1108: Cautionary Ghost

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Revision as of 00:23, 14 January 2013 by Davidy22 (talk | contribs)
Jump to: navigation, search
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'.


The usage of a ghost from the past or future to deliver a message in fiction was most famously used in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in which the main character is visited upon by the ghosts of past, present and future during his sleep to show him the negative effects of his selfish and uncharitable behaviour.

This comic is a comment on the futility of arguing over trivial matters, such as the usage of the word "literally" to mean "figuratively, with great emphasis" as mentioned in the comic. It also references 725: Literally. In this comic, a man is presented an idyllic scene of the future, then is shown an identical scene and told that it is the future if he gives up arguing over the incorrect use of the word "literally". The comparison is meant to demonstrate that the argument will have no meaningful effect on the world, and suggest that the man stop wasting time on the argument.

The title text is a reversal on this, indicating that the man met a second ghost who encouraged him to continue with his argument against an equally trivial language issue: the misuse of the phrase "if it were". 'Subjunctive' is a verbal mood in English that is used when expressing "necessity, desire, purpose, suggestion and similar ideas, or a counterfactual condition". 'Subjunctive past tense' is most commonly used in a counterfactual condition - when discussing what would have happened under different circumstances, such as in the case of "if it were". The prescribed usage is something like "I wouldn't have been late if it were Tuesday today." Many people would say "I wouldn't have been late if it was Tuesday today", which while sounding fine, violates some prescriptive rules of grammatical correctness. As a result, "if it were" has been falling out of use in favor of "if it was", and thus the subjunctive form in this example is near extinction. here is a blog post on the subject.

The comic appears to be sarcasm of the comic strips Cyanide & Happiness and Oatmeal, which have commented upon using the word Literally.


[Cueball sitting in bed is facing a ghost.]
Ghost: Ooooooooooooooooo
Cueball: A ghost!?
Ghost: I bring a cautionary vision of things to come!
[Cut to scene with two houses, a plane, a tree and a standing couple.]
Ghost: This is the future:
[Cut to scene with two houses, a plane, a tree and a standing couple.]
Ghost: And this is the future if you give up the fight over the word "literally":
[Cut back to man sitting in bed with ghost]
Cueball: They looked exactly the same.
Ghost: Oooooooooooooooo
Cueball: Ok, I get it.
Ghost: Seriously, this is duuuuumb.

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


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 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 (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)

I've given up on literally and settle for enjoying the misuse: the hall was literally swept by a sea of supporters, the crew literally hung on the lips on their captain, etc. However! I will fight forever for correct usage of its and it's... at least until we all go whole hog, and start using hi's and her's [or would the feminine be he'r?]. Canuu (talk) 20:09, 10 September 2015 (UTC)

But, the picture is only a small part! What if another place was changed!!! SilverMagpie (talk) 03:52, 2 April 2017 (UTC)