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'.


This comic is a parody of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge is replaced with someone who insists on calling people out on their incorrect usage of the word "literally", and speaks to the irrelevance of correcting people's speech.

In "A Christmas Carol", 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 behavior. In this comic the ghost wakes up a man who is intent on correcting people's usage of the word "literally." People often use "literally" as emphasis or exaggeration to a figurative statement, when the word's original meaning was that something had happened exactly as described. A statement such as "I literally ate 40 lbs of chocolate" might be said, when the person might have only actually eaten half a pound. A more correct statement would be "I ate a large amount of chocolate."

The ghost shows the protagonist two futures, one where he keeps correcting people, and one where he stops. That the two "different" futures are exactly (i.e., literally) the same 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.

Ironically, 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." "Were" is correctly used in a hypothetical condition, when referencing something that may not be true. The ghost of subjunctive past references the ghost of Christmas past and the 'Subjunctive past tense'. The following sentences illustrate the correct usages:

  • If I were rich, I wouldn't have to work for a living.
  • When I was rich, I didn't have to work for a living.

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

A similar ghost is seen in 1393: Timeghost, where it reminds Cueball about the passing of time, and 2836: A Halloween Carol similarly parodies Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

Popular Culture[edit]

The comics Cyanide & Happiness and The Oatmeal offer examples of this sort of derision.


[A man wakes up to an apparition hovering over his 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 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)