a sorry witness

ironman2012

Senior Member
Chinese
Hi,

Tesla believed his mind to be without equal, and he wasn’t above chiding his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, who once hired him. “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack,” Tesla once wrote, “he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.”

(This comes from Smithsonian.com The Rise and Fall of Nikola Tesla and his Tower by Gilbert King on February 4, 2013.)

I understand 'sorry' means 'wretched, poor, useless, or pitiful: a sorry horse.' But what does it mean here? ‘A poor witness, a witness that evokes pity’?

Thanks in advance!
 
  • ironman2012

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    Thank you!

    The 'sorry' here doesn't seem to modify the 'witness', does it? It's a little hard for me to understand it.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    It does modify "witness". He is saddened by witnessing Edison searching for an answer rather than using theory and calculation. He is saddened by witnessing Edison wasting so much effort when there is a quicker way to find the answer. He is sorry in that he has a feeling of sorrow for Edison, not sorrow for himself.

    I don't understand Teddy's difficulty with the syntax.

    Edit. Cross-posted with Teddy, and in full agreement.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I don't understand Teddy's difficulty with the syntax.
    What is the function of "doing" and what is the function of "that"? Is "doing" a noun meaning "activity", and if so is "that" a relative pronoun? Or does "doing that" introduce an absolute phrase and mean "it being sufficient that"? Or does the "that" clause define the scope of the "doing"?
     
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    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    The "doing" is the thing he witnessed. It is a noun. The nature of the doing is such that a little theory etc would have saved him labour - "that" does not stand alone introducing the relative clause, but is part of "such ... that", a construction that is commonly separated as it is here. I suppose that a modern-day Tesla would have written the sentence differently.

    If I write "I witnessed such doings that could have been done more easily" would you have any difficulty with the syntax? I think the singular "doing" looks odd to modern eyes.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    If I write "I witnessed such doings that could have been done more easily" would you have any difficulty with the syntax?
    I would take it as a typo for I witnessed such doings as could have been done more easily.

    But the sentence of #1 is nothing like this one. In your sentence, doings is the object of done. In the sentence of #1 doing is not the object of anything in the that clause.
    I think the singular "doing" looks odd to modern eyes.
    This is not Middle English or early modern English, it's from the 20th century, which some of us remember! I suppose it is more relevant that Tesla was not a native speaker of English.
     
    Last edited:

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    This is a quotation of Tesla, so the text dates either from the late 19th or early 20th century. Tesla died in 1943, so this quotation is in relatively few people's living memory. I have read many books from the late 19th and early 20th century which use turns of phrase and expressions that are never seen in modern-day English.
     
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