Lord Quirk studied at UCL although his degree was interrupted by war service where he served in the RAF Bomber Command. He completed his studies at UCL and started his academic career there before being lured to Yale University in the USA. He came back to the UK in 1952 and took up a post at Durham University before returning to UCL in 1960.
His study of the English language and usage transformed the landscape of linguistics. He led the project, the Survey of English Usage, which was a key influence on the study of the English language for the second half of the 20th century.
Lord Quirk took up the role of Vice-Chancellor of the University in 1981 at a time when funding for universities in the UK was under pressure. He oversaw mergers that shaped higher education in London into what it is today including Bedford and Holloway (which became Royal Holloway University of London), and Westfield and Queen Mary (which became Queen Mary University of London).
He was a fellow of the British Academy and was knighted in 1985. He retained his interest in academic research alongside an active involvement in the House of Lords as a cross bencher.