Randolph was born on 12 July 1920 on the Isle of Man. He studied at University College London, where he later became Quain Professor in English Language and Literature. He was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London from 1981 to 1985.
Quirk became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1976 and was knighted in 1985. He was President of the British Academy from 1985 to 1989 and became a life peer as Baron Quirk of Bloomsbury on 12 July 1994.
Quirk is well-known for founding the Survey of English Usage at UCL in 1959, but most of all for the monumental Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), which he co-authored with Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik. This book, which became known as Quirk et al. is one of the great standard reference grammars of English.
Randolph’s memory will be cherished here at the Survey.
We send our deep condolences to Lady Gabriele Stein.
Prof Liliane Haegeman, University of Ghent
There is no doubt that Randolph Quirk’s contribution to the field of English linguistics has been immense. The monumental grammar that he compiled together with Geoff Leech, Sidney Greenbaum and Jan Svartvik still stands proudly in every library of English linguistics and is a showcase for the careful descriptive linguistics that they initiated and still plays its part in present-day linguistics.
As a person, Randolph Quirk was this invigorating personality full of wit who energized those around him and pushed us to go further than we might have dared.
For me, it is no exaggeration to say that in many ways I owe my career in linguistics to him. He was a remarkable man and I will always be grateful for the chances he gave me.
Prof Geoffrey Pullum, University of Edinburgh
One sign that your future may lie in linguistics is having a serious interest both in languages and in scientific analysis of structure (chemical or mathematical, for example). Such a conflict confronted a farm boy from the Isle of Man in 1945. Five years’ service in the Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force had given him an intellectual interest in the science of explosives, and he had enrolled in a course in chemistry. But he also wanted to resume the degree course in English that his war service had interrupted.
He was wiser and more disciplined than I was at a comparable age. (My disappointment at being unable to follow both science and languages in high school was part of what caused me to lose interest and drop out, a bad mistake that cost me time and trouble to repair later, as mentioned here.) With a dedication to hard work and a skeptical attitude toward orthodoxies that he said he owed to his background, he plotted a sensible course.
He completed that B.A. in English without losing interest in science; found work as a junior lecturer; learned some linguistics; gained an M.A. and a Ph.D.; visited the United States on a Harkness Fellowship (at Yale and the University of Michigan); obtained a faculty position at the University of Durham; published (with C. L. Wrenn) a respected grammar of Old English; returned to London as a professor at University College; radically changed the relations between English language and linguistics; was elected a fellow (and president) of the British Academy; became vice chancellor of the University of London; was made an honorary Doctor of Letters and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire; received a knighthood for services to higher education; and finally was made a lord, specifically a baron. By 1994 he was Baron Quirk of Bloomsbury, C.B.E., B.A., M.A., Ph.D., D.Litt., F.B.A… Full tribute published on Lingua Franca
Prof Khurshid Ahmad, Trinity College Dublin
The Comprehensive Grammar is a brilliant conception and the phrase on page 34 (paraphrase: frequency of a token correlates with its acceptability) has certainly helped me in my work, especially in applying this notion to special languages. This phrase was used to obtain a number of EU projects.
I have a small anecdote about my brief meeting with Randolph Quirk. This was on the day of the launch of British National Corpus and I asked Michael Rundell to introduce me to him. I had developed a text analysis system which I had called System Quirk for extracting terms. I asked him whether he will allow us to use his name, otherwise I will have to call it System quirk. He smiled and said: ‘how much’?
A man with an insight into language use and with quirky notions about Standard British English. And thanks for page 34. RIP.
Prof Ruth Kempson, King’s College London
Randolph was incredibly supportive to me throughout all the years I knew him, from opening the doors into linguistics for me, and then on through the various stages of my career. Like Liliane, Randolph was very very good to me, and I owe him and his energy more than can fit into words: he literally transformed my life out of admin into all the professional pleasures I have subsequently enjoyed.
After one year as his secretary, when I asked if I could help on the research side, he said yes, do my MA (2 years part-time free at the time for UCL employees) and I will backdate your registration by one year! So after one year in which he put up with this mad thing throwing herself at a typewriter in between lectures, I was one year later released into academic life and a career, in which Randolph has been fully supportive ever since.
This generosity of his, both amazing in the first instance and sustained ever thereafter, has provided me with a role model for how to support graduate students and co-researchers I have tried to live up to ever since. The fact that we didn ‘t agree on all things was never a difficulty for either of us. He was truly a person one feels hugely honoured to have known.
Prof Susan Hunston, University of Birmingham
I was privileged to attend a series of open lectures given by Randolph Quirk at the National University of Singapore in 1985-86. Professor Quirk was a visitor to the university under the Lee Kuan Yew Distinguished Visitor Programme. It was an unparalleled opportunity to hear one of the great minds in modern Linguistics in person. I still have the volume of collected lectures (Words at Work) that was published subsequently by the Singapore University Press.
Prof Ranko Bugarski, University of Belgrade
Randolph Quirk played a major role in my development as a linguist. I fondly remember the academic year 1962/63, which I was privileged to spend in the Quirk establishment at UCL as a postgraduate on a scholarship. The atmosphere he created in Foster Court, surrounded by a pride of young lions with monosyllabic names like Sid, Geoff, Jan and Dave, was both stimulating and exciting. I profited greatly from Quirk’s seminars and from personal consultations. I had arrived with some ideas about working out a multilayered system integrating the grammatical, lexical and semantic levels of analysis of the subsystem of English prepositions covering vertical orientation in space. Quirk liked this and advised me how to proceed when problems came up; his keen interest and encouragement made me feel I was on the right track, and a few years later, back at home, I completed my PhD dissertation.
In the meantime I sent him a draft of a long paper on the interrelatedness of grammar and lexis in the structure of English. His eagerly but uneasily awaited verdict read, “I haven’t had time to read the whole article, but I have seen enough of it to be convinced that it must be printed”. Sweet music to my ears! (The article was published in Lingua in 1968).
So this was Randolph Quirk: always ready to give of his precious time, an attentive listener offering incisive comments. Later visits to the Survey only reinforced my impression of him as an extraordinary person, a true model of scholarship, devotion and energy. I mourn his passing.
Prof David Crystal, University of Bangor
Gosh, where do I begin? At the beginning I suppose.
I had a mixed first year at UCL. I was quite good at Old English, but found the philological approach frustrating, with its exclusive focus on written texts and a point-blank refusal by my tutor to go into phonetic details. And the third-term so-called ‘introduction to linguistics’ (which began with an instruction to read all of The Meaning of Meaning for next week) was a disaster: I got a D for the essay assignment at the end of the course. So I left for my summer vacation intending to take the literature options in my second year.
In the autumn term I turned up unenthusiastically for the first lecture in a course called Development of the Language to be given by a new lecturer, name of Quirk. He powered in, spoke about Old English lang and lit for an hour, and I left the room a born-again linguist. I remember nothing about the content of the lecture other than the moment he put some OE up on the board, spoke it, and told us to write it down in phonetic transcription. We shifted in our seats uncomfortably. What on earth was phonetic transcription? He spent the next minutes haranguing us. How on earth could we possibly study the English language without a knowledge of phonetics? Get over to the phonetics department immediately and do something about it! So I did.
Fast forward two years, and my linguistic (and specifically phonetic) interests having developed, and coinciding with the opening of the Survey, RQ (as he would routinely come to be called by us, after his characteristic signature) was looking for research assistants. I was one of those he asked (the other was Judith Godfrey). There were two problems: I had to get a first, and I had to stay healthy. I managed the first but not the second. When the time came for me to start on the Survey, in October ’62, I was 250 miles away recovering in a TB sanatorium. No chance of getting out before Xmas. I assumed I had lost my job, as the Survey was needing to be got on with (well, how would you say it?), but no. He kept the job open for me, and was hugely solicitous that I didn’t overwork when I eventually joined up at the end of the year.
I got on with my task, which was developing the phonological transcription for the spoken recordings, and learned something else about RQ: his attention to minute detail. I would end my day (at least, I thought it was the end, around 4 or 5 o’clock) with a few pages of transcription completed. He would come into the Survey office after a day of lecturing, administrating, and heaven knows what else, sit down by me, and we would go over the transcription, tone unit by tone unit, on the time-honoured phonetic principle that four ears are better than two. The most amazing thing was that he treated me as an equal, not as the juniorest of research assistants, and it took me a while to realise just how rare that was. I learned the importance of meticulousness in linguistic research during those sessions, the value of doing the ‘routine work’ oneself. I also gained a sense of respect for the 12-plus-hour day. Come 7 or 8 (or 9…), one of us would admit to being a tad tired, and we went to home1 (i.e. the Marlborough Arms) and then home2. In short, he taught me how to do research — reinforced by his role as a supervisor for my PhD. I can hear him now. Check your references. Don’t rely on secondary sources: they’ll always be wrong. And get writing.
Which reminds me of another story, illustrating the time and care he devoted to those who approached him for help — what will be a recurrent theme, I suspect, on this website. I did start to write. Gimson had asked me for an account of my work on prosodic and paralinguistic features for Le Maître Phonétique. I wrote a draft, and RQ went through it in fine detail, giving it a good polish, and in the process teaching me another lesson — not to be wordy. A few months after it was published, I got a shock: I had evidently upset George Trager, who had worked on paralanguage some years before. I thought I’d acknowledged his work, but not well enough, it seems. Gim had received a fierce riposte by Trager, and he asked me for a short response. I had absolutely no idea what to say, hazarded a few semi-coherent remarks, and went to cry on daddy’s shoulder. RQ read Trager’s paper, and then — congratulated me. Huh? One of the leading figures in linguistics has bothered to respond to you in this way, he said. You should be thrilled. Oh. Right. And he then took my draft, gave me a lesson in how to deal with academic criticism, and added a final sentence that has stayed with me throughout the corpus years: ‘The essence of a corpus is its finiteness, publicness, accessibility, and susceptibility to chapter-and-verse reference.’ It looks as if I said that, I demurred. Shouldn’t you be named at the end of the piece? Not a bit, he said. It’s your show.
Soon after, we were jointly writing a monograph that in due course appeared as Systems of Prosodic and Paralinguistic Features in English. RQ planned the structure, penned the general approach, and was obviously very much the senior author; my role was to provide the detailed description and the phonetic evidence, including the spectrographic support. When it was done, he sent me the text for a final read-through. The authors were listed as Crystal and Quirk. I knew him well enough by then to dare to say it should be the other way round: senior author first, surely? He would have none of it.
All of this took place when I was a member of the new linguistics department at the University of Bangor. And that’s another story. I’d been working on the Survey for only a few months when the job came up. I was in the Senior Common Room at UCL, a newcomer in the phonetics circle (Fry, Gimson, O’Connor, Arnold et al) and they told me of an ad for an assistant lectureship in linguistics at Bangor. Just right for you, Dave, they said. They showed me the ad, and indeed, I did seem to fit the criteria — English language, phonetics… As it was just down the road from Holyhead, where I was brought up, it was an attractive idea. But I had a problem. Randolph had been expecting me to work as a research assistant at the Survey for two years, and — thanks to my late arrival — I’d been there for less than a term. How could I even think of leaving? I mentioned my quandary to the phoneticians, and they told me to talk to Randolph and blame them for putting the idea into my head. So, I approached him in his office, very tentatively (no, lie, scared stiff), showed him the ad, and asked him what he thought. He read it, looked at me, and said ‘Go for it. It’s perfect for you.’ But, I stammered, it would be letting you down. Not a bit, he replied. You’d be letting me down if you didn’t apply for it. I burbled on about feeling loyalty to him, until he shut me up by giving me a mini-lecture about what loyalty really was (a responsibility to the subject, not to the individual or the institution) and adding that in any case I’d already done far more for him in one term than he had expected. I left the room feeling I’d done him a favour!
This post would become a monograph if I recounted in appropriate depth all the things he taught me. Some of them in brief… He showed me how to handle the press — the emphasis on everyday speech in the Survey brought a huge amount of media interest, not all of it sympathetic. He gave me a model of how to deal with senior figures in society — as a member of the board of the British Council, and especially as vice-chair of the English Speaking Union’s English language committee, where he had to tactfully challenge the inevitably conservative attitudes to English usage displayed by the sharp-witted, deeply involved, but puristically minded chair, Prince Philip. He helped me learn to be a teacher (via his summer schools at Queen Elizabeth College, taking the trouble to sit in on some of my grammar classes and give me feedback. He taught me not to be scared of big projects — a lesson that of course was reinforced by my close encounter with the ‘gang of four’ when they were stitching together the Comprehensive Grammar.
But above all, I remember his expertise in academic enquiry, apparent to all who attended his seminars or who were members of committees he chaired — not least his chairing of Linglex, the advisory committee on lexicography established by Longman. I can’t recall a single occasion, in many meetings, when I didn’t get some sort of insight from his comments. And isn’t that a general point about him? I can’t think of an article he wrote that wasn’t full of new ideas. And they have stood the test of time. The other day I was rereading a paper he wrote on the language of Dickens and it remains as fresh and stimulating as the day it was published.
Of all my encounters with RQ, I’m delighted to have had the opportunity of presenting him for an honorary degree at Reading, but what I remember of that occasion now, more than anything else, is his discomfort at the eulogies we gave him. And that reminds me of the only time he sort of told me off. It was when I dedicated a book to him, my Introduction to Language Pathology (1980). He had chaired the hugely influential report into UK speech therapy services (universally known as the Quirk Report) — a contribution that for some reason has hardly received a mention in the obituaries — so I thought it an appropriate 60th birthday present. But it made him uncomfortable, and he told me so.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The sign of great academics, to my mind, is their humility, and Randolph displayed this more than anyone else I have met, as some of my stories illustrate. He was always ready to play down his own role and to give credit to others. He was always generous with his time, and when talking to you, he gave you all his attention — a focus that could be quite scary! I’ve often wondered how many others were stimulated by his enthusiasm and panache, his clarity of expression, his gift for the apt and memorable example of language in use — seen to great effect in The Use of English — and his insistence on maintaining a balance between language and literature. This website will help fill in that picture, I’m sure. For me, it was the best of beginnings, and I know I was one of many whose career was influenced, if not launched, by his interest and advice. Nor did he ever lose interest. My phone would ring, and it would be him, out of the blue, reacting to something I had done. But not just me. His letters always enquired after my family. And the last letter I had from him, not so long ago, made never a mention of his personal physical difficulties and was typically fulsome and solicitous. He made you feel good. I can’t think of a better memorial.
Prof Sylviane Granger, Université Catholique de Louvain
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Randolph Quirk, who played a pivotal role in my career. When I was just a young doctoral student, he welcomed me most kindly to University College London and allowed me to use data from the Survey of English Usage for my doctorate on the passive in spoken English. Despite always being very busy, he unfailingly found time to meet me, answer my questions and offer his wise advice. What an honour it was to be able to run the results of my research past a linguist of his stature! His encouragement gave my confidence an immense boost, and strengthened me in my desire to pursue a career in English linguistics.
Randolph Quirk has remained by my side throughout my career as a teacher and researcher, not least through the medium of his Grammar of Contemporary English and Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the first works of reference I instinctively turn to whenever I am hesitating over a point of English grammar. I have fond memories of the times I spent at the Survey in the days when the corpus was still in paper form, stored in large drawers, and when collecting data meant painstakingly transcribing the occurrences relevant to one’s research. It was truly the forerunner of the fully fledged corpus linguistics of which Randolph Quirk was one of the great pioneers. English linguistics has lost one of its most illustrious figures, but his writings will continue to stimulate our reflections and inspire us in our work for many years to come.
Catherine Filippi-Deswelle, Université de Rouen
I was lucky enough when I spent a month at a Summer School at Keble College in Oxford to attend one of Professor Randolph Quirk’s lectures there in 1987. His 1985 Grammar played an essential role during my College years and I of course bought it when I wrote my PhD on though, although, even though and even if (1998, University of Paris 7-Denis Diderot): the definition of the relation of concession included the component of something “contrary to expectation”, which inspired my own following rephrasing as something “contrary to preconstruction” (both at a cognitive and a linguistic level) within the framework of Antoine Culioli’s Theory of Predicative and Enunciative Operations, in the wake of Benveniste’s works, close to pragmatics.
I am indebted to Prof. Quirk for life as far as my professional career is concerned and thank him and his co-authors from the bottom of my heart for contributing to the linguist I have become from 1987 up to today.
Prof Koenraad Kuiper, Christchurch University, NZ
Many years ago being a junior linguist in an English Department with Randolph Quirk being a distinguished visitor, I got to drive Randolph around Christchurch in an ageing Volvo 122S station wagon.
After seeing some of the the sights and on the way back to campus and out of nowhere Randolph asked, ‘Have you ever thought about geriatric linguistics?’ I hadn’t. He had.
Kristin Bech, University of Oslo
I have never had the pleasure and honour of meeting Randolph Quirk, but he is with me on a daily basis in Quirk et al.’s Comprehensive Grammar, and not least in Quirk and Wrenn’s Old English Grammar, which probably holds the world record in the category ‘shortest book with most useful information’.
Jane Sunderland, University of Lancaster
I never met him, but the reference ‘Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik’ will be forever burned into my memory.
Prof Tony Allan, SOAS
Randolph’s verbal wizardry moved me sixty years ago at Durham half way through my science degree course. I attended one of his public lectures and was for ever aware of how very very good a lecture could be. I was just as moved about twenty years later — by which time I had joined the staff at SOAS in London — by another of his public lectures. It is amazing that my failing memory can still recall his highlighting the idea that monoglot English speakers were in a weak position. They were locking themselves out of essential ideas being published in other major languages. I was reminded of how he effortlessly deployed what we now call emotional intelligence as well as powerful scholarship. His decades of intimacy with the University of London enabled him to steer it through its very difficult 1980s. About ten years ago I found that he and Gabriele lunched often at the SOAS refectory and I was very pleased to facilitate their use of the SOAS staff common room. They appreciated access to the newspapers. Finally it was special to exchange a wave and a smile in Malet Street just a few weeks ago.
Prof Bas Aarts, University College London
I first met Randolph Quirk when I was 18 in 1980. I had just left home in the Netherlands after completing my secondary school, and went to UCL to study as a ‘non-degree student’. Randolph was 60 at the time and still teaching. My father, who was at the University of Nijmegen, and had himself spent time at the Survey of English Usage (‘the Survey’) in the late 1960s doing research, had driven me over to London, and took me to meet Randolph in his office, room 133 in Foster Court. It was a large space lined with book cases, a huge table for meetings, and a ‘modern’ 1960s style solid wooden desk. Quirk greeted us warmly and gave us a tour of the Department. At the time the corridors in Foster Court and the Survey’s research room were still stashed with filing cabinets containing corpus data.
I attended his lectures and Old English and Middle English seminars, but my real interest was in the course Present-Day English Structure and Usage, which he taught at the unpopular time of 4-6pm on Fridays in Foster Court 132, opposite his office.
Seminars with Randolph could be quite daunting because he didn’t tolerate ignorance or laziness. The pace in seminars was fast, and he would often ask questions. Some of these were quite impossible to answer by uninitiated undergraduates. In an Observer profile of Quirk published in 1981, a student recalls how he asked her in a full lecture theatre “And what do you know about the development of the pronoun in the fourteenth century?” If no answers to his questions were forthcoming he would relish telling students that they were ‘an ill-educated lot’, or some such. We were never quite sure whether he was genuinely displeased, or merely teasing us.
In the same Observer piece the journalist asks Randolph what will happen to the Survey after becoming Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. The reply: it will continue at UCL “as time permits.” The journalist concluded his piece, presciently, by writing “For Professor Randolph Quirk, one suspects, time will permit.”
After my gap year at UCL I went back to the Netherlands to study at Utrecht University for my degree in English Language and Literature, but returned to UCL in 1984 to study for an MA in Modern English Language. Randolph was no longer teaching because he had left for Senate House down the road to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of London. By this time Sidney Greenbaum had succeeded him as the Quain Professor of English Language and Literature and as Director of the Survey of English Usage.
However, Randolph was still very much present in the Department, often working in his UCL office, which he kept until well into the noughties. Greenbaum had employed me as a Research Assistant on the Survey, and everyone working there used Randolph’s room to make coffee and tea because it had a sink in the corner, a small fridge and a kettle. When he was there he didn’t mind people walking in and out to make themselves hot drinks, and it was at these times that I would often have a chat with him.
One day we got talking about a topic that was then in the news and being debated in the Lords, namely sexual acts between men. We had different views on the issue, but he respected my opinion and invited me to attend the debate from the public gallery that night as his guest. It was quite a surreal event with grandees like the Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jacobovits and Margaret Thatcher holding forth on the matter.
Randolph was a pioneer in a field that became known as Corpus Linguistics. Fascinated by the work he had observed at Brown University on written American English, he thought it would be a good idea to build a corpus of British English. This project was part of the Survey of English Usage which he founded in 1959 at Durham University, but brought to UCL in 1960. Randolph recognized that spoken English is primary and he ensured that his corpus contained large amounts of spoken data. Recording this material was a major undertaking and a great achievement. We proudly display the reel-to-reel tape recorders that were used at the time in the Survey, and we even still have the original tapes, now long digitized, which we can’t bring ourselves to throw away.
Quirk is best known as the first-named author of the mammoth Comprehensive grammar of the English language (CGEL) which was launched at a lavish event in the Institute of Education (now part of UCL) in 1984. Curiously, this was the first large-scale grammar of Present-Day English to be published in the 20th Century, that was based on insights from modern linguistics. Quirk knew Chomsky personally and was au fait with transformational grammar, though he was also critical of it: in a squib in the Journal of Linguistics in 1977 he criticized the notion of ‘trace’ that was, and still is, used in Chomskyan theory. To this day CGEL remains as one of only a handful of large-scale reference works for the grammar of contemporary English. It is still widely cited in many books and articles on the English language.
Randolph’s work profoundly influenced my own work, and I’m grateful to have benefited from his vast knowledge of English grammar, both through his teaching and his writing. I’m proud to continue his pioneering work as the current Director of the Survey. It’s a great shame he can’t be with us for its sixtieth anniversary in 2019.
Prof Flor Aarts, Radboud University Nijmegen
In 1969-1970 I spent a year doing research in The Survey of English Usage at UCL. Every morning we drank coffee in Randolph Quirk’s room. On 12 July 1970 Randolph was 50. We all congratulated him and wished him many happy returns. He was anything but pleased, however, to say the least. The reason was that he simply did not want to be reminded of his age. There were 47 more returns in store for him!
In the history of the description of the English language Randolph occupies a very prominent place. As a TLS reviewer once wrote, Quirk was “the great ringmaster of the new grammatical circus”. I shall remember Randolph for his inspiring enthusiasm, his wit and his incredible energy. I owe him a lot and I won’ t forget him.
Prof Derek Davy, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ
In the early 1960’s I was admitted to UCL as a mature student to complete an external B.A. in English. Having studied privately for a couple of years I was naturally apprehensive about how I would fare in such an unfamiliar environment. This apprehension was not lessened by the news that I had been placed in Professor Quirk’s Third Year English language seminar and I very much wondered what to expect from such a high-powered linguistics scholar.
At the first meeting Quirk breezed into the room bearing a large sheaf of papers, which turned out to be the proofs of a new dictionary of English which was about to be published and which he had been sent for comment. He shared these out among the group with the instruction that we were to read them and come back to the next meeting prepared to say what we thought of them. In an instant, what had been to me somewhat distant subject-matter, often seeming of little obvious relevance, suddenly became direct and engaging. In the years that followed, as a member of the Survey team, I came to realise how this concern for what was immediate and practical characterised RQ’s whole approach to language studies and, along with his volcanic enthusiasm, attracted generations of students to the discipline of linguistics.
Prof Dick Hudson, University College London
For me, Randolph was the person who revived the study of grammar in the UK after almost half a century of academic neglect. The OED and phonetics flourished, but between Sweet and Randolph — nobody. School teachers taught it, but not very well — how could they teach it well without any input at undergraduate level?
Randolph saw the importance of what was happening in American universities, and was the first of a stream of UK linguists to import American ideas and enthusiasms — especially the twin ideas of studying ordinary spoken language via a systematic sample and of framing the results in a consistent theoretical framework. But he didn’t just follow the Americans — he led the way in producing block-buster grammars of English (where Britain is now world-leader), and his Survey of English Usage was unique.
He was always keen to build bridges to school-level education so he must have been delighted to see how his SEU evolved. He was certainly keen to get grammar back into schools, but it would be wrong to remember him simply as an advocate of grammar. What he really believed was missing in schools was the study of vocabulary, and it’s thanks to him and Gabi that the 2013 National Curriculum for English in England mentions vocabulary 84 times — compared with a mere 49 mentions of grammar. Maybe this is yet another example of him being a generation ahead of his time.
Bob Morris Jones, University of Aberystwyth
Back in the sixties I was a research assistant to Professor Alan Thomas on a Survey of modern Welsh in the Department of Linguistics, University College of North Wales (as it was then, Bangor University as it is today). Through Alan Thomas, Professor Quirk kindly agreed that I visit the Survey of English at UCL c.1968. I was there for some time and learnt much about methods of collection, a taxonomy of analysis, sociolinguistic factors, data collection, and data storage. Randolph Quirk was very supportive while I was there (as were other members of staff at that time), and the visit was immensely useful for the conduct of the Survey of Welsh. I have much to thank him for his generous support (including advice on where a poor research assistant could get a decent meal). But earlier in the sixties I had been in the audience when he gave a talk at the English Society at Bangor c.1965. I met him again in 1967 when he gave a talk to the Linguistics Society at Reading University. These various experiences showed me that Professor Quirk was supportive, encouraging, scholarly, and forthright.
Prof Katie Wales, University of Nottingham
Where do I begin? His Manx rolled r’s, forbidding stare, puffing pipe, but twinkly eyes and broad smile: from my first encounter as a green PG student; through colleague and fellow examiner in the federal UL as it was once; to being a Research Fellow on the SOEU working on pronouns…..I loved his informal sessions in his rooms, drinking tea (green in his case) and discussing points of usage; and meeting scholars from all over the world. The Quirk et al’s are with me still, and always will be…..
Prof Terttu Nevalainen, University of Helsinki
Randolph Quirk was my supervisor during my postgraduate year at UCL in 1980-81, when I collected material for my doctoral dissertation on Early Modern English. Years later, many of these texts were included in the Early Modern English section of the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts. It was a great privilege to be able to benefit from Professor Quirk’s wide-ranging knowledge about the principles and practices of systematic data compilation, his deep commitment to the English language, and generosity of spirit. To make a historical linguist more aware of the present, he once suggested I go to the visitors’ gallery of the House of Lords to watch the debate about “the benefits which would flow from a simplification of the English language” (regrettably, Lord Simon of Glaisdale withdrew his motion at the end). All of us students of English are grateful to Professor Quirk for doing so much both in his field and in the wider community.
When I was working as one of the founding editors of the original Collins English Dictionary in 1972, a new grammar book called A Grammar of Contemporary English was added to our reference library and immediately became the essential arbiter on any question of grammar, so much so that its approach to grammatical description was used in the new Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and indeed it was to echo Randolph’s work that the word ‘contemporary’ was put into the title of the dictionary.
Randolph had been instrumental in the setting up of the LDOCE project with his friend, Tim Rix, who went on to become the much respected chairman of Longman. It was through their fruitful relationship that Longman provided some funds to the Survey of English Usage, and funded the Longman Fellowship at the Survey for many years. Randolph was the chair of the Linglex committee and advised me and other Longman dictionary staff for about 40 years. Apart from being the most formidable chair you could imagine, always nailing the point, always practical in finding a solution, he contributed to some highly stimulating meetings with professors such as John Wells, Gillian Brown, Philip Johnson-Laird, and Yorick Wilkes. I used to feel that my head was in danger of exploding at some of those meetings, because such daring and imaginative ideas were contributed by our ‘profs’ — all of whom had, of course, been suggested as members by Randolph himself.
Later in the 1980s, I was charged with publishing the new edition of A grammar of contemporary English, a somewhat daunting prospect. I should have been more willing than I was to have the privilege of working with Randolph and his co-authors, Geoffrey Leech, Sid Greenbaum and Jan Svartvik on that project, which was published as A comprehensive grammar of the English language in 1985. I need not have worried about working with Randolph and the others, because Randolph ran the writing — and the scheduling — of that book with consummate professionalism and I didn’t have to do anything. The only problem was that the book was much longer than it was supposed to be, but we at Longman (now Pearson) accepted that, and of course, CGEL became accepted as the new grammar bible.
When the time came for a new grammar book to be written, based on the extensive written and spoken corpus material from the British National Corpus and the Longman American Corpus, both projects on which he advised us for several years, Randolph was typically intellectually generous in his support of that book, which was published in 1999 as the Longman grammar of spoken and written English, by Doug Biber, Geoffrey Leech, et al.
Not only the world of linguistics, but also the worlds of dictionaries and publishing, benefited so much from Randolph’s towering intellect and fearsome grip on any subject. He was a truly great man.
Neil Smith, University College London
I knew Randolph for more than 50 years: he was uniformly helpful to me and a beneficial influence on me. I first came across him in person in 1963 when I was doing my PhD in the Department of Phonetics at UCL under the supervision of Gordon Arnold and, officially, of Dennis Fry, but in the theoretical framework of Michael Halliday’s current ‘Scale and Category Grammar’.
It is significant that Randolph had been instrumental in bringing Halliday from Edinburgh to the Survey of English Usage (not to the Department of Phonetics), a move which influenced the careers of a host of other scholars. Mention of Fry reminds me that he was the only person I ever heard address Randolph as ‘Randy’: no-one else would have dared.
I came across him because, out of the blue, he invited me to teach phonetics — especially intonation — on his Summer School. Great! But I hadn’t expected the nerve-wracking ordeal of having him sit in on my classes to make sure I did it right. In fact, he took me aside afterwards and gave me sundry pieces of sage advice on how to teach, in particular how to keep students’ interest. Come to think of it that feedback constitutes my entire experience of training to be a teacher.
At about the same time I attended one of his open lectures, intriguingly entitled “Is Pidgin English?” What sort of existentialist query was that? I soon discovered, when he opened by saying alternative titles for the lecture might have been “Is ‘Pidgin English’ English?” or even “Is ‘Pidgin English’ ‘English English’?” This was the first of many times when I was struck by a mixture of admiration and envy at his verbal facility and quickness of wit. I taught on the Summer Schools for two or three years, getting to know him better as a human being, rather than just a world-famous scholar. We even used to play squash together and, when I won, this was attributed not to any superiority on my part but quite simply ‘twenty years advantage’.
I gave up the Summer School in 1966 when I went to MIT (and UCLA) for two years to work with Chomsky. When I returned in 1968, Randolph was unchanged and immediately invited me to give some lectures on ‘TG(G)’ (‘Transformational Generative (Grammar)’) as it was then known. When he introduced me before the first lecture, he described me as coming “hot-foot from St Noam”. Who else?!
We kept in touch for the next half-century, largely because of Braj Kachru (he and I had married sisters). Braj and Randolph had a deep and affectionate relationship of great mutual respect. This was despite their radical disagreement about the nature of ‘World English’: that is, they epitomised the healthiest and most fruitful scholarly interaction it is possible to have. Since Braj died a couple of years ago, our contacts had been diminished, largely limited to chats in his eponymous Bloomsbury where he was guided around by Gabi.
The world is a poorer place without him.
I first ran across Randolph Quirk’s name when I was taking my first steps as an untrained English teacher. A colleague recommended The Use of English, I dipped into it, and rapidly got hooked. The book came as a revelation, overturning many of my disgracefully uninformed beliefs about language and linguistic correctness. Later, when I started writing teaching materials, I wrote to Quirk once or twice out of the blue, asking, as if by right, for help with tricky points of grammar that I couldn’t work out myself. I didn’t realise at the time what a nuisance this kind of presumptuous approach can be, and I could not have guessed it from Quirk’s prompt, courteous and helpful replies. Later still, when I had produced a pedagogic usage guide of my own, our paths crossed from time to time at lectures and conferences. Randolph, as he had now become for me (he was good at putting people on first-name terms) went out of his way to praise and encourage my work — that of an obscure author operating on the remote fringes of his territory. This work, of course, would scarcely have been possible if Randolph and his colleagues had not first done theirs.
Any pedagogic grammarian owes an enormous debt to the academic linguists on whose research he or she is parasitic, and for me the Grammar of Contemporary English, and subsequently the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, were invaluable resources. In producing these monumental reference guides, Randolph and his collaborators did a very great service not only to practitioners like myself, but directly and indirectly to the whole English-teaching profession. I remember him with gratitude, affection, and profound respect.
Prof Andrew Goatly, Lingnan University, Hong Kong
My first encounter with Randolph was when I attended a stylistics seminar, in 1975 or thereabouts, in which he analysed the thematic structure of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’; quite an apposite poem as we mark his passing, with regret, but also celebration. He certainly had miles to go after that before he slept, most notably with the most extensive and insightful grammar of English ever written, and stretching on right through to his House of Lords work on primary education in his latter years.
This talk sparked off my lifelong interest in stylistics. I was extremely privileged when he agreed to be my supervisor in 1979, his last PhD supervisee before he became Vice-Chancellor of London University. I had been out of academia for three years and so he insisted I start writing academic essays straight away, and scheduled supervisions every three weeks, an amazing commitment, given the energy and time simultaneously taken up by successfully applying for the V.C. post. His rigour, intellectual curiosity and engagement as a supervisor have been a model which I have always attempted to emulate in my own academic life. I can still picture him, pacing up and down his office, puffing his pipe and thinking deeply about problems of the semantics of metaphor. I am most indebted to him, as without his stimulus and careful discipline I doubt I would have had an academic career at all.
Prof Ioana Chitoran, Université Paris Diderot
Professor Quirk visited the University of Bucharest in the 1970s. I was 8 years old. At the time, my father was head of the English Department, and had obtained official permission from the Romanian authorities to invite Professor Quirk and several colleagues to our home for dinner. I remember this evening quite well, as the best time I’ve ever had at a dinner with grownups. I had found someone who was willing to play with me one of my favourite games: “I spy with my little eye something beginning with the letter __”. I hope Professor Quirk had as much fun as I did!
Professor Quirk had been invited to speak at the conference of the Romanian-English Contrastive Analysis Project, and his visit had been funded by the British Council as part of a British-Romanian cultural agreement (this all happened before the country’s fall into seclusion in the ’80s). My parents remember that it was a particularly harsh winter, which Professor Quirk approached with good humour, and at one point even helped push a Trabant stuck in the snow.
Professor Quirk’s visit meant a lot for the English department in Bucharest. It gave new impetus to the main project, and he personally inspired students and faculty. There’s also a good chance that his visit may have had something to do with my decision, years later, to choose English as an academic subject, and fight with my fellow students over the few available copies of The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. While I did not have the privilege to be Professor Quirk’s student, I do credit him for gracefully showing me the way to the field of linguistics.
My friend Randolph Quirk
In late 2012 I started to research the life of Aberystwyth student Maurice James and the interaction and cohabitation in 1939-40 of Aberystwyth students and evacuated students from UCL. Maurice’s papers show that he was close friends with one Randolph Quirk.
Well I had never heard of this guy, did an internet search, found that he was still alive and in the Lords. In February 2013 I wrote to Randolph, asked if he remembered Maurice and would like to share any memories of him. To attract his attention and ensure he read my letter I had the cheek to address him informally ‘Annwyl Randolph Quirk’, to which he replied with ‘Annwyl Louise, diolch yn fawr’. Randolph had lost touch with Maurice in 1943 but invited me to afternoon tea with him and Gabi in the Peers’ dining room in April 2013. Thus started our friendship which lasted until his death.
When we met we talked only about Maurice. Can you imagine anyone getting two hours with Randolph Quirk and not asking him about linguistics? As we parted he told me to come and see him again, but I thought he was merely being polite. In November 2014 he asked me to visit him again and I did meet him and Gabi for lunch twice in 2015.
We never ever did discuss linguistics or his career. He threw himself into my research with great gusto using his diaries of that period to revive his memories. Randolph and Maurice met through the joint universities Labour Club when the Humanities dept of UCL was evacuated to Aberystwyth. They became close friends and co-diggers. Randolph named fellow students for me, both UCL and Aber, in photographs and recalled attributes of various friends. He also sent me photocopies of other relevant photos. Randolph bought himself the smart green and red Aberystwyth university blazer which he wore when he sang Welsh hymns in the intercoll choir and when he played in the student band in the Pier ballroom. He became secretary of the joint universities Labour club; he and Maurice hitched to Birkenhead to visit his sister Annie who was nursing there; he learnt Welsh which he never forgot, and even in 2017 greeted Welsh peers in Welsh and included some Welsh in one of his last letters to me.
Aberystwyth 1939-40 was a busy and happy year for Randolph before his call up. It was the last year of ordinariness for him because after his return to UCL in ’45 his life and career took off.
In addition to the UCL/Aber research I am also researching a much larger project which investigates social factors affecting exam success and failure in Bala Boys’ Grammar School in the 20s and 30s. In early 2015 I suggested to Randolph that I should study for a higher degree. He phoned immediately and told me quite bluntly that I did not need any more qualifications (too old I think he meant), and he was correct. ‘I’ll help you’ he said, ‘use my name’. He would say – write to this person or that person, mention my name and tell them I told you to write. Wasn’t he sweet? He showed great enthusiasm for my research and was generally very encouraging and would often ask for updates.
Then one day I received a letter in which he described his own experience of sitting the grammar school scholarship exam on the Isle of Man. Now and again he would send me little anecdotes of his life. He could be critical where necessary and reprimanded me once because I had forgotten something he had previously told me. It was a ‘sit up and pay attention in class’ kind of reprimand. He was 96 and I was embarrassed. He was still pretty sharp even in his mid 90s.
Although Randolph had a good understanding of his ancestral history, in 2015 he asked me to spend an hour on his maternal lineage, as if one hour could ever be enough. I don’t do this research for other people as it takes up too much of my own research time. Nevertheless I spent about 8 months gratis on his ancestry and this afforded me the opportunity to research in archives I have never previously consulted.
When Randolph returned to UCL in 1945 he contacted two cousins, Sir William Palin Elderton and his sister Ethel. (Ethel, a UCL professor, had worked with Francis Galton and Karl Pearson). Sir William had conducted some genealogy research himself and Randolph passed his notes on to me. Randolph’s maternal ancestors were part of the middle class backbone of 18th century London. He was enthusiastic and wrote to Eton for details of his great great grandfather who had been a pupil there. He took himself and Gabi off to St Helen’s Bishopsgate where his ancestors are buried inside the church. I wrote some short narratives for him on various ancestors and I think he thoroughly enjoyed this last excursion into family history.
As if I did not have enough to do in 2015 with Randolph’s ancestry and my two research projects he sent me a crank letter he had received from a man in Llandrindod Wells and as I also live in Wales (nowhere near Llandrindod) could I find out something about this crank. I duly did as asked and sent him details to which he replied that he didn’t, after all, know the crank. Thank you Randolph.
We just had an ordinary friendship, and he never stood on ceremony. We wrote regularly to each other but friendships can’t be taken for granted and he made every effort to maintain the friendship. One day I had a call and he said ‘this is Randolph….I’ve got nothing to report’, he just wanted to say hello.
He was sufficiently confident of our friendship, on a not so good day, to phone and have a grumble about his physical condition, and having grumbled probably felt a little better. I often found this stressful as I could do nothing to help him. But I realised I did do something, I listened and that was important.
Randolph found growing old hard. As the years rolled by his body became weaker although his brain was still sharp and more than acutely aware of his physical decline. The gradual loss of friends must have greatly affected him but he generously wrote eulogies for each passing friend.
In his last two years Randolph began to feel his age. He would say he felt old, but really he meant old old. He told me that the over 90s were overrated. At the start of 2016 I resolved to write to him once a month, whether he replied or not, to offer him support and did so until the end of his life. My last letter was sent on 12th December.
In 2016 we had some lively correspondence and it was only in his final year that his letters or calls reduced to once every two months or so.
Randolph phoned me a month before he died, he sounded pretty chipper and I took it to be one of his usual calls. He was always very affectionate towards me but on this occasion he was more affectionate than usual. With hindsight I now realise that he knew he was failing and did not have long to live and wanted one last chance to talk to me again.
He was magnanimous in that he had great fortitude not to tell me that he knew he was nearing the end for fear of upsetting me and I think this says very much about the man he was….putting others before himself.
Randolph was a kind, generous and gracious man who encouraged people to challenge themselves and do the best they could. I miss his friendship. I hope I was a good friend to him, I think I was.
Right now I hear him saying ‘don’t grieve for me, get on with your research’ and I know he’s right.
Goodnight dear friend.
Prof Noël Burton-Roberts, Newcastle University
I cannot imagine what I would have done with my life had I not encountered Randolph and been taken on to work on the Survey of English Usage. To me English linguistics was an entirely new field of enquiry that under his guidance, and aided by Derek Davy and Valerie Adams, immediately intrigued, delighted and engrossed me. Randolph was generous, intellectually demanding and supportive in equal measure; living up to his expectations brought out the best in me. Apart from the basic work of the Survey, prosodic/paralinguistic and syntactic analysis of texts, there were his crowded Thursday evening seminars which, though sometimes two and a half hours long, never seemed long enough.
Randolph also introduced me to squash and one of my ‘duties’ when I joined the Survey was to play with him twice a week at 8am. Even on those squash days, he had already been hard at work for at least an hour if not more. His capacity for work was inexhaustible. With him, it really was a matter of “Ask a busy man…” .
Giant of English Linguistics was just one of the many roles he fulfilled.
Prof Chandanashis Laha, North Bengal University, India
Lord Randolph Quirk just missed being a centenarian – and our small grammar-gang here in North Bengal always hoped and prayed he wouldn’t miss it – but his passing away is indeed a loss for academia and society at large, given his fabulous energy and vibrant activities even as a nonagenarian. I think, the very name ‘Quirk’ had for many some sort of magnetism! People around me used to fondly refer to my PhD on grammar and usage as ‘a quirky matter’, and when my son owned a personal computer, his initial password was ‘quirk.uk’ : those were the ways some simple souls paid homage to a great grammarian!
I, as an ordinary Indian academic, have reason to view Sir Randolph as an epitome not only of scholarship but also of benevolence and munificence. It was the late 1980s, quite before the advent of the internet in India. I had a query on Jespersen’s Growth and structure of the English language which Sir Randolph had prefaced. I snail-mailed my query to his UCL address, as given in the book. After a couple of months, the reply came from the President of the British Academy as he was then. I still recall his caring and inspiring words to a total stranger that I was to him: “Back from the Far East for two months, I now turn to your letter…. The point you make is good and might well have suited Jespersen’s purpose…” He used to answer often written in hand (Oh, whither has fled that tradition of elegant, cursive hand-writing!) all my queries in the years to come until, on his recommendation, I got a Hornby scholarship at UCL in 1993. (I, however, proved myself to be unworthy of his great generosity as I had to discontinue with my course there owing to some insuperable personal problems.)
My correspondence with Sir Randolph made me a hero in the eyes of my colleagues, and the British Council, Eastern India, gave me a grant because of the force of his certificate : “Mr C. Laha is a dedicated scholar whose work on the English language I greatly admire.”! Or, again, when I critiqued a section of the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985), he kindly responded, saying – “I don’t believe we have explained the ‘paradox’ correctly. … I’d be grateful for your opinion [about the new points he made in the letter].” To me, all this was, and still is, far more precious than the Koh-i-Noor!
He was very meticulous. Let me recall an incident. I was recording his reminiscences of India in his office at Foster Court. At one point he was needing to mention the name of Iris Murdoch but just failed to remember it. He asked me to stop recording, popped out somewhere to get the proper name, returned in a couple of minutes with a child-like sense of triumph to resume the interview! He could sometimes pretend to be one with the lesser ones to boost their morale. When, later in that week, he asked me how I felt being in London as a first-timer, and I said it was all right except for the cockney, he quipped with his wonted winsome smile: “Do you think I understand It?”!
A scholar extraordinary, he was a sublime soul as well. He could humbly award himself (as he did in an interview, bequeathing to us an instance of exemplary humility) only ‘beta minus’ for his achievements, but to many around him he was the pater familias, sometimes overtly stern, but covertly soft and compassionate. He had the spunk to strive, to seek, and not to yield as well as to drink life to the lees. He was happy, I guess, to find that he was leaving behind excellent commanders and crew for his dream ship, the Survey of English Usage. And this ‘lord’ did reign hundreds of hearts not only in Britain but also in many far-flung climes across the continents.
If you would like to add your own tribute to Randolph, you can do so below.