Sherlock Holmes & the Vocabulary of Detection

Dr. Watson gives his early impressions of Sherlock Holmes in this selection from chapter 2 of A Study in Scarlet. (Holmes and Watson have just arranged to share the rent on an apartment.) 

Silhouette of Sherlock Holmes with a pipe

He first describes him physically. Then he tells about reading an article which describes Holmes’ methods of observation and deduction. 

As you read, be a detective. Check your comprehension by asking yourself questions:

Who is this talking about? When and where is it happening? Perhaps most important—why? 

“As the weeks went by, my interest in him and my curiosity as to his aims in life, gradually deepened and increased. His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer.

In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing...and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision... His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals... “

Watson was very curious about Holmes’ work, but he hesitated to ask about it. One morning he read an article that he thought was interesting but hard to believe.

It claimed that by careful observation and analysis a person might be able to understand people’s thoughts and reach conclusions about what he had observed in a way that would seem like magic to those who did not understand the process of investigation. Watson quoted more of the article: 

"’From a drop of water,’ said the writer, ‘a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. 

Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems. Let him, on meeting a fellow-mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs...

By a man's finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs -- by each of these things a man's calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.’" 

Watson commented to Holmes about how unlikely and impractical the article seemed. Holmes answered that he had written it. He then explained his work.

He told Watson that what he wrote was actually very practical, as well as accurate. He explained that he worked as a “consulting detective” that other detectives would come to when they could not figure out a case. 

“...They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able, by the help of my knowledge of the history of crime, to set them straight... Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn, are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me is second nature.” 

(from A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887.) If you want to read the whole story, you can check it out at almost any library. (It’s a classic!) You can also buy it online or at a bookstore, or download the whole book online for free at 

Try Guessing Vocabulary from Context & Word Roots 

Choose what you think is the best answer to these questions before checking the answers at the bottom of the page. (Re-read the story first, or just refer to it as needed to answer the questions. You could write down the letter of each answer.) 

1. In the last sentence of paragraph 1, invariably is a negative adverb from the same root as vary, variation, and variable. Do you think it means 

A) differently

B) always

C) changeably

D) similarly 

2. Analysis is careful thinking about a problem by breaking it into all its aspects or different sides. Holmes talks about “the Science of Deduction and Analysis.” Is this science mainly 

A) sensory (using the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.)

B) physical (using the body and investigating material substances)

C) mental (using the mind)

D) or social (working with other people)? 

3. "’From a drop of water,’ said the writer, ‘a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.”

A logician is someone who uses logic: clear reasoning. When it says he “could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara,” it means he could 

A) explain what oceans and waterfalls look like

B) guess or understand that they are possible

C) be sure they exist

D) observe the motion of water 

4.A link is 

A) life

B) one kind (species) of life

C) one part of a chain that connects things

D) another name for Abraham Lincoln 

5.Homes says “the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study...” So to acquire might be 

A)to get

B)to begin

C)to finish

D)to read 

6.To attain is to reach or finally succeed in getting something. In the last sentence in paragraph 3 Holmes was saying 

A) It’s important to aim high, so you can attain your goals.

B) It’s not possible to attain your goals.

C) If you want to attain perfection in making deductions, you need to study a long time.

D) Nobody can live long enough to become a perfect detective. 

7.Aspects are the different ways you can look at a situation: its different sides or angles. Holmes suggests starting with the physical aspects of deduction, as the moral and mental aspects are more difficult to learn. Deducing a person’s occupation from the calluses (hardened skin) on his thumb is an example of a 

A) moral aspect

B) mental aspect

C) physical aspect

of the science of deduction.(Note that enquirer is an alternate spelling of inquirer-- someone who has a question.) 

8. A revelation is an insight so great it changes one’s thinking or perspective completely. To reveal is the opposite of to conceal (which means to hide something) so to reveal something means 

A) to show or expose what was hidden

B) to see something new

C) to study something more deeply

D) to learn new facts 

9. Conception is the process of a baby being formed inside the mother. We more often use the same term to talk about an idea (a concept) being formed, or of the artist’s ‘conception’ of his work-- the way he planned it and “sees” it taking shape. Abraham Lincoln even used it of a nation being formed. 

He started his famous Gettysburg address:”Fourscore and seven (87) years ago our forefathers brought forth (brought to birth) on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty...” 

So conceivable is an idea that can be imagined or formed, and inconceivable means 

A. unable to have a child

B. unformed

C. unfixable

D. unimaginable 

10. Accurate means both correct and exact. Which of these dates is accurate? The armistice that ended the First World War (on the western front) was signed 

A) on November 11, 1918.

B) on November 12, 1920.

C) sometime in late 1918.

D) before 1920. 

11. Holmes said “Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn, are invaluable to me in practical work. He is saying that even though Watson did not understand and made fun of his ideas, they are actually very useful. So invaluable means 

A) not of any value at all

B) a little bit valuable

C) very, very valuable

D) interesting but not important 

Crossword Puzzle: Investigations

Right-click here to download this crossword pdf to your computer. 

Click here for answers.  

A Little More about Sherlock Holmes 

At the very beginning of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Watson went back to visit Holmes. (Watson had moved away, married, and returned to medical practice.) Holmes immediately commented about Watson’s recent activities, and Watson asked how he knew. 

“I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?” 

(Holmes answered his own question by saying that he had observed that the soles of Watson’s boots had been scratched to take off mud. So he deduced both that Watson had been outside in the rain, and that he had an incompetent maid.) 

Watson said that Holmes made his process of deduction sound so easy that anyone should be able to think like Holmes, but he realized that he had not been able to understand how Holmes made his deductions until Holmes explained them, even though he had seen the same things Holmes did.

When he asked why, Holmes answered, “You see, but you do not observe...” To Sherlock Holmes, careful observation was the necessary starting point for any investigation. 

More Practice Questions

(Answers below the first set of answers.)

1. To deduce is to draw logical conclusions from the evidence. A deduction may be the conclusion you reach, but deduction has another meaning that comes from the word ‘deduct.’ (It refers to reducing a tax payment.) 

How did Holmes know that Watson had been in the rain recently, and had a clumsy servant girl? 

A) He was superhuman and knew everything.

B) Watson told him, then forgot.

C) He deduced it from what he observed about Watson’s boots.

D) He deduced it from Watson’s muddy pant legs. 

2.Sherlock Holmes felt Watson had not been practicing one of a detective’s most important skills. Which skill was he weak in? 

A) accurate observation

B) careful analysis

C) logical deductions

D) keeping accurate records of his observations

3.What is the best way to describe how Watson felt about Holmes? 

A) He watched him closely because he didn’t trust him.

B) He thought he was lying because what he said was impossible.

C) He admired him and was impressed by his skill at solving crimes.

D) He wanted to be just like him. 

More on Detectives and the Language of Detection

This page was taken from the first issue of English Detective. (That issue is still quite long! I was trying to provide for 10 days of vocabulary lessons or practice—and to teach a lot of useful words from the Academic Vocabulary List, as well as explaining some of the less common words Sherlock uses.)

Even without this section on Sherlock, the first Back Issue (at the very bottom) has some useful links and detective vocabulary practice. 

Young woman reading

If you love Sherlock's methods of deductions, check out this BBC article. It points out how his techniques of observation and logic can help scientists understand our minds and other complex medical puzzles.

(There's more on the article in English Detective  issue 150. See Reading Articles to Improve English.)

You might also be interested in the Word Detectives practice page, another author of detective fiction: Tony Hillerman, or a pdf quiz on Detective Vocabulary

There's a great gap-fill exercise that also tells you the story of "the real Sherlock Holmes"-- the man Holmes was based on. (It has you choose from some of these and other related words to complete the story.) It's a simpler review of the process Holmes used.

Answers to Guessing Vocabulary from Context +

1.B) always (It is an adverb, as all four options are. Its roots are Latin: in-- not + variare-- to change.) 

2.C) mental (using the mind). Detective work does involve all these aspects: sensory, physical, mental, and social, but analysis and deduction are mental processes. 

3. B) guess or understand that they are possible 

4. C)one part of a chain that connects things 

5. A) to get 

6. D) Nobody can live long enough to become a perfect detective. (Answer A is also true, but not what Holmes was saying in that paragraph.) 

7. C) physical aspect (of the science of deduction.) 

8. A) to show or expose what was hidden 

9. D) unimaginable 

10. A) on November 11, 1918. 

11. C) very, very valuable. (This is one example when the prefix ‘in-,’ which usually makes a word negative, instead is an intensifier.) 

Answers to More Practice Questions

1. C) He deduced it from what he observed about Watson’s boots. 

2. A) accurate observation 

3. C) He admired him and was impressed by his skill at solving crimes. 

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