A sort of premonitory tremor, a fear of he was not certain what, had passed through Winston as soon as he caught his first glimpse of the cage. (which is quoted from the sixth or maybe the ninth paragraph in the fifth chapter in the third part of the novel.)

When I was reading Orwell's 1984, I found the phrase "a fear of he was not certain what" difficult to understand. What is the meaning of it? I would appreciate it if you would answer my question.

I would also like to know how the phrase is constructed grammatically, if you could tell me.

Thank you.

  • 2
    It's a "quirky" construction, effectively "forced" on Orwell because English doesn't have a succinct way of expressing fear of something, the precise nature of which he was uncertain about. Even most native speakers would probably have to pause and perhaps re-read the words to properly parse them. You might think of it as an unavoidably klunky way of saying a fear of X (where 'he' is not certain exactly what 'X' actually is) Commented May 18, 2021 at 14:05
  • 2
    compare He could see something (he wasn't certain exactly what) moving in the back of the cage. Commented May 18, 2021 at 14:09

1 Answer 1


You can have

a fear of the dark
a fear of heights
a fear of failure
a fear of God
a fear of something happening

and generally

a fear of <noun phrase>

where the noun phrase describes a thing that frightens you.

he was not certain what

is your noun phrase, which can be put differently

something he was not certain about

He didn't understand what he was afraid of.

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