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This week I answered this question, and rather than give a quick answer (technically, just "yes" would have responded to the original question), I explained my reasoning and gave several illustrative examples, so that anyone reading it could see how it applies more universally. I was sure it could count as a helpful answer, as is.

However, a more experienced member has commented that I should have included "supporting evidence", suggesting that otherwise, we open the arena up to mere opinion.

After a brief search, I could find an academic source to back up what I was saying, but was that necessary? I've researched this very question myself in the past (I was an ESL teacher for ten years, and am a native speaker, so I also just know when something sounds right), already knowing that the use of an article like that felt right, but at the time just couldn't explain why.

That past experience allowed me to give the illustrative examples so that it made sense. The explanation itself is what makes the answer credible, rather than the sources I may have used to find it, that I've long forgotten by now.

Even if I know my answer is right, far beyond it counting as opinion, and can explain the logic and give examples, do I truly have to back it up with an academic reference? Or can I at least just say that I'm an experienced ESL teacher and native speaker if credibility beyond the explanation really is necessary?

Providing academic references seems like overkill for something like this, unless I'm making a claim that other native speakers may find dubious. I think more flexibility would be needed compared to making scientific claims for instance, that you'd have to reference some kind of research. As a native speaker, surely if I am very confident that it sounds right, and I can explain why it works a particular way and my explanation makes sense, that's all that's needed?

If this supporting evidence necessity is the policy of ELU, it's unfortunate as it adds an extra step to what would otherwise be a perfectly functional answer. Also, this isn't exactly applied universally. Is it necessary to add supporting evidence for it to be a good answer on ELU, or should we only request it if we actually disagree or doubt the answer or feel like the examples don't hold enough water to stand on their own?


There is another question on the same general theme that's already been asked, but that takes it as a given that all non-high-rep users would give references, without truly justifying it. The question remains - if an answer addresses the question, and does so thoroughly without leaving potential for disagreement, then why would a reference be needed?

Even the answer to that question, which was insightful, alludes to someone like me who was frustrated with the idea of having to provide references, but doesn't really address the problem, only saying that a combination of multiple factors including documentation make an answer on the site "useful".

Forgive me for stating the obvious and pointing out a huge irony, but... that point really could have done with a reference or documentation to back up why references in this context are required in the first place. This isn't a humorous attempt at a recursive loop of references that prove that references are worthwhile, but a genuine frustration at feeling like I'm being told "because we said so".

Fortunately, the answer here addresses my point more directly.

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    The trick lies in sounding authoritative. Instead of saying "Here's a university grammar &c" say "You may find the treatment in Locke & Downing (1992), 424 ff, reasonably accessible; and CGEL speaks to this in considerable detail at 5.2 and 6.1". Two or three answers like that, and another three or four hundred of rep, and nobody will question your authority any more--except of course if you're actually wrong. – StoneyB Jun 13 '17 at 0:34
  • OK, if this is more of a question about my rep score, then that's a totally different issue and one that makes much more sense to me. So if lower-score contributors should back up what they are saying more, that's something I could get behind, since there is more potential for misleading answers if low-score contributors say things without references. It's more the concept that it's a general rule of the site that didn't make sense to me. Thanks @StoneyB! – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 1:04
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    I think @StoneyB made that remark about "another three or four hundred of rep and nobody will question your authority" with tongue in cheek. – ab2 Jun 13 '17 at 1:14
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    It's probably also a matter of the topic. Over the decades not just harried ESL teachers but actual linguistic scholars, too, have put forward so many partial, specious and conflicting "explanations" of how English articles work that anything you write on the subject is likely to sound dubious! Angels fear to tread there. – StoneyB Jun 13 '17 at 1:14
  • @ab2 What! You insinuate that I am deficient in gravity? I am wounded to the quick. – StoneyB Jun 13 '17 at 1:16
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    That was tongue in cheek? Just when I was starting to get on board with the concept... Anyway, I understand that there are some answers that will be up for debate and disagreement, and backing up what you claim is absolutely necessary in those cases. I just disagree that a good explanation for something simple like "a happiness..." with illustrative examples isn't more than enough to satisfactorily answer a question. That is English usage & something a learner or a native in doubt would be satisfied with. Academic back-up is better suited to linguistics questions, not language use questions. – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 1:31
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    The site policy recommends the inclusion of referenced material from reliable sources. I don't know what an "authoritative sounding" answer means, but I'd certainly be skeptical about it and would check its validity doing post-answer research for further support. I'd avoid passing the message that unresearched staff is wellcome on ELU. We rightly expect questions to provide preliminary research, the same is valid for answers. – user66974 Jun 13 '17 at 6:09
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    @Josh well I would make an exception for maybe three or four members whose credentials are so well known and respected by the community their citing references is unnecessary. Funnily enough, one of those top three nearly always provides links on their past papers, courses, and research papers by eminent linguistic authors. And one, sadly, no longer participates, he hardly ever provided sources, except for on occasion the OED. His answers were original, authoritative, and also very clear. I wish he'd come back. – Mari-Lou A Jun 13 '17 at 6:24
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    @Mari-LouA - I agree, but as you clearly state, those are just exceptions to the rule. – user66974 Jun 13 '17 at 6:39
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    I've got my popcorn, and I'm impatiently waiting for the community consensus on this. – NVZ Jun 13 '17 at 12:13
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    If the community leans towards references being necessary for these situations, then as the newcomer I can adapt to that. I still feel like it adds unnecessary steps to answering already complete questions, but I'll answer questions, and add evidence I can find if I can find it quickly. I do have to say that it's off-putting, as someone with lots of answers to give but not coming from an academic background. Intuitively, this SE by the title and questions feels like it should be one thing, but those who are active here seem to have brought it in another direction, much closer to linguistics. – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 12:22
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  • @NVZ That question already accepts it as a given that all non-high-rep users must almost always provide a reference and focuses on when high-rep should and shouldn't do it. Until it was made clear that the site had a genuine issue with incorrect answers for a long period, as a newcomer this decision to require a reference is not one to naturally expect. I really think something like English Student's answer below needs to be linked to, when the need for a reference isn't apparent, such as if an answer is not actually in doubt. – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 16:29
  • Having said that, the latter part of the answer does allude to the issue I had, although it doesn't really conclude it in a satisfactory way. I find the answer here addresses my issue as a newcomer in a much more direct way. – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 16:34
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Supplying references to questions or answers has nothing to do with site reputation, linguistics or academic experience, but is simply good practice. Senior members routinely cite standard and special sources in their detailed answers. Supportive evidence improves the validity and objectivity of the answer by supplying references to standard textbooks or quoting instances of recorded usage. It removes any possible doubt in the reader's mind that this answer might be primarily based on the author's personal opinions / beliefs regarding the English language, and thus adds greater credibility which in turn helps make the answer 'more authoritative.'

The need for supporting citations has originated from the large number of incorrect or illogical answers that used to be submitted without any references, which the hard-working senior members and moderators then needed to downvote out of sight of impressionable learners who might well have been misled by such opinions purporting to be expert fact.

The practice of discouraging answers that do not cite proper sources is intended to reduce the tendency of members to post such answers, which ensures that more answers posted here are well-researched and automatically more accurate. That is why senior members make it a point to inform newcomers like us that answers are expected to contain adequate citations.

In fact I started out here 2 months ago in the same manner that you have done, and just like you was baffled why we needed to supply references to a 'perfectly obvious' answer, but I am now persuaded that what is obvious to us is often not obvious to someone else, and my experience here has convinced me that references are indeed important to establish the validity of our answer, not only when it is read by the EL&U community but also for the benefit of future readers.

However, I found it is usually quite easy to find suitable references online to support your points, and therefore you can quickly learn to incorporate extracts and citations into your answers as a matter of course, with very little additional effort, thus bringing the benefit of your wide general and specific experience with English to help new learners and non-native speakers better understand the nuances of this admittedly complex but wonderful language!


I later found (by sheer coincidence) a closely related question has been asked before on meta, and I invite your attention to the single, excellent answer provided by a senior member, which perfectly answers your own question about the need for citations while writing an answer at English Language & Usage website:

What level of obviousness does not require a reference in an Answer from a high-rep user?

  • OK, this answer seems more convincing, thank you! It feels quite unnatural to me to answer questions this way, but I will do it whenever in this SE, as I do want to comply with the standards the community has generally ended up sharing. – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 15:40
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    You are most welcome, and I appreciate your sincere question. That is exactly what I thought when I joined 2 months ago, but I understand the need for citations now. Please see the postscript to my above answer which links to a closely related Q previously asked on meta, whose excellent answer perfectly answers your own question. And I repeat, ESL learners in particular would benefit from your experience and expertise here at EL& U! – English Student Jun 13 '17 at 15:54
  • On your edit - it was suggested that my answer could be a potential duplicate of that one, and I disagree and added my own edit to explain why. It's a great answer to the question posed, but doesn't really address my issue in the same way that you did. Also, I disagree strongly with the implication that you have to be an academic to be an expert. I am not the former but I am the latter. I have published books on language acquisition and am an experienced English teacher, but I do not have "an academic background in linguistics and an intimate acquaintance with advanced grammatical analysis". – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 16:55
  • I do think that it addresses the need for citations to keep potential incorrect answers numbers down, but doesn't really address why that would be necessary if an answer isn't necessarily incorrect. Following academic practices like documenting academic sources whenever a claim is made, is something you are more likely to do if you have an academic background and the reply kind of linked that to being an expert. It can come across as elitist if it's not clarified how other kinds of expertise may balance that out, so I stand by saying that your answer addresses my question without such issues. – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 17:03
  • @BennyLewis I was able to address your specific concerns because I was in the same position to begin with. But you say "I disagree strongly with the implication that you have to be an academic to be an expert," -- I don't know who implied that in the first place! I am no academician myself and most of the high reputation members here are not English professors either, though they might be senior experts in a variety of different fields. Of course a very few of them would indeed have "an academic background in linguistics and an intimate acquaintance with advanced grammatical analysis". – English Student Jun 13 '17 at 17:06
  • (cont'd. )Of course a very few of our members would indeed have "an academic background in linguistics and an intimate acquaintance with advanced grammatical analysis", but it is not mandatory and the senior member who answered that earlier question seems to be making the point that even a non-expert who is willing to check and cite standard resources can greatly help the community by providing well-constructed answers: thus non-academic newcomers like you and I could contribute just as significantly to helping English learners and non-native speakers who post their questions here! – English Student Jun 13 '17 at 17:22
  • Huge apologies if I'm not being clear! I was referring to this part of the answer: "If you don't possess an academic background in linguistics and an intimate acquaintance with advanced grammatical analysis, you have to look things up to ensure that you aren't misapplying a rule or repeating a baseless factoid that you picked up at random somewhere" and implications for experts who are not academics, even if it makes sense for a layperson. As well as disagreeing with that part, that answer is more helpful to experienced users of the site, but not so much for addressing my issue, which you did. – Benny Lewis Jun 13 '17 at 17:28
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    @BennyLewis I understand exactly what you mean. I was originally mystified: why would I need to provide a reference/citation when my answer was full of examples and self-explanatory? My own academic fields are Medicine and Sociology but I consider myself an expert user of English: I realised that doesn't make me a grammarian; nor do I wish to be one! However some questions here have had answers with diametrically opposite 'interpretations' that literally blew OP's mind. A learner is more likely to be satisfied when the answer is linked to some standard resource that proves your point. – English Student Jun 13 '17 at 17:41
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    Alas, many "senior members" routinely cite boatloads of irrelevant references, in order to create an impressively long answer that no one will bother to actually read. – Hot Licks Jun 15 '17 at 2:53
  • @Hot Licks it is indeed debatable whether all those references are really relevant to the answer, but I was making the point that 'senior' members with high reputation are in no way exempt from providing references, as OP might imagine; and, moreover, by routinely providing references (even if not always strictly relevant to the problem, as you rightly point out) such senior members reinforce the community's policy on supporting answers with citations, thus setting a good example for newer members. – English Student Jun 15 '17 at 9:17
  • This thorough answer shows that, except for one link within this site, a popular and 'accepted' answer does not absolutely need citations. It's the precision, thoroughness, and clarity that counts most in making an answer solid. – Yosef Baskin Jun 15 '17 at 12:03
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    @Yosef Baskin Thank you. I am new to the whole concept of Stack Exchange but learned a lot by reading other answers here and writing a lot of answers based on the community guidelines, and have also greatly benefited by listening to the constructive comments of kind members. – English Student Jun 15 '17 at 13:45
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    @Robin Hamilton (1)standard resources are routinely cited in answers because they're well accepted by this community (2) As far as I have understood in the 2 months since I joined this site, questions are expected to contain reference to the research already done; answers must (wherever possible) cite standard resources or published materials to support the points made; and comments do not need citations or references, but such links are frequently included to illustrate certain points or draw the readers' attention to something not already referenced in questions or answers. – English Student Jun 16 '17 at 14:38
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    @Robin Hamilton I should think references could be included wherever we are not positively sure the ordinary reader would be familiar with what we are talking about. Please note too, that it is easy to insert links in comments as well. You just need to copy and paste the link at the relevant point and continue writing the comment. example: Merriam-Webster vocabulary quiz When it is posted, the clickable link will bear a different color and easily takes the reader to the page you want them to look at. – English Student Jun 16 '17 at 14:49
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    "The need for supporting citations has originated from the large number of incorrect or illogical answers that used to be submitted without any references,". Sorry, but please give some evidence of either of the two implied assertions here. I think this is misinformation that you made up (well-meaningly). – Araucaria Jun 20 '17 at 21:22

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