The Solitary Cyclist.

Courtesy of JC, this Sherlock Holmes puzzler from the Futility Closet (quoted from Andrew J. Peck, “The Solitary Man-uscript,” Baker Street Journal, June 1972):

In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist,” Arthur Conan Doyle created an inadvertent grammatical puzzle: Who does the term “solitary cyclist” refer to?

As I wrote John, “A curious conundrum, but I find it hard to believe it exercised the minds of so many people for so long, given that the reading that turned out (ta-da!) to be correct was the obvious one, at least to me. Of course, I’m very used to the serial comma, but I don’t believe it was so unknown back in the day.” In his response, John linked to Arika Okrent’s The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars, which has a lot of good quotes and ends by linking to yours truly (this 2003 post). Enjoy, and feel free to comment on the Sherlock Holmes thing if you have thoughts on the matter.


  1. As a member of an active Sherlock Holmes club, I feel to note here: to be surprised that some niggling detail “has exercised the minds of so many people for so long” is to display one’s unfamiliarity with the Baker Street scene.

    It’s a thing here.

  2. For example: at our last meeting we took note of the extant controversy of whether the “Adventure of the Second Stain” referenced in the opening passage of the Adventure of the Naval Treaty refers to the adventure of that name published in Strand Magazine December 1904, or whether it could refer to some /other/, unpublished “second” adventure of the Second Stain.

    (On this point we take the comfortable position that the obvious answer has again been the correct one all along.)

  3. In the eight-volume collected translations I grew up on (first published in 1966), the title was Одинокая велосипедистка. The Russian translator had gotten it wrong but it sounds better this way.

  4. Stephen Downes says

    Did ought to be “WhoM does the term “solitary cyclist” refer to?”, right?

  5. David Marjanović says

    Historically, yes; but of course whom is pretty much dead at this point, being misused more often than used correctly from the historical point of view.

    But what is “did ought”? An auto-miscorrection for a typo in “that ought”?

  6. to be surprised that some niggling detail “has exercised the minds of so many people for so long” is to display one’s unfamiliarity with the Baker Street scene.

    Excellent point!

    But what is “did ought”? An auto-miscorrection for a typo in “that ought”?

    I suspect dialect usage in deliberate contrast with niggling mock-pedantry.

  7. January First-of-May says

    The whole “niggling grammatical detail” thing reminds me of one of my favorite grammatical(-ish) gotchas in Russian literature: the spelling of the first line of Lermontov’s Borodino.

    If you have any familiarity with Russian literature in the original, you’re likely to know that line: Скажи-ка, дядя, ведь не даром

    …Nearly everyone gets the part I bolded wrong: it’s two words, not a single word (недаром). That is, the two phrases mean different things, and the single-word version doesn’t make any sense in the context.
    (The single-word spelling comes up, properly this time, in the sixth line of the same poem, which is somewhat convenient for explaining the difference.)

    I recall having read in a blog (not here – most likely on LiveJournal) that this line shows up in both versions even in 20th-century editions of Lermontov; sadly I have no idea what blog it could have been specifically.
    Of course, for all I know this had already been covered on Language Hat already.

  8. ə de vivre says

    Re: the Adventure of the Second Stain. That reminds me of the raging debate about how many times Homer Simpson has seen a man say good-bye to a shoe.

  9. That’s a great discussion — I knew about the controversy, but I didn’t realize Dan Castellaneta had improvised the line.

  10. If the story were read aloud, intonation would disambiguate the reference. I agree with our Host that the correct reading is the obvious one. Nevertheless, the Polish translators of Arthur Conan Doyle have varied between Samotny cyklista (m.) and Samotna cyklistka (f.). Well, not everybody can be Sherlock Holmes.

  11. Carruthers as the solitary cyclist in both title and the first use of the phrase seems obvious to me as well, Apart from anything else, it is the male cyclist who is the original subject of investigation, and he, or at least his cycling, is “of Charlington” in a way that doesn’t apply to Miss Violet Smith. But there is something about the disputed sentence that feels odd, and perhaps contributed to the lack of agreement.

    The oddness stands out more in the Futility Closet post, which claims that the correct reading has the cyclist as the second item of a list also including the case (or the facts of the case?) and the sequel (of the investigation), rather than Miss Smith and the sequel. It seems strange to consider the object of investigation an addition to the case, and you could just as easily say that Watson is describing the facts of the case/investigation and the sequel. Conceptually, Smith and the cyclist are the first part of a list of two. In general, they might not need an ‘and’ between them before the second item, but in this case “the sequel of our investigation” is complicated enough that it’s easy to see it as parallel to, rather than within the scope of, “the facts connected with…”. If a reader takes it that way, then the lack of ‘and’ is quite important.

  12. With no particular justification, I had always thought of Violet as being the solitary cyclist.

  13. I saw the story on television (it was the fourth Sherlock Holmes episode starring Jeremy Brett; the wonderful John Castle also plays Carruthers) before I read it, and after watching, I remember being unsure which was the titular cyclist. I think that when I finally read the story (decades later), I concluded it was Violet, but some lingering doubt still remained. I don’t know whether that was due to the grammatical ambiguity or just because I was used to being unsure of the answer.

  14. marie-lucie says

    I had never even heard of “The Solitary Cyclist” and went in search of the story. At first it seemed to me that this phrase, coming right after the first mention of Miss Violet Smith, referred to her, but although there are plenty of references to her love and mastery of cycling and the fact that she is alone on at least part of the road trip, she is never referred to by the phrase anywhere else, while her name occurs many times. Indeed Holmes and Watson never meet her in her role as a cyclist. Instead, the only other occurrence of the phrase, quite far into the story, must refer to the other lone cyclist, the hitherto mysterious figure who has now been revealed as none other than Carruthers, who had been secretly protecting her.

  15. I wonder if the fan clubs considered that Doyle might have intended the ambiguity, and that’s why he changed his original unambiguous “man” to “cyclist”. This is the opening of a mystery story, so it’s natural to use an ambiguous description to lay a false trail for the reader. (Speaking of a false trail, Doyle’s intimation of “tragedy” is an outright lie!)

    If you consistently use a serial comma, then “Violet Smith, the solitary cyclist, and…” must be ambiguous. And in fact, Doyle did use it consistently: there are at least three more in Watson’s narration in this story. Most likely, Doyle (or his publisher) habitually used it and either didn’t notice the ambiguity or saw it and liked it.

    Of course, Doyle didn’t consider whether the title would still be ambiguous when translated. “El ciclista solitario” in Spanish, “La Cycliste solitaire” in French, “A ciclista solitária” in Portuguese, both ways in Polish — how obvious can it be, if translators don’t agree? This is another example of Claude Piron’s point that a large part of the translator’s work is noticing ambiguities in the source language that must be specified one way or another in the target language.

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