I’d like to ask about the sentence in The Red Circle by Conan Doyle.

The words are written with a broad-pointed, violet-tinted pencil of a not unusual pattern.

This is uttered by Holmes when he saw some pencil-written writings on pieces of paper. I’m not sure what the underlined part refers to, namely whether to pencil or to words themselves. In light of sentence structure, it seems the part refers to simply the word before, pencil. But I thought even Holmes, who can tell the brand of tobacco by looking at its ash (flakes), can’t tell types (shapes) of pencil just by looking at words with which they are written. So I thought in this case that the words are written in(/of) a font which is not unusual for printing, hence, the above sentence’s word order can be changed as..

The words are written of a not unusual pattern with a broad-pointed violet-tinted pencil.

Am I wrong? Could someone enlighten me? Thanks.

1 Answer 1


The pencil. Holmes is saying that the "broad-pointed, violet-tinted" nature of the pencil is not an unusual pattern for pencils, so Holmes can't identify anything sufficiently unique about them.

Contrast this with The Adventure of the Three Students, which does involve an unusual pencil:

“The pencil was not an ordinary one. It was above the usual size, with a soft lead, the outer colour was dark blue, the maker’s name was printed in silver lettering, and the piece remaining is only about an inch and a half long. Look for such a pencil, Mr. Soames, and you have got your man. When I add that he possesses a large and very blunt knife, you have an additional aid.”

Mr. Soames was somewhat overwhelmed by this flood of information. “I can follow the other points,” said he, “but really, in this matter of the length——”

Holmes held out a small chip with the letters NN and a space of clear wood after them.

“You see?”

“No, I fear that even now——”

“Watson, I have always done you an injustice. There are others. What could this NN be? It is at the end of a word. You are aware that Johann Faber is the most common maker’s name. Is it not clear that there is just as much of the pencil left as usually follows the Johann?”

One might think, then, that a violet tint or a broad point might be interesting characteristics, but in this case it seems they are not.

  • I wonder which of these stories was published first.
    – mikado
    Jan 20, 2021 at 8:24
  • 1
    WIkipedia has 1904 for The Three Students and 1911 for The Red Circle
    – muru
    Jan 20, 2021 at 8:27
  • 1
    This image might help for context. Jan 20, 2021 at 15:41
  • @muru presumably many contemporary readers of The Red Circle would have already read The Three Students and would recognise this as a knowing wink to the earlier story.
    – mikado
    Jan 20, 2021 at 19:13

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