In the opening paragraph to “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson writes:

The story has, I believe, been told more than once in the newspapers, but, like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than when the facts slowly evolve before your own eyes, and the mystery clears gradually away as each new discovery furnishes a step which leads on to the complete truth.

I was curious about this "half-column" reference. After several searches I found many other contextually similar references to both "half-column" and "half column" referring to the printed word, perhaps implying concision or something similar, but no definition for this phrase that fit these contexts.

I do understand how newspapers and simlar periodicals have traditionally been formatted, and being a bit of a graphic design enthusiast I started down that avenue and eventually concluded that the "half" was in reference to the length being half a page. This is supported by similar specifications such as "double half column" and "triple half column" which mean two or three columns wide respectively, and half a page in length, and "quarter column" which is a single column wide and quarter page long.

But then in another instance that I encountered it seems to be used figuratively:

About Printing-house Square, mayhap you may light on an honest man, a squeamish man, a proper moral man, a man that shall talk you Latin by the half-column if you will but hear him.

I am not familiar with the text but apparently it's from "The Kickleburys on the Rhine" by William Makepeace Thackeray:

Given what I could find I drew the conclusion that "half-column" literally means one column of text (about 1-1/2" or 4 cm in width in period relevant print media), half a page long, and can be used metaphorically, perhaps meaning terse.

If anyone has an actual dictionary definition, or source they can cite, then I would grateful for a clarification, expansion, or refutation of my conclusion. I thank you in advance.


2 Answers 2


A “column” of text is a measure of length in print media. A major article may get several columns, whereas minor articles may only get one column. One “half column” would be extremely short.

All newspaper articles (at least in Doyle’s day, long before they went online) are concise due to limited space, so for an article to be short even by those standards means it contains very little information.


I think 'single half-column of print' should mean laconic/ terse as you have interpreted.

The column width depends on the setting and cannot be determined without further information.

Wikipedia says

For best legibility, typographic manuals suggest that columns should be wide enough to contain roughly 60 characters per line.

If the said author follows this guide, we can work out the estimated amount of text.


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