A tribute to Randolph Quirk

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 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. 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.

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 English. 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, 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 Linguisticsin 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.

7 January 2018

This tribute was first published on the the Survey of English Usage blog. Click here to see further tributes to Quirk.

Observer profile.


2 thoughts on “A tribute to Randolph Quirk

  1. I really enjoyed reading your posting while studying in the language science library. In grammar class, we can never discuss grammar without referring to Quirk et al. and I always wondered what it would be like to see them in person. So, I searched Randolph Quirk on Youtube and found this video.

    He showed up in a Japanese TV programme and talked about grammar, education, and so on.
    I am really sorry that we lost one of the greatest English linguists. RIP


    • As long as the english language exists, the name of Randolph Quirk along with former stalwarts like Otto Jesperson and Henry Sweet will have to be taken at every step of learning and teaching the English language.


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