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UF investigates: The adventure of Sherlock Holmes and the uncited work

Published: February 24th, 2012

Category: Faculty & Staff News, Home Page Features, Research

Dr. Jamie Reilly and Jamie Fisher investigated the origins of the "Grandfather Passage." Photo by Maria Belen Farias.

“You wish to know about my grandfather. Well, he is nearly 93 years old, yet he still thinks as swiftly as ever. He dresses himself in an old black frock coat, usually several buttons missing.”

So begins the “Grandfather Passage,” one of the most commonly used measures of how well a person can read and how well his or her speech can be understood by others. The passage has a surprising history, including a possible connection to a Sherlock Holmes novel, say University of Florida researchers.

The sleuths make their case in the February issue of the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, in an article titled “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Attribution: A Historical Note on the Grandfather Passage.”

Our mystery begins as Jamie Reilly, Ph.D., a UF language and cognition researcher and speech pathologist, settles down one evening to read “The Valley of Fear,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, published in 1915.

“Earlier that same day I had given the ‘Grandfather Passage’ test to a patient, and as I was in bed reading ‘The Valley of Fear’ I noticed the passages were similar. That was how I linked the two. It was very much a coincidence,” said Reilly, an assistant professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions department of speech, language and hearing sciences.

The phrase that caught Reilly’s eye — old black frock coat — appears verbatim in both texts, and in both, the coat in question is worn by an elderly man. The curious coincidence prompted Reilly to investigate the origin of the “Grandfather Passage.”

“For at least five decades, the ‘Grandfather Passage’ has probably been the most widely used standard reading passage used by speech-language pathologists for research and clinical evaluation of adults with a wide variety of neurological speech disorders. The speech samples generated from it have been invaluable in helping us understand the nature of such disorders,” said Joseph Duffy, Ph.D., a professor of speech pathology at the Mayo Clinic and Mayo Medical School, who reviewed the UF article, but was not involved in the research. “The origin of the passage, as uncovered by Dr. Reilly and his colleague, is a fascinating tale that will pique the interest of several generations of clinicians who have used it in their daily work.”

The 132-word “Grandfather Passage” contains all the speech sounds in the English language, including several that would be difficult for someone with a speech disorder to say. In addition to its use by speech pathologists and educators, the passage has been used in the U.S. military as well as in air traffic control and other occupational settings.

“It’s basically one of the bread and butter measures of what we do as speech-language pathologists and audiologists,” Reilly said.

Many attribute the passage to the 1975 textbook “Motor Speech Disorders” by Frederic Darley, Arnold Aronson and Joe Brown. But Reilly found that a nearly identical version of the text, titled “My Grandfather,” had been published even earlier, in the 1963 book “Speech Correction,” by Charles Van Riper, a pioneer in stuttering research.

Reilly’s co-author, undergraduate linguistics student Jamie Fisher, compared the two texts using the anti-plagiarism software TurnItIn and found that 88 percent of the “Grandfather Passage” overlapped with “My Grandfather.” For example, the grandfather in each work has a long beard and quivering voice, and though he’s at a ripe old age, he plays the organ with gusto, takes a daily walk — except in inclement weather — and ignores all entreaties to stop smoking. Such a close match between the late authors’ works could hardly be coincidental, the researchers concluded. Yet Darley’s book included no citation or mention of Van Riper’s older text.

“I don’t doubt that those two are essentially the same,” Reilly said. “The real riddle is whether part of it was adapted from the Sherlock Holmes book — that part is tricky.”

The character in “The Valley of Fear” has a striking physical similarity to the not-so-sharply-dressed grandfathers in the two passages. But no benign organ playing or daily walking for this man. Conan Doyle’s character, Lawler, is an assassin for an American crime organization.

Reilly believes the clue to an association between “My Grandfather” and “The Valley of Fear” might lie in a study of Van Riper’s own literary pursuits. In addition to his stuttering research, Van Riper was a poet and novelist, who, under the pen name Cully Gage, wrote a series of popular volumes about life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

 He also wrote murder mysteries.

“Perhaps with ‘My Grandfather’ he was paying a veiled tribute to Conan Doyle, the grand master of mystery literature,” Reilly said.