Today, I saw that Help Center/on-topic has this text:

  • Proofreading ("Is this right?", "Are there any mistakes?"), unless a specific source of concern is clearly specified. See below for hints on checking existing texts.
  • Writing advice (see Writers.SE instead) or critique requests.

I've been wanting "no ghost-writing" to complement "no proof-reading" for a long time now indeed. Glad to see it was added, and more along with it.

This sparked me to ask this question about adding additional categories to that page:

  • transcription requests, broadly ("what did he say at 1:12:36 of this movie?"). This is different to "what kind of accent does this have" or other phonemic or phonetic questions (which are on-topic so long as they're about English phonemics and phonetics).

  • interpretation of lyrics, poetry, or otherwise investigation of semantics (not structure) in deliberately ambiguous or creative contexts. These questions can be on on-topic if the work in question has attracted a body of scholarly attention, such that people reading answers can have at least some confidence in their relative authority (which helpfully excludes the most common problematic category: the interpretation of modern pop music lyrics).¹

  • word or phrase comparisons, unless the relevant definitions are quoted and referenced by the questioner, who then expresses more nuanced doubts with specific reference to the cited definitions (no bald "which is bigger, a realm or a dominion?"-style questions). We might have some tag burnination to do here.

What do you think? To be most effective, here's how I propose responses to this meta-question be structured:

  • upvotes mean "I agree with the spirit of this question but am not commenting on the details", and downvotes mean "I disagree with the spirit of this question but am not commenting on the details"
  • each answer should focus on one off-topic area and either:
    • argue against the inclusion of one of the above categories; upvotes on such answers are interpreted as "keep these types of questions on-topic", and downvotes mean "no, these types of questions are off-topic and should be explicitly noted in the Help Center".
    • support the inclusion of one of the above categories, and potentially suggest improvements to the language which will ultimately be presented to new users in the Help Center. Votes on these answers should be interpreted in the opposite sense to the previous bullet.
    • propose a (single) new category of off-topic questions and language used to describe it in the help center. Votes are to be interpreted in the same way as the previous bullet.
    • be a meta-answer and respond to the question broadly (e.g. "I think the Help Center page is long enough already, and already prohibits your categories anyway"; "Clearly you hate kittens and probably steal candy from babies"). Votes on these answers have their usual interpretation on Meta.

Any feedback welcome. Feel free to be brutal.

¹ I believe these topics are already excluded by the current language, but I want to have something explicit about lyrics and poetry to point askers to. Suggestions for other concrete subjects, which like poetry & lyrics; are open to interpretation and go to authorial intent, and are therefore distinct from answerable questions are welcome.

  • 1
    It appears that only moderators get to see the history of the Help pages. In fact, proofreading and writing advice have been on the banned list since the first version in 2013, although the exact wording for each has changed slightly.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 20:17
  • 1
    Does it seem counterintuitive to anyone else that a list of topics that are specifically off-topic is on the page labeled "What topics can I ask about here?" and not on the page labeled "What types of questions should I avoid asking?"
    – 1006a
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 21:55
  • 3
    @1006a That constantly bugs me. Even more when I start writing a comment trying to explain to a new user why his question is off-topic, and then am forced to type [help/on-topic] to point him to the right place. But I learned it's a network-wide thing. Legacy structure.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 21:59
  • @1006a it's unfortunate; cannot edit help pages other than /on-topic iirc
    – NVZ Mod
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 15:30
  • 1
    Dan I would say that ELL tolerates some transcription requests and would not welcome migrations of questions that are simply "what does this person say at 1:13 in this video?". They are much like proofreading requests - as long as they're specific and have some detail they might be well-received, but there are quite a few closures of questions of questions similar to this one: ell.stackexchange.com/q/106004. In general, I would say direct them to ELL if they seem like they're learners but don't migrate the question. No SE site is a transcription service.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 16:10
  • @ColleenV Fair enough. I'll remove that part.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 18:00
  • Can we do this adblocker thing tomorrow? I'll post the "Killer" list link here reek.github.io/anti-adblock-killer/#filterlist and you can hold my hand as you take me down... Browser, Chrome, MacBook Pro (15-inch, Late 2011)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 22:39
  • @Mari-LouA Sure. Post your MacOS version and Chrome version. Ping me when ready. I’m on NYC time.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 22:40

7 Answers 7


Off-topic: Transcription Requests.

We have had discussions about this before, particularly at Exactly WHY is this question Off Topic? Or not?, and as a couple of answers there state, a transcription request is too localized, unlikely to help any future visitors, unsuitable for a broader, more helpful response than "the dialogue was 'X'", and effectively unsearchable even if it were potentially helpful.

  • It looks like you wrote this with videos in mind, but this also applies to "what did they write" questions.
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 3:06

Off-topic: Questions about Interpersonal Skills.

Randomly selected examples:
How do we refer to body odour delicately?
Polite alternative for "none of your business"

Some questions like these were trying hard to fit into the ELU scope, since at the time there may not have been a better place to ask these.

We have a new community called "Interpersonal Skills" for such questions now.

The scope is being discussed at the moment. We'll update it here when it's ready, and add a proper help text.

  • The study of a language covers not only its syntax and semantics but also pragmatics, and it is often debatable whether a particular question is a matter of etiquette (interpersonal skills), and thus off topic here, or a matter of pragmatics, which should be on topic.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 4:56

Regarding interpretation of song lyrics or poetry

This is merely a suggestion related to the wording of the "song lyrics / poetry" topic. Please downvote brutally if you disagree.

According to the Literature.SE help page, they welcome interpretation as defined here:

Topics that will most likely be considered on-topic include:

  1. Questions about how to interpret a specific scene, quote, theme, plot point, etc. in a work of literature.

So my recommendation is to borrow their language and add to our off-topic list:

  • Song lyrics or other textual interpretation. For questions about how to interpret a specific scene, quote, theme, or plot point in a work of literature, visit Literature.SE

Wait, is this always off-topic here?

It's been suggested in comments that we might need more clarity on when and whether these sorts of questions actually are off-topic to an extent that would warrant a help center note. I won't try to answer that here, though I agree with Dan Bron's summary in the second category suggested:

interpretation of lyrics, poetry, or otherwise investigation of semantics (not structure) in deliberately ambiguous or creative contexts. These questions can be on on-topic if the work in question has attracted a body of scholarly attention, such that people reading answers can have at least some confidence in their relative authority

This answer simply addresses how I would suggest wording the proposed bullet on the help page. It seems to me that "Song lyrics or other textual interpretation" indicates that these questions are off-topic when the question is focused on interpretation in particular. Whether or not this is a solid enough rule to be etched into the help center seems like a valid question. I will simply link to some of the relevant Meta posts on this topic:

  • 1
    I think more clarity is needed here. Many questions about song lyrics/poetry could be on-topic here, for example, is a particular wording grammatical or not, or do two words in the poem really rhyme (even though the answer may be 'no one knows, because poets sometimes make up stuff').
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 17:23
  • @Mitch perhaps "Interpretation of song lyrics or other textual interpretation...?" My original thought was simply that putting the words "song lyrics" first would draw attention to what is a frequent kind of off-topic interpretation question Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 17:38
  • 3
    I guess I am pointing out that a lot of keywords like 'poem' or 'single word' should not be considered as automatic off-topic reasons, despite 90% being off-topic. Many commonly off-topic subjects aren't so because of the ostensible topic but because of other good reasons (POB, too-broad, use an effing thesearus, etc). Maybe more clarity is needed for deciding when 'What does this passage mean?' is on or off topic.
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 17:58
  • I agree, this is the trickiest of the topics mentioned in the question. For example, questions about a particular idiom aren't off-topic just because they were first encountered in a lyric. I don't even think they should be off-topic if the writer was using the idiom in a non-standard way; even if the exact meaning or intention of the writer veers into lit-crit, I think the plain meaning of the language and the fact that the author/poet/lyricist doesn't appear to be using it that way ought to be within the scope of EL&U.
    – 1006a
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 20:42
  • The problem with this proposal is that these questions are not always outside of our scope according to the most highly voted upon question and answer regarding this on our whole meta website, which are both in the third bullet point of your listed links. Moreover, even when they are off-topic, we still probably do not need it, since we already have a provision against "criticism, discussion or analysis of English literature" and we can use the P.O.B. closure reason against specific unanswerable questions, with or without a help-center provision, even when they would otherwise be on-topic.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 22:09
  • When the interpretation of a work of art illuminates some feature of English language that goes beyond that particular work, it should be welcome on this site; when it doesn't, it shouldn't. To distinguish the two, one doesn't really need anything more than the old notion of too localized.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 16:07

Off-topic: Ghostwriting

Ghostwriting should be explicitly noted as off-topic in the same bullet as proofreading (as its obverse).

A good indicator that an OP wants ghostwriting is the phrase "What's the best way to express....". A particularly egregious concrete example is:

How would you speak and elaborate that "not all the synonyms can be replaced in some sentences".

What would be your competitive sentences examples?

Almost all "help me write this email to my boss" questions fall into this category (or into the off-topic interpersonal skills category). Those are even more sensitive to context we have no access to, including the person's boss, their relationship, the culture of his organization, and the regional dialect and register of his location.

These questions are primarily-opinion based as creative exercises where there's no right answer. The search space of "all possible phrasings" is too large, and it is the responsibility of the asker to constrain the problem to something small, practical, and objective (like and ).


Off-topic: Interpretation of deliberately or accidentally ambiguous language

A common example is asking whether a range given in a text (numeric range, date range) is inclusive or exclusive of the named boundaries. For example, this question of the admissible dates for a contest submission.

These questions are primarily-opinion based, by definition. They aren't questions of English, and for most questions of this type, which are aimed at solving some practical problem (e.g. dates when a contest is open), the best and often only solution is to ask the author of the text in question, or his agents.

  • While disambiguating an ambiguity is indeed, by definition, a matter of opinion, it is not a matter of opinion whether something is ambiguous, and what makes it ambiguous. If the question is seeking an explanation of some general features of English language that make locutions of a certain type ambiguous, it should be regarded as on topic (unless disqualified on some other ground); if the questioner is interested only in resolving a one-off practical problem, it is off topic. Again, the old category of too localized is all one needs to distinguish the two.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 16:21

Off-Topic: Matters that Involve Specialised Substantive Knowledge

People occasionally come to this site to seek explanations of various passages that they find difficult to understand, without pausing to consider whether their difficulties are due to some feature of English language or to the complexity of the subject matter. Difficulties of the latter kind often arise when somebody attempts to read a text that is written for people with advanced knowledge of a particular field of science or scholarship, without having such knowledge. Resolution of such difficulties requires that the person be provided with substantive education in the relevant field, and providing such education is outside the scope of tis site.

(It should be noted that the form of a question is not dispositive as to whether the question is really about the language or about some substantive subject matter; a question about anything can be worded as question about the language. Somebody asking ‘What does the word electricity mean in English?’ (without further explanation) is effectively asking what is electricity, and is much more likely to profit from consulting an introductory physics textbook than a dictionary.)


Off-topic: interpretation of legalese

We should absolutely not be offering users legal advice.

Such questions should be directed to their attorney or, if of more general interest, to Law.

These questions should be closed with alacrity, to avoid less-experienced users posting possibly damaging legal advice which the OP is no position to assess the authority of. This is regardless of whether the answerer sets out with "IANAL, but" or other meaningless disclaimers.

  • Indeed, nobody on this site should be offering legal advice or even anything that could be misunderstood as legal advice. This rules out interpretation of specific legal documents and recommendations for writing them. It, however, does not rule general questions and answers about the 'legalese' that one may encounter in newspaper reports, or books in the fields such as political science or history.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 5:06

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