Geoffrey Leech

I regard it as the most fortunate accident of my career that when I went to study English at University College, I chanced upon a magic circle of leading scholars in the study of language. During my undergraduate years (1956-9), I became particularly interested in the linguistic part of the syllabus, and had opted for what was then called ‘Syllabus B’ – a set of courses which contained a large component of language work, more historical than contemporary. For example, in Syllabus B, we had to study the whole of Beowulf, in the original, not just a part of it. Among the courses I took were Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, English Philology and Phonetics. This last course was taught by A.C. Gimson and J. D. O’Connor, world names in English phonetics.

Thinking of famous teachers, I should mention that as a freshman undergraduate I was fortunate enough to attend a series of lectures by J. R. Firth, the first professor of linguistics, and in many ways the founder of linguistics as a discipline in the UK. He gave a series of intercollegiate lectures at the University of London during my first year, and the polemic glint in his eye left an indelible impression on me. At that time, I could scarcely understand his message, although I remember that the term ‘context of situation’ figured prominently in it. Another great man whose lecture I was privileged to attend was Daniel Jones, the first professor of phonetics in the UK, and the father of the British school of phonetics. He was nearing 80 when I attended a lecture of his on – predictably enough – ‘The Phoneme’.

After graduation, I wanted to continue my studies as a research student at UCL. By this time I was becoming interested in modern linguistic research, but knew very little about it. Linguistics had so far made little impact in the UK, and no teacher in our department could adequately supervise in that area. However, at that time (c.1955-60) there was an initiative at UCL to promote the study of communication. An interdisciplinary conference on communication was held, and a new Communication Research Centre (CRC) was inaugurated. But there were two severe handicaps in the work of this Centre: first, the Centre had no funds or research staff; and second, scholars could not agree on what ‘communication’ was, or how it might be studied. Everyone agreed that ‘communication’ was important – but different disciplines had different insights into it.

As a modest start to the work of the CRC, two or three postgraduates in the English Department at UCL began to study the use of language in public communication. One student took as his province the study of public information documents, another began to study the language of press advertisements, and a third – myself – began to study the language of television commercials, then a relatively new medium in the UK.

I had been granted a State Studentship enabling me to study for an M.A. (then a research degree at London University). However, we three students made little progress, since none of us knew what techniques would be appropriate. I grew disheartened with the work, left the university, and began teaching at a secondary school. I continued school teaching for about 18 months, keeping my M.A. studies going as well as I could in my spare time.

On 1st January 1962, I was fortunate enough to be granted a research studentship at UCL: this was a meagre sum of £750 per year (slightly less even than I had been earning as a very junior teacher), but I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to abandon school teaching and take up full-time research. I owed this ‘break’ to a commercial television company, ATV. How fortunate I was that some television magnate happened to donate to UCL a moderate sum for research on the language of advertising, at that time!

But we still had the problem of a lack of research tools. At that time, Randolph Quirk, who had been both student and teacher in my department at UCL, had accepted a chair there. He was about to return to his old department once again, after spending a number of years at the University of Durham. He suggested to our supervisor that we should read the new linguistics at that time coming out of the USA, in order to arrive at the best analytic categories for describing the language of advertising. ‘New linguistics’, for us, included books now largely forgotten: books on English syntax by Paul Roberts, W. Nelson Francis, A.A. Hill and James Sledd. These works showed the influence of American structuralism: we had yet to catch up with the new generative grammar of Noam Chomsky.

In the summer of 1962, I had another piece of good fortune, when an assistant lecturer’s post became available in the English Department at UCL. My head of department, A.H. Smith, was prepared to appoint me, but before the decision was made, he offered his new professorial colleague, Randolph Quirk, the opportunity to vet me, and decide my fate. This interview was my first meeting with Quirk, who was to become my mentor in my developing career. At the interview, I was overawed, but his manner was so cordial that he soon put me at my ease. It seems that he was satisfied with my performance as an interviewee, for I was offered the post, much to my surprise and delight.

My most important task as a novice lecturer was to plan and deliver a series of lectures on ‘Rhetoric’ for first-year students. Previously, this lecture series had been on the history of rhetoric from classical times, and was by repute the dullest course offered by the Department. I was given carte blanche to redesign the course, and chose to treat literary language (especially the language of poetry) from the modern linguistic point of view, rather than from that of rhetorical tradition.

In 1963 I finished my MA thesis on The Language of Commercial Television Advertising. I had studied commercials ad nauseam. I should have been more grateful to my ATV sponsors: without them I could scarcely have put a foot on the academic ladder. At least I was grateful enough to send them a copy of my thesis, but there was no evidence that they read it or found it useful.

However, Professor Quirk invited me to embark on a book, to be based in part on my M.A. thesis, but extending to a more general treatment of the language of advertising. It was eventually published under the title of English in Advertising: A Linguistic Study of Advertising in Great Britain (1966).

After working on my new ‘Rhetoric’ course, however, my favourite subject had become the language of literature, on which I published two papers in 1965 and 1966. This was a time when, for the first time, modern linguistics was being applied to the study of literary language. Often, I felt, this approach led to misunderstanding and even animosity between literary and linguistic scholars. However, I had been much influenced, as an undergraduate, by the lectures of the textually-oriented literary critic Winifred Nowottny (especially Nowottny 1962), now a senior colleague in my own department. I felt a rapprochement could be achieved between these two approaches – the linguistic and the literary. This thinking eventually became the leitmotiv of my book A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry (1969), again written with editorial encouragement from Randolph Quirk.

My period teaching in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London lasted from 1962 to 1969. I have mentioned two strands of my academic development in that period – the study of register (particularly advertising) and the study of literary style. I will now backtrack to introduce a third strand – semantics.

In 1963 M.A.K. Halliday was appointed the first full-time Director of the Communication Research Centre, and under his influence the whole direction and thrust of the CRC underwent a transformation. Soon after, indeed, Michael Halliday became the first Professor of Linguistics at UCL. As he was a charismatic teacher and delightfully approachable colleague, I benefited greatly from close contact with him in 1963-4, when he was director of the CRC, and I was assistant director. I understood that the UCL powers that be were reluctant to establish a Department of Linguistics, although linguistics was then becoming a popular and ‘fashionable’ new subject in the UK. Hence the CRC, of which I was a caretaker at that time, conveniently became an incipient Linguistics Department which could safely be launched after Halliday was installed. It was considered a great coup that UCL had managed to entice him down to London, from Edinburgh where he had made his reputation. After he had been at UCL for a few months, the CRC faded into the background, and the Linguistics Department came into its own. At that time I was greatly influenced, as were many in the country, by Halliday’s linguistic theory, then called ‘Scale and Category Grammar’ (Halliday 1961), later renamed ‘Systemic Linguistics’ or ‘Systemic Functional Grammar’. I was interested in exploring Halliday’s concepts of system and structure in new directions, and asked his advice about which branch of linguistics I should tackle – morphology or semantics – as neither of these had so far been sufficiently investigated within this model. He advised me to take up semantics, and indeed I did, soon finding myself teaching a new course on the subject to postgraduate students. However, my ideas on semantics, which veered towards the integration of componential analysis and logical relations, were rather different from those of Halliday, for whom the notions of ‘context’ and ‘situation’ (related to his teacher J.R. Firth’s concept of ‘context of situation’) were paramount for the study of meaning.

Another important facet of my academic career in 1962-9 was a close association with the Survey of English Usage: a research centre founded by Randolph Quirk in 1959, and attached to my department at UCL. The most important part of the Survey’s work was the compilation of a large corpus of modern English texts, both spoken and written. Three of Quirk’s leading researchers in the early years of the Survey were David Crystal, Jan Svartvik and Sidney Greenbaum. Svartvik and Greenbaum later collaborated with Quirk and me as co-authors of A Grammar of Contemporary English (GCE), a detailed descriptive grammar of the language (Quirk et al 1972).

The grammar was a large enterprise, drawing on the accumulating work of the Survey of English Usage. We felt at that time that there was a large gap between the type of academic, theory-driven grammar that was studied in linguistics departments, and the type of grammar which was needed for the English language classroom. In the study of English grammar, there was a consequent need for mediation between theory and pedagogy. It was this reconciliation that GCE tried to achieve.

During my early years at Lancaster, much of my research time was spent in the collaboration with Quirk, Greenbaum and Svartvik on GCE. However, I also found time to continue my work on semantics, with the publication of Meaning and the English Verb (1971) and Semantics (1974) - both books that have subsequently been published in a second, revised edition.

After GCE was published in 1972, the four authors decided, with the agreement of the publishers, to write two advanced students’ grammars based on the approach of the larger work. One of them, written by Quirk and Greenbaum, was in effect a shorter version of GCE, entitled A University Grammar of English (1973). The other, written by Svartvik and me, was A Communicative Grammar of English (1975). In this book we tried to develop a somewhat fresh approach to English grammar, based on the idea that grammar, to be useful to the learner, should be ‘communicative’ in the sense of relating the forms and structures of language to their meaning and use. This became a popular book, and has since also been published in a revised edition (1994).

Then, in 1985, came yet another co-authored grammar – much larger even than GCE. From about 1978, the ‘gang of four’ (as the Quirk et al. team was familiarly called) began work on a second edition of GCE. Since GCE had been published in 1972, ideas on grammar, and knowledge of English grammar, had moved forward considerably. Moreover, GCE had received many reviews, which detailed both its strengths and weaknesses. We authors felt ready, then, to embark an updated edition of the grammar. When we started work on it, however, we found ourselves rewriting the whole book, changing its organisation, and introducing much additional material based on the Survey of English Usage experience. The second edition of GCE evolved into a new grammar, more grandly named A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), (Quirk et al., 1985).

In the initial stages of working on this new grammar, three of the ‘gang of four’ were secretly producing a Festschrift honouring its leading member, Randolph Quirk. The book was published (Greenbaum et al, 1980), with contributions from distinguished linguists and English language scholars in various parts of the world. Unfortunately we failed to keep the secret until the day of publication: the sharp observation of Randolph sensed that ‘something was up’ a few months before the book was due to be published.

Perhaps my part in CGEL may be deemed to be the summit of my career. The book made a big impact, and began to be treated as ‘the authority’ on English grammar.


Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan (eds.) 1980. Studies in English Linguistics: For Randolph Quirk. London: Longman.

Halliday, M. A. K. 1961. ‘Categories of the theory of grammar’, Word, 17.3, 241-292.

Leech, Geoffrey. 1966. English in Advertising: A Linguistic Study of Advertising in Great Britain. London: Longman.

Leech, Geoffrey. 1969a. A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry. London: Longman.

Leech, Geoffrey. 1971. Meaning and the English Verb. London: Longman. (2nd edn. 1987).

Leech, Geoffrey. 1974. Semantics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (2nd edn. 1981).

Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan. 1975. A Communicative Grammar of English. London: Longman. (2nd edn. 1994).

Nowottny, Winifred. 1962. The Language Poets Use. London: Athlone Press.

Quirk, Randolph and Greenbaum, Sidney, 1973. A University Grammar of English. London: Longman.

Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan. 1972. A Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman.

Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

©The Philological Society and Geoffrey Leech. Edited extract from Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories. Edited by: Keith Brown and Vivien Law. Reprinted by kind permission of PhilSoc, the editors and the author.

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