This passage is from Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, chapter 29:

There was a fair stroke of business doing, as Mistress Affery made out, for her husband had abundant occupation in his little office, and saw more people than had been used to come there for some years. This might easily be❟ the house having been long deserted; but he did receive letters, and comers, and keep books, and correspond. Moreover, he went about to other countinghouses, and to wharves, and docks, and to the Custom House, and to Garraway’s Coffee House, and the Jerusalem Coffee House, and on ’Change; so that he was much in and out. He began, too, sometimes of an evening, when Mrs. Clennam expressed no particular wish for his society, to resort to a tavern in the neighbourhood to look at the shipping news and closing prices in the evening paper, and even to exchange small socialities with mercantile Sea Captains who frequented that establishment. At some period of every day, he and Mrs. Clennam held a council on matters of business; and it appeared to Affery, who was always groping about, listening and watching, that the two clever ones were making money.

What does this might easily be mean here? Was the comma before the house appropriate? Please elaborate.

  • 1
    I’m not going to explain it in detail, because I don’t really understand this piece of 19 th century English that well, but It means something like “this wasn’t surprising” or “this wasn’t that hard to accomplish. Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 13:37
  • Without the comma, this might be the house. But it's not the house, it's the office traffic that might be increasing. Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 15:06
  • 1
    This might easily be is short for this might easily be true. In other words, it's just a clause-length substitute for maybe. Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 15:09

1 Answer 1


Let's start with the second part of that clause:

the house having been long deserted

That is a nominative absolute construction, with the nominal phrase "the house" modified by the participial phrase "having been long deserted". We can then imagine the adverb "so" omitted after "be":

This might easily be so, the house having been long deserted.

The author means that because the house had been long deserted, it would have been easy for her husband to see more people than had been usual; after all, even a few people would be more than none. However, the text after the semicolon suggests that he didn't see only a few people; in fact, he received letters, and received comers, etc. He was, thus, actually abundantly occupied.

  • One notorious "pondian-based" difference in English grammar is that where British and Irish writers and speakers today can get away with omitting any "pro-clause form" like so following do or be, writers and speakers from North America are loath to drop that bit. I can but wonder whether this Dickensian example might not be the same thing at work almost two centuries past.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 20:26
  • @tchrist AmE speakers certainly drop the "so" sometimes, but I have no idea about the relative frequency. (I inserted it there just to try to make the meaning a bit clearer.) Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 22:46
  • @tchrist — Don't we Americans say That could be. with great regularity? Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 23:18

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