1108: Cautionary Ghost

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Cautionary Ghost
But then the Ghost of Subjunctive Past showed up and told me to stay strong on 'if it were'.
Title text: But then the Ghost of Subjunctive Past showed up and told me to stay strong on 'if it were'.

[edit] Explanation

This comic is a comment on the futility of arguing over the commonly mocked usage of the word "literally" to mean "figuratively, with great emphasis." The comics Cyanide & Happiness and Oatmeal are examples of this sort of derision.

The comic employs the device used in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in which the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future awaken the main character in the middle of the night to show him the negative causes and effects of his selfish and uncharitable behaviour.

The similarity between the two "different" futures suggests that the man's struggle to get people to stop using "literally" incorrectly will have no meaningful effect on the world, and so the man (and by extension, everyone else) may as well stop wasting time and energy on it.

The title text indicates that a second apparition encouraged the man to continue the fight on a different grammatical issue: the use of the phrase "if it were," which is frequently incorrectly substituted with "if it was." 'Subjunctive past tense' is most commonly used in a counterfactual condition (i.e. when referencing something that is not the case). For example, the sentence "If I were rich, I wouldn't have to work for a living," contains the prescribed usage. However, some people would phrase this sentence as: "If I 'was' rich, I wouldn't have to work for a living." This usage grates on the ears of many people - including, apparently, the man in the comic. The comic appears to suggest that "if I were" is a more important issue than the incorrect usage of the word "literally."

Another xkcd comic, 725: Literally, also refers to the overly mocked usage of "literally."

[edit] Transcript

[A man wakes up to an apparition hovering over their bed.]
Apparition: OOOOOOOOOOOOooooo
Man: A ghost!?
Apparition: I bring a cautionary vision of things to come!
Apparition: This is the future:
[Two people are standing between a pair of houses. There is a tree. An airplane flies past.]
Apparition: And this is the future if you give up the fight over the word "literally":
[Two people are standing between a pair of houses. There is a tree. An airplane flies past. The cynical might suggest the panel is copy pasted.]
[Back to the man in bed.]
Man: They looked exactly the same.
Apparition: OOOOOOOOOOOooooo
Man: Ok, I get it.
Apparition: Seriously, this is duuuuumb .
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The comic seems to suggest that it is obviously a waste of effort if the world remains the same regardless of the argument. But maybe the argues goal is not to correct grammar as much as it is to be entertained by the deficiencies in others and the arguments that may arise. Feeling superior through trolling regular conversations. DruidDriver (talk) 07:23, 21 January 2013 (UTC)


Could it have been spurred by this comic?

It shares quibbles over the word literally, but the driving idea behind the jokes are different. Davidy22 (talk) 06:08, 14 September 2012 (UTC)
Exasperation over the misuse/overuse of "literally" is quite widespread, especially among the target audience of xkcd. I doubt the choice was inspired by a particular source.

I think it is a reference to this prior xkcd comic which is also dealing with the difference between literally and figuratively and somebody eager to tell people the difference. -- 08:06, 14 September 2012 (UTC)Josch

I think there is a huge difference between devoting years of time & energy waiting to 'gotcha' someone and encouraging people to use a word correctly. Because so many people use the word "literally" for emphasis even when their usage is figurative, how can I tell someone that my usage of something is in fact literal? JaniceOly (talk) 03:24, 15 September 2012 (UTC)

Having the Literally as the word to argue about seems to be fitting this comic quite well, since the world is literally the same in both scenarios. Or, the other way around, arguing about literally literally doesn't matter.

If people are getting so upset over literally, why aren't they getting upset over "really", which literally means the same thing? This is why I don't care for the debate (but, geek that I am, I still find myself correcting it. *sigh*.) Anonymous 05:02, 6 December 2013 (UTC)


What's so idyllic on that scene? That people are still alive and someone is still flying? (Note that it may be airforce one) -- Hkmaly (talk) 09:09, 14 September 2012 (UTC)

Charles Dickens

The usage of a ghost from the past or future to deliver a message in fiction was begun in Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol - I really don't think that's true. --Kronf (talk) 12:55, 14 September 2012 (UTC)


I have to say, not using the subjunctive case correctly really grinds my gears, 'as it were'. -- 13:53, 14 September 2012 (UTC)dangerkeith3000

Fixed the typo someone made on the title text ghost: Ghost of Subjective Subjunctive Past. I also typed up some information on the subjunctive mood and the subjunctive past construction. Hopefully this helps clear up the title text. Haruspex (talk) 13:54, 14 September 2012 (UTC)

I'm not sure it's correct to describe the fight in favor of if it were as "equally trivial". Isn't the entire point of the title text that that fight is worth continuing? --Cristo (talk) 15:56, 14 September 2012 (UTC)

@Haruspex: Thanks for clearing up that issue of subjective/subjunctive -- I was just about to go in and fix it myself. --Pdaoust (talk) 16:11, 14 September 2012 (UTC)

Subjunctive is a MOOD, not a CASE or a TENSE. And ask Shakespeare about using ghosts to deliver messages.

Third panel

Hmm shouldn't the third panel read "... if you gave up the fight ... "? -- 07:12, 19 September 2012 (UTC)

Nope. This is the future. --Kronf (talk) 11:20, 14 November 2012 (UTC)
Agree, "give" is correct here. The guy has not yet given up the fight; "give" is in imperative mood. --Smartin (talk) 04:47, 2 January 2013 (UTC)
I don't think "give" is quite in the imperative mood here (since the ghost is describing a hypothetical future instead of directly asking the man to give up the fight), but either way shouldn't both "give" and "gave" work in this case? (English_conditional_sentences#Second_conditional) -- 13:41, 31 May 2013 (UTC)
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