I'd like someone to clear up the sentence that seems ambiguous to me. It's from "The problem of the Thor Bridge" by Conan Doyle.

I had no glimmer of what was in his mind, nor did he enlighten me, but sat lost in thought until we pulled up in the little Hampshire station.

It's when Watson describing Holmes (as always). What I want to know is to whom the part "but sat lost in thought" refers to? Holmes or Watson himself? Is it one interpretation for native speakers, or is this sentence ambiguous?

You have "not A but B" type of sentence pattern in English, right? In this case both "I had no glimmer of what was in his mind" and "nor did he enlighten me" parts have negative word, so this "but sat lost in thought" fits either of the front, am I right?

My guess is that it's Holmes who sat lost in thought here because you don't describe "I am lost in thought" that much, do you? My impression is that the phrase "lost in thought" tend to be used to someone. But I don't know. Could someone clear it up for me please?

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    As a native speaker, I would say that it definitely refers to Holmes; but usually refers back to the last subject where the verb has the correct tense. Maybe you can construct a sentence where context overrides that rule, although offhand I don't see how. – Peter Shor Jun 2 '19 at 15:29
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    Definitely Holmes. In Neither did he enlighten me, but sat lost in thought. 'he' is the subject of 'enlighten' and 'me' is the object. Because there is no change of subject in the subordinate clause 'he' is also the subject of 'sat'. – BoldBen Jun 2 '19 at 15:48
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    This is quite a common manner of sentence construction among Conan-Doyle and his contemporaries. We might write it with different punctuation today, e.g., "I had no glimmer of what was in his mind. Nor did he enlighten me, but sat lost in thought until we pulled up in the little Hampshire station." A full stop, a semicolon, or an em dash would serve these days to sever the relationship between the subject of the first clause from that of the second (or third). – Robusto Jun 2 '19 at 22:47

Holmes is the one who is lost in thought. It is unambiguous. "(did not) ... enlighten me" and "sat lost in thought" are coordinated VPs using "but", with the same subject in

nor did he enlighten me, but sat lost in thought

And since the subject of "enlighten me" is "he", so must that be the logical subject of "sat lost in thought". Which is to say that the same person who failed to enlighten Watson is the one who sat lost in thought, and that is Holmes.

I believe I am agreeing with @BoldBen in the comments above.


You are correct, the sentence is ambiguous. In the phrase "..., but lost in thought" the subject is understood as opposed to stated. The ambiguity comes from the reader not being clear whether the subject refers to the "I" of "I had no glimmer..." or the "he" of "...did he enlighten me..."

In cases like this you have to think about the context - you can't get a clear resolution from the grammar.

I my opinion, it is clearly Watson, the writer, who is lost in thought. The subject of the sentence is "I" from "I had no glimmer..." and he goes on to explain that Holmes didn't explain what he meant. As a result, Watson sat lost in thought for the rest of the journey. (When given a choice between an understood subject referring to the subject of the sentence or the subject of a subordinate clause, it is more likely to be the subject of the sentence, but not always.)

If you know Conan Doyle's stories about Sherlock Holmes, you can be sure that Watson never thinks that Holmes is "lost in thought": Holmes is always working like a computing machine, constructively thinking about something (unless he is without a problem to work on, which is not the case here). Watson is the character who is usually "lost" about what is going on and why.

Finally, the context is that Holmes just surprised Watson by getting Watson's revolver out, manipulating the cartridges, and remarking about it's weight. Watson has a lot to puzzle about since Holmes did not enlighten Watson about his plans for the revolver or how it plays into the "test before us".

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    Only the subject of the first independent clause is I. That of the second independent clause is he. Try reading it with just one of those two independent clauses plus the verb phrase following. Which of the two sounds better, if either? I had no glimmer but sat lost in thought versus He didn't enlighten me but sat lost in thought? – tchrist Jun 2 '19 at 20:48

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