Sidney Greenbaum


Greenbaum, Salman Mendel [Sidney] (1929-1996), grammarian, was born on 31 December 1929 at Underwood Street, Stepney, London, the younger of the two sons of Lewis Greenbaum (d. 1944/5), a tailor, and Nellie Bernkopf. Greenbaum was thus brought up in the heart of the 'Jewish' East End of London, and in a thoroughly practising Orthodox Jewish household, suffused with learning and a love of books.

Greenbaum won a place at the Grocers' Company's School, Hackney, but had to leave at fifteen following the death of his father. He earned a living of sorts through teaching Jewish religion classes in east London and officiating in synagogue ceremonial. His knowledge of Hebrew and the Hebrew scriptures was sufficient to gain him admission to Jews' College, the religious training seminary, which had an affiliation with the University of London. In 1951 he was awarded, through the college, a BA degree from the university, with honours, in Hebrew and Aramaic. Two years later he gained his MA, and meanwhile obtained, from the college, the diploma qualifying him as a Jewish minister of religion. In 1954 he was awarded a postgraduate certificate in education, and became a primary school teacher.

These qualifications enabled Greenbaum to obtain employment as a 'supply teacher' with the London county council. From 1957 until 1964 he taught full-time at the Hasmonean grammar school, Hendon, under its formidable founder and principal, Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfield. But Greenbaum's interests had already turned from the study of the sacred texts of Judaism to that of the English language. In 1951 he had enrolled at Birkbeck College to study for the University of London's BA in English, which he obtained in 1954. A decade later, following a series of confrontations with Schonfield over matters of management, he resigned from the Hasmonean. In the following year, while continuing to teach evening classes at Goldsmiths' College, Greenbaum obtained employment as a research assistant working for Randolph (later Lord) Quirk in the Survey of English Usage at University College, London. Thus began Greenbaum's lifetime professional association with Quirk, under whose supervision he obtained his PhD in 1967.

Greenbaum's earliest monograph was Studies in English Adverbial Usage (1969). He was subsequently appointed first as visiting professor in English language at the University of Oregon, Eugene, then as associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He had embarked on a punishing schedule of teaching, research, and publication. Verb-Intensifier Collocations in English and Elicitation Experiments in English (written with Quirk) were both published in 1970. Greenbaum was one of the 'gang of four' authors (the others were Quirk, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik) who together wrote The Grammar of Contemporary English (1972) and the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985); these volumes remained standard works of reference with worldwide currency into the twenty-first century. Greenbaum's University Grammar of English (also written jointly with Quirk) was published in 1973. Having spent 1972-3 as visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Greenbaum returned to Milwaukee in 1973 to take the chair in English language. He also edited several books on the English language, among them Acceptability in Language (1977) and, with Leech and Svartvik, Studies in English Linguistics: for Randolph Quirk (1980). In addition to publishing widely in scholarly journals, Greenbaum was also interested in language pedagogy, specifically composition.

In 1983 Greenbaum succeeded to the post of Quain professor of English language and literature and director of the Survey of English Usage, which Quirk had vacated at University College, London (UCL), following his appointment as vice-chancellor of the University of London. Greenbaum's book The English Language Today was published in 1985 and from 1986 to 1988 he served as dean of the faculty of arts at UCL. While undertaking a range of administrative duties, Greenbaum also found time to dabble in the larger politics of the federal university, in which he became a senator. He did not agree with the majority of his academic colleagues at University College, who yearned for the breakup of the federation and the independence of the college, out of which the university had grown. In 1989 his support was crucial to the election as chairman of the university's academic council of Professor Geoffrey Alderman, an out-and-out 'federalist'. Greenbaum had taught Alderman at a London county council primary school in 1954. The two became close friends and allies in what became an epic and ultimately successful struggle during the early 1990s to save the 'federation' from its many enemies in academia and government. The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee awarded Greenbaum an honorary doctorate in 1989 and in 1990 he was made research professor and director of the Survey of English Usage. A Student's Grammar of English, written with Quirk, appeared in 1990.

In the early 1990s, building on his early pioneering experimental techniques investigating English grammar and usage, Greenbaum founded the International Corpus of English (ICE), a major research project based at the Survey of English Usage. The aim of the ICE was to establish identically constructed corpora in different countries of the English-speaking world. He described the project in an edited volume, Comparing English Worldwide: the International Corpus of English (1996). The British component of ICE (ICE-GB) was the first corpus to be completed and become fully searchable, using dedicated state-of-the-art software whose early development Greenbaum supervised. In an age when computers were still the prerogative of the scientific community, Greenbaum was tenacious in advocating computing for the humanities; as dean of arts at University College he was the first academic to insist on adequate funding of humanities computing and on the provision of professional training in computing for humanities teachers and researchers.

One of Greenbaum's last publications was The Oxford English Grammar (1996). This work was innovative because it was based on real-language data taken from the International Corpus of English. Widely reviewed in the British press, it was both praised and criticized for its tolerance of non-standard usage. Greenbaum wrote that:

good English is sometimes equated with correct English, but the two concepts should be differentiated. Correct English is conformity to the norms of the standard language. Good English is good use of the resources available in the language. In that sense we can use non-standard dialect well and we can use standard language badly. (The Oxford English Grammar, 17)

On his return to England from the USA Greenbaum had re-established his links with London's Jewish communities and with Jews' College. He assisted Dr Immanuel Jakobovits, the United Synagogue's chief rabbi, in the English translation of the centenary edition of the Singer's Prayer Book (1990), the standard book of prayer used by Orthodox Jews throughout the British Commonwealth. He was a member of a number of Jewish organizations including the Jewish Historical Society, the Society for Jewish Studies, the Sternberg Centre for Judaism, and the Maccabeans. He was also a member of the Reform Club. Yet Greenbaum was a very private, intensely lonely, and in some respects tragic person, generous to his friends but awkward in female company and quite lacking in social graces. Unusually for an Orthodox Jew, he never married. He was at his best when entertaining family and colleagues. While drinking a glass of whisky and smoking a cigar he would sit in his favourite chair, talking to his guests. Towards the end of his life he suffered increasingly from ill health.

In 1990 Greenbaum resigned the Quain chair at University College on personal grounds but was able to continue directing the Survey of English Usage. On 28 May 1996, while delivering a lecture at Moscow University, he died of heart failure. His body was brought back to London by a colleague and by friends and was buried on 3 June 1996 at the Federation Jewish cemetery, Edmonton.


Who's who in the world, 13th edn (1996) · The Guardian (31 May 1996) · The Independent (31 May 1996) · Jewish Chronicle (14 June 1996) · The Times (5 June 1996) · files of the Survey of English Usage, UCL

Bas Aarts and Geoffrey Alderman. From: The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press.

Obituary in the Independent, 31 May 1996.

This page last modified 14 May, 2020 by Survey Web Administrator.