After attending George Heriot's School in Edinburgh, Sinclair read English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University, where he was awarded a First Class Masters degree. Following a spell of National Service in the RAF as an Education Officer, he returned to Edinburgh as a research student in 1958 and was soon appointed to a lectureship in the Department of English Language and General Linguistics.
In 1965 he was elected to the foundation chair of Modern English Language at the University of Birmingham. In 1995 he took partial early retirement, moved to Italy and founded the Tuscan Word Centre, an institution devoted to corpus based language research and teaching. He finally retired in 2000 from the University of Birmingham.
He died in 2007 in his home in Florence, and was buried at the Cimitero degli Inglesi.
He was an Honorary Life Member of the Linguistics Association of Great Britain and a member of the Academia Europaea. John held an Honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Gothenburg, and Honorary Professorships in the Universities of Jiao Tong, Shanghai and Glasgow.
Sinclair was an early leader in the fields of collocation studies, spoken language research and computational linguistics. He was founder of the ground-breaking COBUILD project in lexical computing which revolutionized lexicography in the 1980s and resulted in a new generation of corpus-driven dictionaries and reference materials for English language learners.
- Sinclair, John & Coulthard, M. 1975. Towards an Analysis of Discourse: The English Used by Teachers and Pupils. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Sinclair, John. 1991. Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.