I have been listing to an audio book of The Hound of the Baskervilles. In it there is a line which says “…with her fingers over the typewriter stops…”. I am assuming this is referring to the keys of the typewriter, and I’m guessing this is purely antiquated usage.

But I was wondering why they are called “stops”. I have only heard of stops in similar usage when talking about musical organs; where the stops are used to select different effects (I am in not musical, so I am sorry for my poor description). But an organ also has keys, which you press to play the actual note (and pedals which, I have been lead to believe, are also for notes or cords). Stops are also used in a put-in-a-setting-and-leave (or latching), while the keys are a temporary, which would make them more like the keys of a typewriter.

So why are stops used to refer to a typewriter’s keys? They are closer to the use of keys rather than stops of a musical organ.

  • 2
    As I understand it from a couple months of organ lessons 10 years ago, the term "pedal" refers to the entire keyboard that you play with your feet, and the individual things you push are still called keys. In that contrast, "pedal" is in contrast with "manual" which refers to one row of keys to be played with the hands, "pedal" coming from the Latin for foot and "manual" from the Latin for hand. Commented May 12, 2022 at 18:30
  • @Andrew, and to complicate the matter, there are often other kinds of pedals to control sound volume and sometimes other effects. I believe they are also called pedals...
    – Zeus
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 0:36

3 Answers 3


My recollection of using a typewriter is that the stops refer to devices that limit the travel of the carriage. To produce typing between adjustable margins, the travel of the carriage has to be limited between adjustable stops, which prevent it moving beyond them.


In typewriting and like machines, the travel of the carriage is determined by margin stops which in general require to be adjustable to vary the width of typing or to determine the width of margin. The object of the present invention is an efficient mechanism whereby these stops may be set employing only one hand of the user of the machine.

There are other stops, such as the shift key stops, which determine the keys producing lower and upper case letters. These are similar to your mentioned organ stops, acting as selectors.

From Maritime:

Underwood typewriter motion and shift mechanism showing shift keylever stops

This diagram refers to shift stops and also to key lever. Throughout this maintenance manual there are dozens of references to stops, and to the keys, which are the letter or shift buttons to be pressed, and are not stops.

If her fingers are over the stops, she is perhaps setting the typewriter up for prose of a certain width, or perhaps for lower case or capitals. She is not necessarily typing. This is confirmed by the full quotation:

“What can I tell you about him?” she asked, and her fingers played nervously over the stops of her typewriter.

She is being interrogated and is uneasy, so is not typing, merely fidgeting with her fingers over the stops, rather than typing on the keys.

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    Excellent! Thank you! So "stops" are a particular thing on a typewritter! I'll give it a couple of hours before I accept this just in case anything else comes along
    – Puffafish
    Commented May 11, 2022 at 9:00
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    I'll add that the stops in question are probably the ones that set the page margins, so they'd be on the outside of the roller at the top, on either side of the typewriter. Placing one's hands on those stops could suggest either closed-off body language (almost like hugging or clutching the typewriter) or an attempt to subtly cover up the page, or something like that. It's one of those images (like Austen name-dropping different carriage types) that would have been totally and automatically evocative for the original audience but is now mostly lost because the tech is out of date.
    – Tiercelet
    Commented May 11, 2022 at 20:41
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    @Tiercelet Your comment excites old memories: I agree with your refinement and commend it to all readers.
    – Anton
    Commented May 11, 2022 at 20:52

Another use of the term comes as tab stops, which are useful when typing columnar data. Each press of the 'Tab' key advances the carriage horizontally to the next 'stop' set by the typist.

These of course live on today in word processing applications, as an analog of the mechanical ones.


adding to @Anton's answer (this would have been a comment if I could have included a picture in a comment), I found another picture of a typewriter where the stops are indicated.

enter image description here

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