2390: Linguists

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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"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."
Title text: "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."


Ponytail hears the cries of an unidentified person who has become trapped in a hole. She rushes over, but rather than helping the person out, she instead asks whether the trapped person's chosen phrasing for their predicament – "fell down a hole" – is equivalent to "fell in a hole."

To most people, the phrases "fell down a hole" and "fell in a hole" are paraphrases. To other people, however, the two sentences have a subtle difference that implies slightly different things; for example, whether one has fully or only partially fallen down/in the hole, how big the hole is, or whether the person has exited out of the hole yet at the time of speaking (see the paragraph on the title text below). Ponytail is thus asking whether the person chose to use 'down' over 'in' for those reasons. In either case, the joke here is that this is probably not the best time for Ponytail to ask.

In the caption, Randall comments on the stereotype that linguists are obnoxious elitists who only love telling people how wrong they are ("Grammar Nazis"). A linguist might make a statement like this that ends with something like "linguists actually are only trying to describe existing grammar rules, not prescribe them." Instead, Randall takes the comment in an unexpected direction by saying not that linguists are better than expected but actually worse. He claims that seeking to extract exact information is worse than if they were pedants browbeating their audience, possibly because a pedant could prioritize the elements of a situation better than Ponytail is doing here. Compare 1010: Etymology-Man for a similar comics that mocks the linguists.

This is similar to the viewpoint dedicated to scientists in comic 877: Beauty, as in studying that field seems to be a cold and sad way to analyze the thing, but instead is an extreme form of child-like awe and inspiration.

The title text sees Ponytail asking the person whether their answer is dependent on the current situation, or in technical terms, tense-aspect-mood. As noted above some people see the difference between 'fell down' and 'fell in' as to whether the sentence still holds true at the time of speaking; this is called the perfective aspect. There are other variations, such as recent vs. remote past: "I just fell down a hole"; the perfect (not to be confused with the first one - note the lack of -ive): "I fell down a hole, and it has consequences relevant to our conversation"; habitual: "I had previously fallen down a(nother?) hole, and I have fallen down this hole now", all of which can influence one to choose 'down' over 'in' or vice versa.

The last sentence “assuming you get out” drives home the point that Ponytail is concerning herself with linguistic matters over practical ones. Ponytail’s use of “assuming” rather than “when” suggests that Ponytail doesn’t have a plan to get the person out, or that she has a plan but isn’t confident in its success. The former interpretation, that Ponytail is thinking of the person getting out as abstract and unconnected with her, is funnier and more consistent with Ponytail’s actions so far.


[Ponytail is walking to the left. A voice calls out from behind her (at the right of the panel):]
Off-panel voice: Help!
Off-panel voice: I fell down a hole!
[Ponytail runs to the right, toward the hole.]
[Ponytail, kneeling down next to the hole, calls out:]
Ponytail: Hey!
Ponytail: Is "fell down a hole" exactly equivalent to "fell in a hole," in your usage? Or do they have slightly different implications?
[Caption below the panel]
There's a myth that linguists are pedants who love correcting people, but they're actually just enthusiastic about understanding language in all its infinite varieties, which is much worse.

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"Fell in a hole" sounds wrong, from a (possibly) Rightpondian perspective. If it was "...into...", then that'd be better. (Falling down a hole would probably imply total inholation, while into one might mean no more than a foot getting snagged. Though the former also separately implies starting from partial or imminent holedness, the latter indicates the hole was not previously a problem but then became a novel issue to deal with. Falling 'in' a hole could mean "I was already at the bottom of a hole, minding my own business, and then I tripped on something/lost my balance and fell over..." Edit: as it might also be for "Fell down a hole", thinking more about it. A comma after "Fell" would make that more definite.) I also have problems with "Lit on fire", for something that is set fire to, but I know that's definitely a transatlantic issue. 02:01, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

Yes, indeed, things are simply "lit" (if the sense of "fire" is contextually apparent) or "set on fire" (if it's not). A well lit room is a scene which need not involve a flaming component, whereas a burning room would have been set on fire.
However. Holes, and the falling therein(to). Were one to fall "in" a hole, one would probably fall in such a way that - initially unholed at the outset of the incident - one becomes partially holed in a hole too shallow to ever threaten total enholing. The barrel of possibility is being scraped somewhat here however; my suspicion is that the above is simply an allusion to the more acceptable (dialetically speaking) "fell in a puddle" (a puddle being a hole neither "into" nor "down" which one could fall).Yorkshire Pudding (talk) 13:58, 26 November 2020 (UTC)
"Fell into..." makes me think that he fell/tripped and instead of landing on the ground, he went into the hole. (BTW, I've lived in this house 45+ years. I've never fallen down the stairs, but I have fallen "up" them, ie. I tripped on the way up and face-planted, even though I didn't continue upwards.) SDSpivey (talk) 09:22, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

I suppose "in a hole" is probably technically wrong (except for those cases where the individual in question was in a hole and then fell), but I would probably use it in speech (though maybe not more formal writing). There is a distinction between 'in' and 'down' however. When something falls down a hole, no part of it remains outside the hole. If it falls in(/to) a hole, at least some -- possibly most -- of the object remains outside the hole. 02:26, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

I'd say that under the circumstances, "Fell in a hole" carries the following implications:
That you were already "in" the hole, in some minimal sense. EG, your foot was inside a rut.
That you then fell.
That when you finished falling, you were 'more' in the hole than you were originally. EG, your knees and hands were now ALSO in the rut, because you landed on them.
Whereas "Fell Down a hole" implies that the lowest point of your body, when you STARTED falling, has actually experienced significant downward motion by the time you STOPPED falling. you can't fall 'down' a hole if your foot was resting on the hole's bottom when you started out. 19:50, 26 November 2020 (UTC)
Personally, I view "I fell down a hole" to mean, that at the end of the action I was entirely, physically in the hole. Meanwhile, "I fell in a hole" can mean that any amount of the person may or may not be in the hole after the action. In this case, "in" almost means, "because of". For example, "I fell in an open manhole" can mean that the person fell but caught themselves (yes, singular "they.") before sliding all the way in or even fell all the way in but caught themselves before reaching bottom. Meanwhile, "I fell down a manhole" would involve the person arriving at the bottom or very near to. That said, by referencing the surface, "manhole" makes the entire thing problematic. Saying "I fell in a mine" and "I fell down a mine" both make sense, but saying "I fell down a septic tank" doesn't... This is exceedingly complicated. Cwallenpoole (talk) 13:42, 30 November 2020 (UTC)

Did anyone else notice that this comic seems to have significantly higher resolution than others? It’s especially noticeable on mobile browsers, but I haven’t tested it on PC. 02:36, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

I fell down a hole, and while in the hole I fell. 03:17, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

I guess you could fall "in" a hole without falling "down" a hole if you like...tripped into a sideways hole, like a doorway... 07:50, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

You could also climb down a hole and then, once at the bottom, trip. Then you would have "fallen (while) in a hole." Cwallenpoole (talk) 17:48, 5 August 2021 (UTC)

I'd say if you mean the act of falling into the hole, you can indicate that with either 'into' or 'down' (or even both) and you could argue when to use which, but if you mean the place where you have fallen, you would use 'in'. Informally, I have heard people use 'in' as short of 'into'. On the other hand, the place where you have fallen could be "down a hole" (I have been down that hole). It now depends whether the "down" is connected to "I fell" or to "the hole". In theory, you could say "I fell down a hole down the hole" to indicate you fell down a second hole while being inside the first one.

This whole discussion is just the result of Randall doing Nerd Sniping 356 XD Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 11:57, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

Someone needs to add a discussion of prescriptivist vs. descriptivist linguists -- the person in the comic is clearly a descriptivist, the pedants described in the caption would be prescriptivists. (Incidentally, Language Log posted about the comic and there's some discussion.) Arcorann (talk) 14:34, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

Yes this is saying most linguists are descriptivists, they find out what people say/write, and ask what they mean - and so are most dictionaries 15:09, 26 November 2020 (UTC)

I predict many links to the original XKCD comic will appear in the comments of the next Tom Scott linguistics YouTube video. 06:12, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

"What is it that Ponytail thinks is being said, and what should have been said to avoid misunderstanding?" <-- from the incomplete explanation box. I don't believe that Ponytail is misunderstanding anything. Ponytail (correctly) understands that the speaker-in-a-hole is in a hole and got there by means of falling. The joke is, rather than help the person out of the hole (as just about any normal human, linguist or not, would do), Ponytail sees an opportunity to do some field research, asking whether falling down a hole means the same thing to the unseen speaker as falling in a hole, or if there are subtle differences between the two. Most, if not all, native speakers of English would understand the meaning, but as you can see from the comments here, we do _have_ subtle differences between in/into/down in this context even if they might not be used in the heat of the moment. 13:41, 27 November 2020 (UTC)

This is one of the rare times that explain XKCD makes the comic seem more complicated 08:27, 30 November 2020 (UTC)