Though he never played a very prominent part in active university politics, Nettleship was one of the small band of academic reformers who thought that a university should be organised with a view to learning and research as well as with a view to education. In taking this line, Nettleship was to some extent influenced by Mark Pattison [q. v.], to whom he owed much, and of whom he always spoke in terms of high regard. It was probably in consequence of Pattison's advice that Nettleship determined to see for himself what a German university was like in its actual working. Armed with an introduction from Pattison to Professor E. Hübner, Nettleship, at the age of twenty-six, proceeded in 1865 to Berlin, matriculating there in the regular way, and attending lectures as an ordinary student during the whole of a summer semester. The impression he thus formed of German learning and modes of study is recorded in his sketch (reprinted in his ‘Lectures and Essays’) of one of the most striking figures in the Berlin professoriate of that day, Moritz Haupt. Nettleship already possessed scholarship, in the English sense of the term, in abundance; but Haupt made him aware of the fact that this was no more than a good beginning, and that a larger and more critical view of ancient literature was requisite to make a philologist. Nettleship's Oxford teacher, Conington, who had done much towards reviving the study of Latin in the university, was a scholar of a very peculiar type, giving his mind almost exclusively to some few of the ‘best authors;’ in his later years, too, he lapsed into translation, and elected to address the general public rather than the world of learning. Nettleship took a very different course: he eschewed translation, and saw that, to read an ancient author with understanding, one must know a great deal more than what is contained in the pages of his book. This larger conception of knowledge is visible in his first published work, his completion of Conington's Vergil (1871), to which he prefixed an important introduction on the ancient critics and commentators on Vergil, and again in his ‘Suggestions introductory to the Study of the Æneid’ (1875), and ‘Ancient Lives of Vergil’ (1879). In 1877 he was diverted from these studies by an invitation to prepare for the Clarendon Press a new Latin dictionary; and his own idea was, not to revise and improve some existing dictionary, as his predecessors had been content to do, but to produce an entirely new work by a fresh reading of the ancient texts and authorities. The scheme was not so chimerical as it might seem, since there was reason to think that collaborators would be forthcoming to aid in the work. Failing to obtain such collaboration, however, Nettleship worked on singlehanded for several years before he finally relinquished the task as too great for any one man. The main results of these years of labour were printed in 1889 in a volume of ‘Contributions to Latin Lexicography,’ which the most competent living critic (Professor J. E. B. Mayor) has characterised as a ‘genuine piece of original work, necessary to all serious students of the Latin language;’ its importance was fully recognised abroad also. In the midst of these severe and very technical studies Nettleship never lost his hold on literature, and he had long meditated a history of Roman literature. From a sense of duty, however, he felt bound to accede to a request from the delegates of the Oxford press to complete the Nonius which his friend and pupil, J. H. Onions of Christ Church, had undertaken, and by his untimely death in 1889, left unfinished. Though a work of perilous difficulty, it was one for which Nettleship possessed unique qualifications; and he was devoting himself to it with his wonted thoroughness at the moment when his fatal illness overtook him.
Nettleship combined with his devotion to scholarship a fine sense for language and literary form. ‘He was willing to plunge deep into laborious and abstruse detail, but he kept throughout a clear sense of the ultimate meaning of it all. The deification of detail, the favourite fault of Kleinphilologie, was his abhorrence. His researches into Latin glossaries, into Verrius Flaccus, Nonius, and the rest, were carried through with the distinct consciousness that the results would illustrate the whole vocabulary of Latin, as well as the efforts made by the Latins themselves to study their own language’ (F. Haverfield, Class. Rev.) And he never forgot that the final end of all lexicography is to throw light on literature and history.
Nettleship was at all times a great reader of modern literature, but his real passion was for music. Even as a schoolboy he was ‘bent on studying it seriously’ (R. C. Jebb); his desire to understand the theory and methods of the great German school of composers increased as he grew older; and in his later years the works of J. S. Bach were always in his hands, and the object of strenuous and systematic study. Throughout life he was firmly opposed to tests and other impediments to freedom of thought and inquiry in matters of religion; at the same