A cautionary vision of things to come

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Randall Munroe's latest xkcd strip:

Cautionary Ghost

Munroe has poked fun at people's obsession with non-literal literally in the past. Here's a strip from two years ago:


This time around, Munroe might have been inspired by the widespread peeving about Joe Biden's overuse of literally in his Democratic National Convention speech. (On the Atlantic Wire, Jen Doll was inspired to write a two-part series on literally and other "crutch words.") Or perhaps the inspiration was this interview with Rob Lowe about how literally became the signature verbal tic of his character on "Parks and Recreation."

(As for the hover-over text about the Ghost of Subjunctive Past, I wonder if it's alluding to the subjunctive alarmism recently documented here.)


  1. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 2:47 am

    I sort of feel that Munroe dropped the ball on his "Ghost of Subjunctive Past" hover text. There's potential for some Hofstadter-esque implications of the rationality/validity of past-time counterfactuals in conjunction with wordplay that seems right up Munroe's alley.

    I've read most of the "subjunctive" LL posts and specifically Pullum's posts that it (this particular kind of "subjunctive" that I think we are all talking about here) arguably ought to be called something else (some specific kind of irrealis) several times, but I suck so badly at grammar, I promptly forget everything I think I learned. Boy, is that annoying.

    I only retain enough to be annoyed, without a defensible cause, at references to it as "the subjunctive". Which just adds insult to injury because, despite that I'm generally a descriptivist and despite that I am well aware that this is irrational and snobbish, I weirdly find the "failure" to use this "subjunctive 'were'" to be like fingernails on a chalkboard. Clearly, some authority figure planted something in my brain that I've yet to dislodge.

  2. Adam said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 3:26 am

    Wow, I just saw that cartoon and was about to e-mail a link to it to Language Log Plaza, but it's already here. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat LL.

  3. The Ridger said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 4:35 am

    The "if". The "if" does the work now. Anybody who says "if I was" is using the whatever-you-want-to-call-it form of current English. Which is why "If we want details-oriented people for orbital flights, we want creative people for interplanetary flights" or "if you ate eggs yesterday I ate toast" both sound odd now. A purely propositional "if" is better a "while/where/whereas" now. The "if" is counter-real now, almost exclusively – since after all, "were" is the only verb you can see the other one one. "If I ate" – what is that?

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 6:05 am

    @The Ridger: "if" has quite a lot of meanings that a little unusual, or at least formal/literary now. One from the OED

    "If I have not married, it is because I have not loved." – J Kavanagh, 1861

    … where "If I have not married" means "Pertaining to the fact that I have not married" rather than "I don't know whether I have married or not, but if I haven't, then".

  5. Chris Kern said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 6:26 am

    That claim that you "mean figuratively" always annoys me; nobody says "I was figuratively glued to my seat." In this sense, "literally" is an intensifier — you may argue that it's wrongly used, but it's silly to replace it with "figuratively".

  6. a George said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 6:45 am

    "figuratively" is merely descriptive of the use of "literally". The claim should really read "you mean that figuratively". There is no joke.

  7. jan said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    I'm sorry I didn't write to the etiquette people sooner about this, but maybe you can help.

    "Wanna go out with me?"
    "I really wish I could!"
    "If you did not want to, you would not wish that you could."
    "I mean I don't know what my boyfriend would say."
    "If you don't know what your boyfriend would say, then you're probably not going steady with him. And how am I supposed to find out? And…"
    "I wish you'd stop taking everything I say literally!"
    "You don't mean that literally, do you?"
    "Why couldn't you…hey, wait, come back here, I have some more questions for you!"

  8. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 7:30 am

    @The Ridger: "The 'if' is counter-real now, almost exclusively": That's not even remotely true. "If it was" gets almost as many hits in COCA (7,590) as "if it were" does (7,847), and looking through the hits for "if it was", I find that the vast majority do not mean it counterfactually.

    (Since I can almost always tell whether they mean it counterfactually, obviously the distinction between "was" and "were" is not the only disambiguating factor; but, equally obviously, the word "if" doesn't force a counterfactual reading. Rather, it's all about context.)

  9. Rodger C said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 7:44 am

    I've posted this before, but Tolkien uses "as if it was" in the attack on Weathertop. It startled me at age 17, especially in a narrative of high tension.

  10. Simon Spero said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    For Joe Biden, literally is almost literally a verbal tic; comparisons of his speeches"as prepared" to his speeches as delivered show that they are not part of the written text. Most of the time this seems to be for emphasis, but in some cases it seems to serve as a kind of um, filler.

    If it is the case that he knows that his usage is incorrect in certain registers, that he knows that this incorrect usage has been noticed and is mocked by some, that he does not wish to be mocked by some of those mocking, that he tries to match his own register/dialect to that which he believes his audience expects, and that he literally can't control his use of literally then I would expect that the number of uses inappropriate for the register would be related to cognitive load.

    If most inappropriate uses occur when he is literally going off-script, then this might be measurable, especially if the number of scripted uses has gone down.

    As the Onion might have described his purchase of a 10% stake in a Tijuana brothel, this is literally a BFD.

  11. Michael Newman said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    The semantic shift of "reality" adjectives to intensifiers is a common pattern: Very, really, so why not literally.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 11:14 am

    @Rodger C: Tolkien consistently uses "was" with "if" for irrealis in LotR. Oddly enough, he does the "were he" thing, though.

  13. L said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 11:18 am

    Shifts like that are obviously possible, as they have very literally really happened.

    But during any shift, there is a transition period when both sense are abroad in the land. This causes conflict, tension, and confusion.

    Also during the transition, it is literally never really very clear that the transition will complete, nor if it be when. Many usages arise, and irregardless of their grooviness somehow manage to figuratively elbow their figurative way past the literal subjunctive and reach the figurative Mount Doom that is the figurative dustbin of literal history.

    I thought that the essence of replacing prescriptivism with descriptivism is to literally cease demanding and instead to observe, note, and, well, to describe. But maybe that's a whole 'nother transition that is still very really literally in progress?

    There is a difference between "real" and "very real" that really is very real, but I'm figuratively damned if I can say what it is.

  14. Ted said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

    @L: LOL. (Not literally.)

  15. Chris C. said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

    @Jerry Friedman — Tolkien was very sensitive to the nuances of register. Without literally consulting the text, I'd wager you'll find "were it" uttered by more formal speakers, and "if it was" from Hobbits, or in narration of scenes shown more or less from a Hobbit's point of view.

  16. mahir256 said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

    I'll just leave this here…


  17. Steve Morrison said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 7:31 pm

    @Chris C.:

    Not always. This passage contains no hobbits:

    To that Stone the Company came and halted in the dead of night. Then Elrohir gave to Aragorn a silver horn, and he blew upon it; and it seemed to those that stood near that they heard a sound of answering horns, as if it was an echo in deep caves far away. No other sound they heard, and yet they were aware of a great host gathered all about the hill on which they stood; and a chill wind like the breath of ghosts came down from the mountains. But Aragorn dismounted, and standing by the Stone he cried in a great voice:

    ‘Oathbreakers, why have ye come?’

  18. Brett said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    @Steve Morrison: But if you accept the framing device, the whole narrative was ultimately transcribed by Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam, and it is thus in their Hobbitish voices. However, Tolkien was definitely not so careful about keeping consistent with this framing device, so it's not clear any conclusion can really be drawn.

  19. Chris C. said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

    And as I said, I don't have the books in front of me.

  20. Steve Morrison said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

    Well, the passage in question was among those written in a grave, elevated register. But the question begs: which usage did Tolkien choose when writing in authorial voice? I've checked his collected letters and there are instances of both:

    That the device adopted, that of giving its setting an historical air or feeling, and (an illusion of?) three dimensions, is successful, seems shown by the fact that several correspondents have treated it in the same way – according to their different points of interest or knowledge: i.e. as if it were a report of ‘real’ times and places, which my ignorance or carelessness had misrepresented in places or failed to describe properly in others.

    Much of my own book puzzles me; & in any case much of it was written so long ago (anything up to 20 years) that I read it now as if it were from a strange hand.


    You do not speak of your two-marriage system as a merely expedient policy, but as if it was somehow related to the Christian virtue of charity.

    I could not mentally settle in the new home, as if it was something unreal & might vanish!

  21. Steve Morrison said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 9:13 pm

    Oops, apologies for the blockquote fail.

  22. Fox said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 11:13 pm

    "I wish I was an Oscar Meyer wiener. . ."

  23. Acilius said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    "Would that I were an Oscar Meyer wiener/ Such might I truly like to be/ For were I an Oscar Meyer wiener,/ All would fain to be in love with me."

    The fustiest of prescriptive grammarians have a shtick which, as I understand it, revolves around the idea that language change in general and semantic shift in particular are weakening our ability to make subtle distinctions and therefore to appreciate the importance of all the things that it takes patience to understand. A person sold on that idea, seeing this strip and the idea that only a development which has consequences that are instantly obvious to any observer anywhere in the world should be considered bad, might well cite it as proof positive that this process had brought Mr Munroe and his admirers to an alarmingly low point of mental deterioration.

  24. L said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

    From The New Yorker.


  25. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 2:04 pm


    Your reference to Rob Lowe's character on 'Parks and Rec' having the word "literally" as a verbal tic, reminded me of a quirky junior high school teacher I had back in early-1960's Toronto, who had the annoying habit of predicating what seemed like almost all his sentences, in addressing his class, w/ the phrase "generally speaking".

    Predictably, the more attentive (and devious) students in his class immediately picked up on this odd, repetitive verbal "tic"; 'the situation', unfortunately, taking on a decidedly malevolent turn at some point.

    A small group of perhaps four male classmates, including yours truly, decided that every time we would ask, or answer a question, or just make some kind of declarative statement in this teacher's class, we would start off each sentence w/ "generally speaking".

    Outwardly, this teacher appeared to be a bit of a creature of habit—-a fastidious, controlled type individual—very even-tempered to the point of placidity.

    After roughly a week of us 'pranksters' using "generally speaking" at every turn, and 'teach' appearing to be oblivious to this echoing back of his 'pet' phrase, one day he just went and totally snapped, revealing a whole other side of 'teach' we students had yet to experience.

    He was steaming angry, wildly gesticulating, red-faced, tossing out a steady torrent of invective, basically targeting me and my three, or four 'partners-in-crime', letting us know he was on to our little ruse from the get-go, and was never amused.

    Here we thought we had pulled a fast one on our seemingly meek-and-mild teacher, but we were dead wrong on that score.

    As I vaguely recall, we all got stiff reprimands from our principle, and were obliged to apologize to our maligned teach, face-to- face, whilst the ring-leader of our little scheme was suspended for maybe a week. (So long ago, some of the details are kinda fuzzy.)

    Interestingly, after 'the incident', this teacher's use of "generally speaking'", in class, fell of dramatically.

    I guess we all have our linguistic blind-spots to one degree, or another.

  26. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 3:12 pm


    Thanks for that fun New Yorker cartoon.

    For once, the rodeo bull 'literally' has the upper hand…. make that 'hoof'.

    As they say, "It's only a cartoon". But I can't help thinking about the barbaric treatment of 'los toros' of the professional Spanish, and Mexican bull-fight ring, where IMHO, the scenarios played out in the grand plaza arenas almost every Sunday* for centuries are hardly fair "fights", but more like choreographed, ritualized exhibitions of prolonged slaughter; where the bull, if he is lucky, and manages to outwit the subpar matador, (and his minions), is given a reprieve, and allowed to live and fight again. (Sadly, this is the rare exception.)

    I know I may have opened up a big can of worms here, but your cartoon just got me thinking about man's use of animals for sport, or entertainment, where the ultimate stakes can be a matter of life and death. (Or major bodily injury.)

    I'm no PETA fanatic, but I feel bull-fighting, particularly where the bull is ultimately killed, is just plain wrong in this 21st century.

    I know I will get strong arguments from the pro bull-fighting camp, positing that this long-standing ritualized confrontation of man vs. beast has been an integral part of the Latino (read mainly Spanish and Mexican) cultural ethos for centuries, and as such, should continue as a symbolic expression of their inherent machismo, and pride in command over wild nature.

    I believe the Portuguese, within the past decade, or so, have officially banned the killing of the bull in most public bull-fighting contests. (I could be off-base here.)

    L, look what kind of monster you've unleashed. HA!

    I'll get off my soap box, now.

    I've got a rodeo to go to. (Ya-hoo!)

    (I think I've given myself enough rope to hang myself, already. Not literally, of course. HA!)

    * Back in the early 1970s, my now-ex-wife and I attended a Sunday mid-summer afternoon of bull-fighting at the famed Plaza de Los Toros (sp. ?) in downtown Madrid, eventually storming out in anger, and repulsion after a mere two 'contests', when an apparently very young and fairy inexperience matador in the second 'match' of the day was unable to cleanly kill the bull after numerous plunges of his sword between the shoulder blades of the profusely bleeding bull.

    Many in the crowd were whistling loudly, apparently a sign of great displeasure re/ the matador's inept performance. With the dying, totally exhausted bull now hunkered down on its front haunches, the matador was forced to use a spiked metal device to bring down the ultimate fatal blow to the back of the bull's neck, severing its spinal chord, followed immediately by the huge black beast collapsing to the red-dirt arena floor, shuddering momentarily— stone dead.

  27. Jongseong said,

    September 16, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    I thought it was another case of trans-Atlantic variance as to whether "if it was" was preferred over "if it were", with the subjunctive form more likely to be preserved in American English than in British English. I'm surprised no one brought this up while discussing examples from Tolkien.

  28. Rodger said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 4:11 am

    There's a nice knowing misuse of "literally" in Treasure Island (1883) when the buffoonish Squire Trelawney, on a mission to charter a ship, reports that one of his contacts "literally slaved in my interest, and so … did everyone in Bristol". A particularly crass statement given that Bristol was a centre of the slave trade in the period when the novel was set.

  29. Eric M. Bram said,

    March 22, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

    As if it was was not necessarily an error by Tolkien. A gifted writer will know when to use "as if it was," for example to give a sense of immediacy, or possibility.

    In both cases mentioned above, "…they heard a sound of answering horns, as if it was an echo…," as well as (atop Weathertop), "…as if it was a firebrand," Tolkien gives a sense of immediacy of the perception, of initial perceived possibility of those realities, whereas as if it were would be a more relaxed construction, conveying the idea that the characters immediately knew for a fact that the sound and appearance were not those respective things. I think Tolkien chose well: both passages took place at times of great tension, and using as if it were would not have been as effective. Tolkien's decision of when to use or not use the subjunctive is a good example of how a good writer who knows the rules of grammar well will know when it's safe (and even desirable) to break them.

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