In Chapter Two of his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin discusses a trick he and one of his friends played on the rest of their group, wherein Franklin pretended to be the author of his friend's poem.

When the time of our meeting drew nigh, Ralph called on me first, and let me know his piece was ready. I told him I had been busy, and, having little inclination, had done nothing. He then show'd me his piece for my opinion, and I much approv'd it, as it appear'd to me to have great merit. "Now," says he, "Osborne never will allow the least merit in any thing of mine, but makes 1000 criticisms out of mere envy. He is not so jealous of you; I wish, therefore, you would take this piece, and produce it as yours; I will pretend not to have had time, and so produce nothing. We shall then see what he will say to it." It was agreed, and I immediately transcrib'd it, that it might appear in my own hand.    (p. 52)

It seems pretty clear here that the one who wrote the poem and passed it off as Franklin's was Ralph, while Osborne was the one who was tricked. Yet at the end of the next paragraph Franklin writes:

When we next met, Ralph discovered the trick we had plaid him, and Osborne was a little laught at.    (p. 53)

This does not seem to make sense, as Ralph was not the one on whom the trick was played; he was the one who played the trick.

I checked several editions of the autobiography to see if this was merely a mistake in the particular edition, but every version I saw has Ralph as the subject of that phrase.

Am I missing something here? Is there some explanation of how this sentence can be read while still upholding Ralph as the one who played the trick? Or did Franklin simply mix up the names when writing this? If the final option, has this been noted anywhere? (None of the editions I saw had any note relating to this.)


1 Answer 1


Franklin is using the word discover in a sense that is no longer current. The first meaning in Merriam-Webster is this:

transitive verb
1   a : to make known or visible : EXPOSE
        // discovering himself … as her adoring and magnanimous lover
        — T. L. Peacock

So Ralph discovered the trick we had plaid him means that Ralph revealed the trick he and Franklin had played on Osborne, which is why the latter was a little laught at.

  • This seems like it is probably the correct answer, but the word “him” seems odd. Is it supposed to be referring to Ralph or Osborne?
    – Alex
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 11:05
  • 2
    @Alex I read it as 'Ralph disclosed the trick we had played on him [to Osborne]'.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 13:30
  • @Spagirl So the “him” is Osborne?
    – Alex
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 14:38
  • @Alex That's my reading, yes.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 15:24
  • @Spagirl It does seem a little odd to me that the pronoun would refer to someone not yet mentioned in the sentence instead of the person mentioned in the sentence, but you are certainly a greater expert in grammar/syntax than I am.
    – Alex
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 15:39

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