Elementary, My Dear Watson

Sherlock Holmes? Arthur Conan Doyle? J. Murray Moore? Franklin P. Adams? P. G. Wodehouse? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes was explaining to his good friend John A. Watson the nature of his latest deduction he supposedly employed the well-known phrase:

Elementary, my dear Watson.

I was astonished to learn that Holmes never said this phrase in any of the canonical stories and novels. Is that true?

Quote Investigator: Yes, Sherlock Holmes never said the above phrase in any of the classic tales written by Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, the phrase was synthesized by the readers and enthusiasts of the legendary detective and assigned to him. The character was later given the line in a movie script that was not penned by Conan Doyle.

The canonical Holmes did use the word “elementary” when speaking with Watson. For example, Conan Doyle’s 1893 story “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” published in “The Strand Magazine” contained a scene in which Holmes carefully examined Watson’s appearance and concluded that he had recently been busy with several visits to medical patients. Holmes explained his reasoning to Watson, and the doctor was impressed. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Excellent!” I cried.

“Elementary,” said he. “It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction.

In September 1893 the journal “English Mechanic and World of Science” printed a letter to the editor that contained a bit of word play that seemed to be based on the phrase “Elementary, my dear fellow”. The jest may have been referring to a prototypical interaction of Holmes and Watson, but the connection was uncertain: 2

He has also forgotten to deduct the calories that have to be supplied to the “coal” to raise it to the temperature at which it combines with oxygen. All this is quite elementary, my dear “Fellow of the Chemical Society.”

In 1901 the serialization of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” began in “The Strand Magazine”. Holmes examined a walking stick using a convex lens and concluded that the owner of the stick had a dog which was “larger than a terrier and smaller than a mastiff”. He spoke the word “elementary” while presenting his conclusions to Watson: 3

“Interesting, though elementary,” said he, as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee. “There are certainly one or two indications upon the stick. It gives us the basis for several deductions.”

In November 1901 “The Northampton Mercury” of Northamptonshire, England printed a short parody featuring the characters Shylock Combs and Potson. The brilliant ratiocinator Combs was able to determine the direction of the wind outside by observing the displacement of Potson’s mustache: 4

He noticed my amazement and smiled that wonderful smile of his.

“Elementary, my dear Potson,” he said; “I observed the left-hand side of your moustache inclined about 47 5/8 degrees towards the west, and coming as I did from Butcher-street I at once deduced from which quarter the wind was blowing.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Elementary, My Dear Watson


  1. 1893 July, The Strand Magazine, Volume 6, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: XX – The Adventure of the Crooked Man by A. Conan Doyle, Start Page 22, Quote Page 23, George Newnes, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1893 September 22, English Mechanic and World of Science, Volume 58, Section: Letters to the Editor, The Natural Forces by Luis, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Column 3, Published for the Strand Newspaper Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1901 September, The Strand Magazine, Volume 22, Number 128, The Hound of the Baskervilles: Another Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle, Chapter 1, Start Page 123, Quote Page 124, George Newnes, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1901 November 15, The Northampton Mercury, Sherlock Holmes’s Latest!, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Northamptonshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

There But For the Grace of God, Go I

John Bradford? George Whitfield? John Newton? Sherlock Holmes? Philip Neri? Dwight Moody? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A deeply religious individual once saw a man being led to the gallows and said:

There but for the grace of God, go I.

In modern times, this proverbial phrase is used to express empathetic compassion and a sense of good fortune realized by avoiding hardship. A version has been ascribed to the preacher John Bradford who died in 1555:

There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford

But the earliest citation I have seen was published in the 1800s. A similar story has been told about others including John Newton and Dwight Moody. Is there earlier support for the existence of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1771 a sermon was delivered in Kidderminster, England about a man who had been robbed and murdered. The criminal had been apprehended, tried, and executed. The preacher mentioned John Bradford and presented a somewhat clumsy and lengthy version of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

…when Mr. Bradford, an eminent martyr, in the bloody reign of Queen Mary, saw a malefactor going to Tyburn, he humbly adored the distinguishing grace of God, ‘to which says he, it is entirely owing, that John Bradford is not in that man’s condition.’

The passage above matched the modern version because it included two key elements. Bradford invoked the grace of God, and he indicated that he might have been substituted for the malefactor, but the phrasing was quite different. This was the earliest match located by QI, and it was published more than two hundred years after the death of Bradford. Of course, future research may antedate this citation.

In 1774 a more concise instance of the saying was spoken during a sermon delivered at the Parish Church of St. Anne, Black-Friars, London. The phrasing still differed from the modern instance, but it moved closer: 2

I have heard, or read, concerning that excellent Dignitary of the Church of England, Mr. John Bradford (who was also burned for adhering to her Doctrines), that, one Day, on seeing a Malefactor pass to Execution, he laid his Hand to his Breast, and lifted his Eyes to Heaven, saying, “Take away the GRACE of God, and there goes John Bradford.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There But For the Grace of God, Go I


  1. 1771, Murther lamented and improved: Sermon Preached at Kidderminster, June 16, 1771. On Occasion of the Death of Mr. Francis Best, Who was Robbed and Murthered by John Child, on Saturday, June 8, by Benjamin Fawcett, Quote Page 14, Shrewsbury: Printed by J. Eddower, and sold by J. Buckland, Pater-noster-Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1775, Free Will and Merit fairly examined: or Men not their own Saviors: The Substance of a Sermon Preached in the Parish Church of St. Anne, Black-Friars, London On Wednesday, May 25, 1774 by Augustus Toplady, Vicar of Broad Hembury, (Footnote split across two pages), Quote Page 24 and 25, Printed for J. Mathews, in The Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link