Diagnosing linguists

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "Do you feel like the answer depends on whether you're currently in the hole, versus when you refer to the events later after you get out? Assuming you get out."


  1. John Shutt said,

    November 25, 2020 @ 9:39 pm

    Imho, Randall reads Language Log.

  2. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    November 25, 2020 @ 10:27 pm

    And listens to Lingthusiasm

  3. Lance said,

    November 25, 2020 @ 11:49 pm

    I mean, I'm not saying that he followed me around and made cartoons about my life, but he was in an office down the hall from me for many years.

    (He did not follow me around and make cartoons about my life. If it felt that way, it's because it feels that way to most geeks. But I'd like to think that I might have had a small bit of influence on this comic.)

  4. Chas Belov said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 1:34 am

    Hmmm, I would have used "Fell into a hole" for the latter option in the last panel.

  5. Yerushalmi said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 2:28 am

    In my opinion, if you fall "into" a hole, that carries that connotation that you tripped over something else and fell forward and there happened to be a hole there – one you can easily just stand up and walk out of. If you fall "down" a hole, leaving the hole would require climbing and/or external assistance.

    Essentially, a hole you fall "down" is deeper than one you fall "into".

  6. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 2:29 am

    To me, "fell in a hole" sounds like you were already in a hole, and fell while trying to climb out of it or similar.

  7. GH said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 2:39 am

    @Chas Belov

    Does your preference for "into" over "in" also apply to "fell in[to] a well," or does euphony override it?

    The research potential for experimental linguistics is truly… chilling.

  8. rosie said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 3:09 am

    In my usage, using the Gricean maxim of saying what's required and thus pertinent to the present situation, the person in the hole would say "I've fallen into this hole". Present situation resulting from past event: perfect tense.

  9. Keith said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 3:35 am

    @rosie That's exactly how I would have said it.

  10. Bob Ladd said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 9:16 am

    Rosie and Keith: Are you BrEng speakers? My impression is that AmEng speakers are more likely than BrEng speakers to use simple past tense in situations where there is fairly clearly a "present situation resulting from past event".

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 10:13 am

    I'd say, "Hey! Help! I'm stuck!"

    rosie: Griceanly, "this" is redundant. The speaker hasn't fallen into some other hole.

    However, if I called for help and got the answer "Where are you?" I might well shout, "Over here! In this hole!" The whole thing is redundant except "hole", but you have to say something so the rescuer can locate your voice.

    Is this somewhere in Jakobson's functions of language—speaking just so your voice can be heard, as when you speak soothingly to an agitated animal or baby? Maybe saying "La la" with your hands over your ears is similar. Or is this not a function of language, even though people often use words for it?

    Bob Ladd: Agreed. We Americans could remark, "I've fallen into this hole before," though.

  12. Bloix said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 10:18 am

    As Yerushalmi says it would have to be a hell of a hole to fall down it – significantly deeper than your height, I'd say. Otherwise you'd fall in the hole. You'd fall down a well.

    Course, in a comic a hole is more like a tear in the 2-D space-time continuum than a 3-D physical construction. So you'd fall into it, like you'd fall into a crevasse.

    You can't fall down a cliff (at least I can't), you can only fall off it, like you'd fall off a roof.

    But you can fall down a cliff-face.
    Why is that? Is it because to fall down it implies that you have contact with it on the way? Maybe to fall down something implies that you're adjacent to the thing you're falling down as you fall. You fell off the Empire State Building, but you fell down the side of the Empire State Building?

    A similar expression is to fall down the stairs, where you have close contact with each step on the way down. Can you fall down a ladder? I don't think so – you'd fall off a ladder, wouldn't you? But you could fall down an elevator shaft or a gangway.

    And occasionally I fall up the stairs which is a different thing – maybe others aren't as clumsy as I am.

  13. Robert Coren said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 10:55 am

    For what it's worth, Alice fell "down the rabbit hole", not into or in it. And yes, that was a very deep hole.

    @Bloix: I don't have a problem with "fell down a cliff".

  14. Roscoe said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 11:00 am

    "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." – Mel Brooks

  15. Trogluddite said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 12:11 pm

    For me, "fell into" is slightly more restrictive, as one must be outside the hole to begin with. OTOH, one could "fall down" a hole which one was already inside – for example, if one's rope were to snap while attempting to abseil into the hole.

  16. Trogluddite said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 12:17 pm

    P.S. I forgot "fell in". I suspect that I may sometimes say this, but when I stop to think about it, only "into" seems correct (unless, as previously mentioned, I mean; "I fell (while I was) in a hole").

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 12:38 pm

    … which remind me of the classic sergeant-major command "Get fell in, you 'orrible lot". If he were being pedantic, should he say "Get fallen in" ?

  18. Bloix said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 12:57 pm

    You can fall into error or fall into sin, like the way you'd fall into a river and be swept away.

    I know a fellow who fell off a trail and down a slope into a ravine. As you might imagine for a fall that implicated three prepositions, he broke his leg in two places, and had to be helicoptered out – true story.

  19. Julian said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 3:04 pm

    The amazing world of locative prepositions – a source of endless fascination, if you're into that sort of thing.

  20. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 26, 2020 @ 9:29 pm

    Or if you're down with that sort of thing.

  21. Philip Anderson said,

    November 27, 2020 @ 6:14 pm

    @Bob Ladd
    I’m British and I prefer “I’ve fallen”.

  22. BobW said,

    November 27, 2020 @ 7:56 pm

    @GH – Well research requires a grad student named Timmy who owns a collie.

  23. KevinM said,

    November 27, 2020 @ 8:18 pm

    To my NYC-area ears, to fall down a hole has a feeling of along-ness, implying a journey to the bottom of a hole that is deep enough to swallow you. In my local dialect (or idiolect?) you'd fall in a pothole, but down a well.

    @BobW: Lassie's articulate barking would be a fertile area for linguistic research. ("What's that, girl? Timmy's trapped under a log? And I should bring a bow saw?")

  24. stephen said,

    November 27, 2020 @ 10:00 pm

    Thanks for telling us about Lingthusiasm! I'd never heard of it!

    I am about to–or I am going to–die; either expression is used.
    –Dominique Bouhours, grammarian, 1628-1702…

    Should Autumn be referred to as Fallen? Fell? Falling? Felling is also a word. I went to Dictionary.com and the only definition of Felling it gives is, a town in England. But then it gives four examples of the word from around the web, and all four are for the word as a verb.
    (I'm not totally serious about changing the name of the season.)

    If a person tells me not to take everything so literally, I'll ask, "Do you mean that literally?"

  25. Quinn C said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 12:22 am

    when you say "down the hall", do you mean … never mind.

  26. Peter Grubtal said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 6:20 am

    Is it just because I'm English that the language seems rich in prepositions compared to other languages I've come to grips with? Japanese springs to mind with few (okay, postpositions), I'd have thought, and Spanish, where "a, de, en" seem to cover a lot of ground.

    I'd guess in Spanish the nuances would be expressed using different verbs, although to this intermediate learner, I can only think of caer and tumbar at the moment.

  27. Michael Watts said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 6:41 am

    Is it just because I'm English that the language seems rich in prepositions compared to other languages I've come to grips with? Japanese springs to mind with few (okay, postpositions), I'd have thought, and Spanish, where "a, de, en" seem to cover a lot of ground.

    Mandarin has 里, 中, and 内 all meaning "inside". This strikes me as the opposite of the phenomenon you're describing.

    More interestingly, the English concept of "preposition" doesn't map well to Mandarin, where it covers two quite different classes of words.

  28. Julian said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 6:58 am

    In Greek:
    Kato=under, below
    Apo=away from
    S, se=at, on, towards
    But there's this neat trick where you can mix and match:
    Kato apo to trapezi= under the table like a rug
    Kato sto trapezi=under the table like chewing gum.
    Pano sto trapezi= on the table like a book
    Pano apo to trapezi=above the table like a light.

  29. Chas Belov said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 2:22 pm

    @GH: Yes, "fell into a well" but there I would more likely say "fell down a well"

    I would definitely prefer "fell into a hole" over "fell down a hole" but "fell down a well" over "fell into a well." The well preference is likely because I heard "down" more often.

    I see in literature, at least, "into" is preferred for wells, then "down," with "in" trailing far behind, but "down" at least had a fighting chance.

    For holes, "into" is strongly preferred over "in" or "down."

  30. Chas Belov said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 2:24 pm

    Make that "down" *has* a fighting chance with "well." It used to be down there with "in" but has grown in usage recently. If ngrams is still around in 10 years, might be worth revisiting.

  31. Chas Belov said,

    November 28, 2020 @ 2:31 pm

    Odd, my post with the two ngram links just got removed after initially displaying. I'm guessing I set off the spam catcher.

    I was replying to GH that I prefer into for both holes and wells.

    I linked to Google ngrams for fell into/in/down a hole and similarly for well. They are interesting.

  32. Philip Anderson said,

    November 29, 2020 @ 4:06 pm

    ‘Felling’ is definitely a word, from the causative verb ‘to fell’ (a tree). But I don’t think you can fell leaves, even in autumn.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2020 @ 8:48 pm

    Philip Anderson: True, though "fall a tree" may be joining it or replacing "fell a tree" in North America, even at educational sites such as this from Canada and government sites such as <a href="https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/logging/glossary.html&quot; this from the U.S.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2020 @ 8:48 pm

    *may be joining or replacing "fell a tree"

  35. Robert Coren said,

    November 30, 2020 @ 10:56 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I can't recall hearing "fall a tree" used in the present tense; are you extrapolating from people saying/writing "I fell a tree" when they've cut one down? I assume the latter comes from being so accustomed to "fell" as a past-tense verb that "felled" seems wrong.

  36. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 30, 2020 @ 11:21 am

    Robert and Jerry: "Fall a tree" is the prevailing idiom where I live (California Sierra foothills), and the people who do it for a living call themselves "tree fallers".

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 3:23 pm

    @Robert Coren: I provided examples. The title of the Canadian page I linked to is "Technical Tree Falling – Faller Escape Routes, Understanding the 5-15-90 Rule (Article 4)", in keeping with what Gregory Kusnick just said. The American page, a glossary, has "BACKCUT (Felling Cut): The last of the three cuts required to fall a tree" and many others. (As you can see, "fell" is also used on that page.)

    Thus among the people who cut trees down, at least in America, something is happening to "fall" and "fell" much like what has happened to "lie" and "lay". "Sit" and "set", "rise" and "raise", "drink" and "drench" have not been immune to change either.

  38. Linguist humor: What we really do – Georgetown Legal English Blog said,

    December 6, 2020 @ 5:41 pm

    […] go to the Language Log blog (which is where I first aw this xkcd webcomic) for some great linguist commentary and reactions to […]

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