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

Explanation

Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: Created by A LINGUIST IN A HOLE. Please mention here why this explanation isn't complete. Do NOT delete this tag too soon.

Ponytail hears the cries of an unidentified person who has become trapped in a hole. She rushes over and asks whether the trapped person's chosen phrasing for their predicament - "fell down a hole" - is equivalent to "fell in a hole."

For the case "fell down a hole", most people would likely understand "fell" (action) "down" (direction) "a hole" (place), while it could also be understood as "fell" (action) "down a hole" (place). Since "down a hole" is about the same as "in a hole" (barring being completely inside or not), Ponytail would like to know of "fell down a hole" is meant as "fell in a hole" or not. This phrase, on the other hand, has the same problem of being ambiguous, but with the additional problem that it is not clear what the majority of people would understand [citation needed]. "Fell down into a hole" would likely solve the problem, but isn't mentioned in the comic.

In the caption, Randall comments that linguists' desire to extract exact meaning from phrases is, in fact, done with the best of intentions. He also claims that this is worse than if they were pedants browbeating their audience, possibly because a pedant could prioritize the elements a situation better than Ponytail is doing here.

This is somwhow similar to the viewpoint dedicated to scientists in comic 877, 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 goes further on this quest of understanding by trying to see whether the different usages is tied to the current situation or not.

Transcript

Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.
[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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