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Let's not get too pedantic on the exact difference. What I'll stick with is this:

  • If it is still in the air, falling, it's a meteor.
  • If it has hit the ground, it's a meteorite.

In this case, which of the following is correct?

  1. The meteor fell over there.
  2. The meteorite fell over there.

This sets up a scenario where the object is now a meteorite, but was previously a meteor. The action we give to it, i.e., falling, corresponds to its state as a meteor, but it is a meteorite now; it is no longer a meteor.

If we're talking about an action of something that changes state, do we use the current state, or the state it was in at the time it was performing the action? Could it be that the verb form we pick affects this, i.e., that using "was falling" would cause "meteor" to be the correct choice, as falling in the present tense is something only a meteor can do, and that using "fell" would cause "meteorite" to be the correct choice, as only a meteorite can be done falling, mandating a past tense form?

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Pretty much the same issue as Can one “marry one's wife”?‌​. Basically, you say "The meteorite fell over there" because it is a meteorite now, just like you say "I married my wife in 1985" because she is your wife now. – alcas Jun 27 '12 at 4:28
@alcas, Thanks for the link. It is a rather difficult question to look for duplicates of, but you've found one. It does become easier to think of other cases of the same thing after seeing that. – chris Jun 27 '12 at 4:31
up vote 1 down vote accepted

"The meteorite fell over there" is correct because you're talking about a thing present-tense thing.

Another example:

  • The man grew up in the countryside.

He's a man now, even though he was a boy when growing up.

However, if you're talking about something in the past-tense, i.e. describing the night it fell, you would use meteor:

  • The sky was dark and the moon was bright as the meteor fell to earth.


  • He used to go fishing when he was a boy growing up in the country.
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Meteorite is correct.

Now if someone can explain the origin of the astronomically nonsensical phrase "meteoric rise"…

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How is it astronomically nonsensical? In open space, anything that is falling in one frame of reference is at the same time rising in another. At any rate, it has nothing to do with the question at hand. – RegDwigнt Jun 27 '12 at 8:48
Well played, sir – Matthew Butterick Jun 27 '12 at 15:17

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