEM. Domain blindness).

  47. David Marjanović says

    …Oh, yeah, :q! is Vi, not Emacs. I’ve never used either and basically don’t know anything further about them.

  48. Lars Mathiesen says

    That screed is seriously outdated. These days I find myself using VS code for code and a plain Unicode editor (HTML textarea with a little preview funkiness in ECMAscript) via Markdown for human-directed documents. (You want to put a nicely formatted README on the front page of your Github project? Go Markdown, young man!)

    But vi is the fallback for text-only logins, so I keep my arcane knowledge alive. (We are not supposed to log in on servers any more, you know? We are not supposed to _have_ servers any more innit, your cloud provider will set up your Kubernetes cluster for you and you run kubectl on WSL on your laptop. Or in the virtual browser terminal they give you. The magic is all in your Terraform project and Ansible specifications, stored on github).

  49. Kubernetes cluster… run kubectl on WSL… Terraform project and Ansible specifications…

    I have no idea whether these are real or invented, and I’m not going to google them — I prefer my bemused ignorance.

  50. jack morava says

    @ Lars M et al,

    I’m surprised to see no mention (unless I misunderstand?) of Conway’s surreal numbers

    in previous threads: they’re hilarious, an algebraically closed Field containing the ordinals… but they form a proper class, the collection is too big to be a set. They’ve been blessed by Donald Knuth, one of the fathers of modern computing… They’re defined by generalizing Dedekind cuts to positions in 2-person von Neumann-Morgenstern games. They can and should be taught in about 5th grade…

  51. Lars Mathiesen says

    @jm: We’ve talked about the surreals before, just not in the 2020 thread where JC brought up the supernaturals. JC will now link those, he has a database or something. I said a bit more in that thread earlier today. (I’m not sure if von Neumann-Morgenstern games are the same as in Conway’s in On Numbers and Games, but those games form a larger class than the surreals).

    @hat, would I have you on? (DON’T answer that). They are real, and generally good things. When you see buzzwords like DevOps and “configuration as code” or “software defined ” that’s some of what’s under the hood.

  52. I believe! And I’ll leave my faith unsullied by actual knowledge, like a good American.

  53. Stu Clayton says

    # The class of all surreal numbers is denoted by the symbol o #

  54. Lars Mathiesen says

    Follow the ℕo Way.

    It gets even worse. The “gap” (previously featured) that’s larger than all surreals is called On, because the class of ordinal numbers is called that and the von Neumann construction of ordinals identifies an ordinal with the set of all numbers that are smaller. (Details elided, but On is of course not an ordinal because the class is proper). And taking the pun in a different direction, the gap that is smaller than all surreals is then called Off. Someone was giggling into their absinthe when they came up with that.

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