Obituary: Professor Randolph Quirk

by Ruth Kempson (King’s College, London)

Members of the Philological Society might like to record the death on 20 December of Professor Randolph Quirk, whose international reputation as a major linguist expert on the modern English language has been secured ever since his setting up of the survey of English Usage during the 1960s and 70s. This survey was, at the time, a unique annotated corpus collection of over 1 million words of both spoken and written English across a vast variety of styles, all text in each file classified with detailed category labelling, and in the spoken cases accompanied by annotations for intonation. It was then on the basis of these data that he and a group of colleagues wrote a considerable number of immense descriptive grammars of English, starting with A Grammar of contemporary English (1972), and culminating in the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985). During that period he became Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. Subsequently, he became vice-chancellor of the University of London, received a knighthood for services to higher education in 1985 and became President of the British Academy (1985-1989). He joined the Upper House as Baron Quirk of Bloomsbury in 1994, from which position he contributed in a wide-ranging way to education debates.

On a more personal note, he was a man who combined immense energy and speed with unstinting giving of his time in encouraging and helping junior colleagues, in ways to which he characteristically never drew attention. Witness to this generosity was his encouragement to myself, a young graduate who had become his secretary, to take his MA in linguistics, supposedly part-time but in fact in a registration which he backdated by one year so that I was able to complete the degree within a year, scampering between lectures and back to my secretarial duties. One year later I found that my life had been changed out of all recognition into an academic life with all the professional pleasures I have subsequently enjoyed. 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, not even as he accumulated titles and dignities, which he carried very lightly. He was a person one feels hugely honoured to have known.


The Survey of English Usage at University College London has created a facility for colleagues to write a tribute to Randolph Quirk.
Members’ memories of Randolph if they ever met him, worked with him, were taught by him, or attended one of his lectures across the world are also very welcome.

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