Obituary: Professor Sidney Greenbaum

Randolph Quirk
Thursday 30 May 1996 23:02

Sidney Greenbaum did not achieve his three score years and ten, but he achieved much else in a varied and rather unortho-dox career. Yet that last phrase seems distinctly ill-chosen, for if there was anything invariant in his life, it was his strictly observant devotion to orthodox Judaism, to the Jewish community wherever he lived, and beyond that to the state of Israel where he regularly visited his only brother Avram, to whom and to whose family he was deeply attached. Devotion also to the ancient sacred Jewish texts in which he took both a religious and a scholarly interest, as befitted one whose first degrees were a London BA and MA in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Already holding a Hebrew teaching diploma, to which was subsequently added a minister's diploma from Jews' College, London, and a teaching diploma from the Institute of Education, he was exceptionally well-qualified for the career in schoolteaching on which he embarked. This was at the Hasmonean Boys School in Hendon, but - as he said in an interview for the Jewish Chronicle earlier this year - "the scope for teaching modern Hebrew at that time - the mid-1950s - was very limited", so he added the teaching of English to his repertoire, made the more convincing by simultaneously studying at Birkbeck College for an Honours English degree.

Perhaps it was this second BA that stimulated an interest in medieval studies, resulting in his coming to see me at University College London in 1964 to discuss a projected medieval research topic. In the event, his visit caused a switch of interest to modern English syntax, and his appointment to a research assistantship on the Survey of English Usage, a project that has existed since 1959 for the purpose of describing present- day English grammar.

The consequent loss to secondary education and medieval studies was offset by the notable book, Studies in English Adverbial Usage (1969), that grew out of the PhD thesis on which he had speedily engaged. This work was based on an innovative psycholinguistic methodology which he and I then pursued in a fruitful collaboration that lasted more than two decades: the happiest years, I suspect, of his entire life (certainly years of a sunny laughter-loving that one somewhat missed in his last decade). It was a collaboration that survived his departure from London for a series of appointments: in Israel, in Oregon, and in Milwaukee (Wisconsin) - this last rewarded, years later, by an honorary doctorate.

He returned to Britain in 1983 to succeed me both as Quain Professor and as Director of the Survey. His interest in elicitation and psycholinguistics was now quite suddenly replaced by an equally single-minded immersion in computational technology as applied to the study of corpus material. As well as converting the Survey of English Usage corpus into machine- readable form (and writing copiously the while such books as A College Grammar of English and most recently The Oxford English Grammar), he set about organising numerous matching corpora illustrating the various kinds of English in use throughout the world. At the time of his shockingly sudden death, he was just seeing through the press a book entitled Comparing English Worldwide, shortly to be published by Oxford University Press and comprising chapters written by many from among the international band of scholars he had enlisted.

Quiet, mild and equable in temperament, Sidney (or Salman) Greenbaum was not a man one could be confident of really knowing. For all his love of entertaining, not least at the Reform Club, membership of which gave him enormous pleasure, he was a decidedly private man, rather ill at ease socially, with a sometimes brusque manner which may have been directed at concealing the shy, perhaps lonely, perhaps even unhappy man within. If so, all the more commendable his achievements, all the more treasured the memory of his generous hospitality by those who thought of themselves as his friends.

Sidney Greenbaum, English language scholar: born London 31 December 1929; Quain Professor of English Language and Literature, University College London 1983-90, Director of the Survey of English Usage, 1983-96, Dean of the Faculty of Arts 1988-90, Visiting Professor 1991-96; books include: Studies in English Adverbial Usage 1969; (jointly) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language 1985; The Oxford English Grammar 1996; died Moscow 28 May 1996.

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