The Grammarphobia Blog

Watchwords

Q: I recently watched Man on Wire, a documentary about the man who walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers in the ’70s. In the film, a police officer says “everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.” I was really struck by his eloquence and wondered what you thought of this type of construction.

A: Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers on Aug. 7, 1974, left spectators gaping.

One of them was Sgt. Charles Daniels of the Port Authority Police Department, who had been dispatched to arrest Petit. In the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, Daniels recalled the experience:

“I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’—because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire. And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle. … He was bouncing up and down. … His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again. … Unbelievable really… everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.”

We’re quoting here from a PBS American Experience webpage.

Daniels’s phrase “spellbound in the watching of it” is indeed eloquent. This kind of construction isn’t heard that often, and its uncommonness makes it all the more poetic.

Here the word “watching” is a gerund, a verbal form used as a noun (as in “the watching was tiresome”).

Daniels of course meant that in watching the performance, everyone was spellbound. But to say “everybody was spellbound in the watching of it” was much more elegant.

We’ll use another example to illustrate how a gerund acts as a noun: “Lord Carnarvon searched long for Tut’s tomb and was overjoyed in the finding of it.” Note that “finding” could easily be replaced with the noun “discovery.”

We’ve written often on our blog before about gerunds, including postings in January and March of 2011.

Here are a few more examples of the same kind of construction: “The art of the cake is in the baking of it” … “The iron’s strength is in the forging of it” … “The pie was quick to make but the boys were quicker in the eating of it.”

And here’s one we didn’t invent: “The proof of the pudding, is in the eating of it,” from Tobias Smollett’s 1755 translation Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

Check out our books about the English language