The World’s Greatest Grammarian


Professor Rodney Desmond Huddleston, the world’s greatest expert on the grammar of English, woke beside the South Pacific Ocean today on his 80th birthday. He was, I’m sure, up as usual by 3:30 a.m. (Brisbane time; that’s 1:30 p.m. the previous day in Washington, D.C., so he’s way ahead of Lingua Franca time), and will have gone on his standard predawn five-mile hike in the Noosa Heads National Park a few hundred yards from his home. Then he will have had breakfast, and a postbreakfast nap (putting him back in sync with his wife, Vivienne, who chooses not to rise at quite such a monastic hour). The sun will have come up over the ocean by about 6 a.m.; the photo on the left gives a sense of the view from his ocean-front house at aptly named Sunshine Beach, Queensland.

He will probably have started doing some work by about 8 a.m. His penetrating intellect and productive energy are undiminished. We’re working together on various projects. When I send him a revised draft of a chapter or a new paper it comes back to me within 24 hours with several single-spaced sheets of comments ranging from tiny details to major conceptual and organizational points.


Rodney has worked for half a century on the description of English syntax since he commenced work on his University of Edinburgh Ph.D. in 1960. He ranks with the true giants of the field. I am constantly astonished by his broad and flawless grasp of the facts, clear and consistent theoretical vision, rigor in argumentation, and open-mindedness about unwelcome counterexamples or new proposals.

I was very lucky to fall into an opportunity to work with him on the huge project of producing The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Rodney had been working on it for more than five years when an acquisitions editor at Cambridge University Press, the intended publisher and main backer of the project, suggested bringing me in to take some of the load and drive the project on. Rodney got grant funding for me to visit Australia for a monthlong visit in summer 1996 to get a sense of what the work would be like.

Hard would be the right adjective for it. California’s summer is Australia’s winter, when the days are fairly short and the chilly temperatures do not evoke any barbecue-on-the-beach image. I made the 18-hour journey from San Francisco to Brisbane at the end of June each year from 1996 to 2001, to work with Rodney for between one and five months. By the time I was 56 I had seen 61 winters.

We mostly did 11-hour days, starting as soon after 7 a.m. as we could and working till 6 p.m., breaking for a short lunch at 1 p.m. to discuss the morning’s work. Virtually every day we would find over our sandwiches that we had discovered something new about English syntax that no one had ever known before. Far from being a period of tedious recording of well-documented facts about the world’s best-documented language, it was actually the most exciting research period of my life.

I wish I could say the book that finally appeared in 2002 was half his and half mine, but I can’t. We took joint responsibility, but he wrote far more of it than I did. It’s the Huddleston Grammar of the English Language, with me very proudly serving in a supporting role, assisted by a dozen other linguists (they are credited on the title pages of the chapters they helped write).

To publicize the book I went literally right around the world, speaking about it at conferences and giving visiting lectures on it. And in 2004 it was chosen by the Linguistic Society of America to receive the Leonard Bloomfield Book Award.

Rodney pleaded geography on the matter of making the 10,000-mile trip from Brisbane to the LSA’s Annual Meeting in Boston to accept the award. So Andrew Winnard of CUP offered to go to the meeting and accept the award on our behalf. I remember my response to him: “Andrew, if you walk up onto that stage to accept the award, watch where you tread: My cold, dead body will be lying at the foot of the steps.”

A 3,000-mile January trip from Santa Cruz during the most bitter winter in years wasn’t exactly convenient for me, when teaching at UC Santa Cruz had already begun, but I showed up, of course. I made some brief remarks expressing our pleasure at receiving the only significant book prize in linguistics, and acknowledging our other co-authors (several of them LSA members), and I briefly attempted to explain what a huge amount of the credit belonged to the senior author.

Happy birthday, Rodney, my mentor, friend, and inspiration. Now let’s get on with the next project.

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