Angels and Ministers of Taste Defend Us

The following xkcd has, lately, been everywhere:

Other installments of the strip have been criticized for ambiguity, but until today, I hadn’t seen anyone complain about the construction of this one. Thus it was with some bewilderment, not to say bemusement, that I read Mark Liberman’s note saying that someone on the Internet believed the correct phrasing should be the following:


Now, both choices of word order are perfectly grammatical, because “on the Internet” can be a locative adverbial phrase or a reduced relative clause. The question is one of timing, emphasis and not least euphony: people are wrong day in and day out, but it’s on the Internet that we can’t stop ourselves from criticizing them.

This past Saturday, I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) with two friends (he needed to write an essay about the play, and she’d wanted to see the movie since a few months back). Thus, I’m naturally primed to wonder if, according to the Internet, Marcellus should have lamented, “Something in the state of Denmark is rotten.”

4 thoughts on “Angels and Ministers of Taste Defend Us”

  1. The xkcd word order could be interpeted as “Someone made an incorrect claim about the Internet”, though I think the sense of “on” I’m appealing to is more British than American (think of headlines on the BBC website). The other word order is clearer.

    But screw clarity: xkcd’s version is funnier.

  2. Forced against my will to think about this, I come to the conclusion that because the person is objecting to the “wrongness” and not the fact that someone is on the Internet, the phrasing is clearer as stated. I suppose the same applies to the state of Denmark.

  3. The first, i.e. xkcd’s version, I read as that the ‘someone’ is wrong and is on the Internet while the second I read as it being wrong that someone is on the Internet. Then again it could be just me as Welsh, not English, is my first language and the word order of Welsh grammar is more often than not the reverse of what it is in English.

  4. I blame the internet for my failing grammar. I used to have fairly decent grammar, partly because I read all day long. But THEN I was reading editted materials, and lo, now that I read uneditted materials all day long, my grammar is sliding into the sinkhole of doom.

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