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A.S. Hornby's life and career

Albert Sydney Hornby (known affectionately to his friends as Ash) was born in Chester on 10 August 1898 and educated at University College London, where he took a degree in English Language and Literature in 1922. The following year, Hornby was recruited to teach English in a small provincial college in Japan. He was originally employed to teach English Literature, but was quickly drawn into the teaching of language, an interest which brought him into contact with the Tokyo Institute for Research into English Teaching (IRET), then directed by Harold E. Palmer. In 1931, Hornby was invited by Palmer to join him in his programme of vocabulary research at IRET. His first task was the compilation of a list of collocations, later the subject of a major report, but he also collaborated with Palmer on research into verb syntax and vocabulary selection and grading. All this work was eventually to bear fruit in the achievement for which Hornby is chiefly remembered, the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English.

After Palmer's departure from Japan in 1936, Hornby became head of research at the Institute, where he continued work on projects already begun. But he never lost sight of practical issues: when in the same year he took over editorship of the Institute's Bulletin, he contributed a series of articles laying stress on sound classroom practice. (The Bulletin, incidentally, was to be the model for English Language Teaching when it appeared ten years later, with Hornby as first editor.)

Palmer had already hinted that nothing short of a special dictionary for the learner would bring together fruitfully the various strands of IRET research. But it was Hornby's acute sense of the language learner's needs, which determined the exact form this dictionary took. Aptly named the Idiomatic and Syntactic English Dictionary on first publication in Tokyo in 1942, and later the Advanced Learner's Dictionary, it broke new ground as a work designed expressly for the writer as well as the reader of the foreign language. More than anything else, it is this dictionary in its successive editions and numerous reprintings that has made Hornby's name a household word wherever English is taught as a second or foreign language.

Hornby returned to England in 1942 and joined the British Council. He was posted to Iran, where he worked as a lecturer and teacher trainer until 1945. Later, he became Linguistic Adviser to the Council in London. It was here in 1946 that he founded English Language Teaching, a journal which was to become highly influential both as a channel for his own ideas on language-teaching methodology and as a forum for those wishing to forge closer links between language teaching and developments in linguistic theory.

At this time, Hornby was also making a major contribution to the BBC series 'English By Radio' - often referred to for this reason as 'Hornby by Radio'.

In 1954, Hornby published A Guide to Patterns and Usage in English, a practical grammar whose approach to analysis, and tabular style of presentation, reflected the methods employed in the Advanced Learner's Dictionary. The patterns were also a central feature of his later three-volume Oxford Progressive English Course and of his practical course book for teachers, The Teaching of Structural Words and Sentence Patterns.

A. S. Hornby has had a profound and enduring influence on English Language Teaching, not only through his publications and ideas on teaching method but also through the A.S. Hornby Educational Trust. This was a far-sighted and generous initiative whereby a large proportion of Hornby's income was set aside to improve the teaching and learning of English as a Foreign Language, chiefly by the provision of grants to enable teachers of English from overseas to come to Britain for professional training. Hornby's aim was that the Trust's money should be used for education and 'go back to the countries from which it comes'. Thanks to the Trust, hundreds of teachers have been able to develop their expertise through British Council Summer Schools and post-graduate courses in linguistics and ELT at British universities. Hornby's generosity was part of a wider humanity. He was never a remote, dry-as-dust academic, but a man of broad sympathies and practical instincts who believed that the knowledge of the expert should be put to the service of the ordinary learner and teacher.

Hornby's pre-eminence in the field of English Language Teaching was recognised by the award of several honours. He was appointed OBE and made a Fellow of University College London and a Master of Arts of the University of Oxford. Shortly before his death in 1978, the volume In Honour of A. S. Hornby, with contributions by many of his friends and former colleagues, was presented to him to mark his eightieth birthday.


For details of publications referred to above, see the separate 'Works' page on this site.


The above text was written by A.P. Cowie for a pamphlet produced by the A.S. Hornby Educational Trust (n.d.). We are grateful for his and the Trust's permission to reproduce it here. Other important sources for biographical information on A.S. Hornby include: A.P. Cowie, Entry for A.S. Hornby in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-5). Oxford: Oxford University Press; A. P. Cowie, English dictionaries for foreign learners: a history (1999). Oxford: Clarendon Press; A. P. Cowie, ‘A. S. Hornby, 1898–1998: a centenary tribute’, International Journal of Lexicography, 11 (1998), 251–68; A. S. Hornby and [C. Ruse], Hornby on Hornby and the advanced learner's dictionary (1974), Tokyo: Oxford University Press; P. Strevens, ed., In honour of A. S. Hornby (1978). Oxford: Oxford University Press; A. S. Hornby, ‘Looking back’, English Language Teaching, 21 (1966), 3–6. See also Richard C. Smith, 'General Introduction', Teaching English as a Foreign Language, 1936-1961 (2005), Volume 1, London: Routledge; and 'A.S. Hornby and 50 years of the Hornby Trust', by Richard Smith and Roger Bowers (2012). ELT Journal 66/1: 1-9. Pdf.