ELU attracts a number of kinds of questions that, while superficially ELU material, just don't fit for one reason or another.

I propose a set of recommendations that we can give to question askers as to where to go to get their questions answered better, all in the hopes of helping people kindly rather than just turning them away and leaving them bitter. For example:

  • elementary grammar - Is it "its" or "it's"? There are plenty of online grammar sites easily found on Google that can answer most of these questions with minimal effort in searching
  • 'Do people really say this?' - really, just Google for it with quotes and see if there are examples. Or, if you're an English learner and want to inquire about a natural way to say something conversationally, you can ask at our sibling site for English learners: ell.stackexchange.com
  • multi-lingual questions - comparisons of English with other languages - ask on linguistics.stackexchange.com
  • discussions/open-ended questions/controversies/opinion based situations - chat?
  • proofreading/grammar check - "I have a passage I'm writing. Can you tell me what's wrong?"
  • writing advice - "What's a good word for this?" "How can I make my passage better?"
  • Single Word Requests - thesaurus, then come back to ELU for a more pointed question about nuance (many SWRs could be on-topic, but need a lot of work). Proofreading, writing advice, and SWRs have overlap, so one could be solved by the other.
  • labels for code, class or variable names -
  • EFL test questions
  • translations - translate.google.com, readlang, babel, lots of on-line dictionaries: dict.leo.de, reverso.fr, lexilog
  • questions about explaining poetry or lyrics or jokes - Plain explaining any of these is off-topic (What did they mean by 'pompatus of love'?"). There are multiple sites that handle it just fine. Parts of these questions can be converted to on-topic ones 'What exactly is the pun?', 'Is this syntax used in regular day-to-day speech?'.
  • general language learning - hints on how to learn vocab, improve ones accent: go to LL or watch movies/youtube
  • general linguistics - language things that are not specific to English - linguistics.stackexchange.com
  • technical language - vocabulary that is peculiar to a given technical situation - often people in those areas (like math or biology) will have a much better idea of the nuances. I'm not saying I consider these off-topic for ELU, just more likely an authoritative answer somewhere else
  • request for resources - these are off-topic for main but should be welcome on ELU.meta (like this very question).

Note that this is an incomplete list and, of those here, have poor explanations. I expect answers to this meta question will elaborate and give suggestions on what to do, links or references or rewrites.

There should also be something that says that some ostensibly off-topic questions (that are considered on-topic just by the culture here (maybe editing and adding to the following is enough):

  • provenance of proverbs or idioms - eg "Who said 'Even the devil can quote scripture' first?"
  • Closest corresponding proverb to a foreign proverb - eg "In my native language, there is a saying that goes "rem acu tetigisti" which means something like 'the needle was touched'. Is there something like this in English?"
  • history of English speaking peoples - as this informs how dialects come about
  • comparison of synonyms - ostensibly could be figured out by looking at a/multiple dictionary(ies). But dictionaries aren't that comprehensive.

Related meta-questions:

  • 1
    Wow. Good list. So much thought and effort put into this. – NVZ Oct 13 '17 at 14:45
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    @NVZ I find myself wanting to answer off-topic questions in comments. – Mitch Oct 13 '17 at 14:53
  • I started off with a couple. – Mitch Oct 13 '17 at 14:54
  • Translating proverbs idiomatically needs information about where it's used and how it's relevant: without that it's impossible to transfer into situations in English. Rem acu tetigisti may mean "grasp the nettle" or "take the bull by the horns" but there's no way of knowing without some context. – Andrew Leach Oct 13 '17 at 15:14
  • @AndrewLeach The proverb questions are both common and accepted on ELU because people seem to like them a lot. There's a lot of room here for items that are not obviously on- or off-topic but somewhere vaguely in the middle and could be resurrected or redirected. I hope that nuance will show in some of the commentary to answers to this question. – Mitch Oct 13 '17 at 15:18
  • @AndrewLeach The usual 'translation' of 'rem acu tetigisti' is 'You hit the nail on the head' or more prosaically 'Exactly'. – Mitch Oct 13 '17 at 15:19
  • Yes, I wasn't saying they shouldn't be here; arguably they are very on-topic. But there needs to be more information provided than is hinted in the bullet point in the question here (which your second comment illustrates by showing just how bad my guess was!) – Andrew Leach Oct 13 '17 at 15:20
  • Asking us to decipher bad handwriting I think is off topic, wrt The doctors handwriting question. Next what are we gonna have, grandma’s faded recipes? – Let's stop villifying Iran Oct 13 '17 at 15:33
  • @AndrewLeach I intend the main focus of this question to be how to redirect people of questions that are obviously off-topic content-wise but somehow reasonable for a new-user to think of asking here. I think it would be nice to explain any nuance for closable questions that would make them on-topic and not-closable, but that is not the primary objective here. – Mitch Oct 13 '17 at 15:41
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    @Clare I fortunately didn't see that. Unfortunately, I can't think of a general category that that would fit in, a place to redirect that to. Sounds more of a one-off. Frankly one of the most popular questions here, about the 'y/axe on a ball' is as off-topic as figuring out somebody else's mistaken illegible shorthand, but if something is just plain fun, it should be on-topic simply because it is fun and people like it (and if for some weird reason that happened to the docs handwriting question then so be it. – Mitch Oct 13 '17 at 15:45
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    @Clare haha, just saw it. That's seems very questionable medico-legally, to decipher MDs HW. That probably should be very off-topic. But people seemed to like it. Also, where could that guy be sent? (not that if there's nowhere it makes it on topic on ELU) – Mitch Oct 13 '17 at 16:03
  • In addition to all those good suggestions we might consider making official this already-practised typical exception to 'don't write answers in comments': if a question is obviously off-topic then an answer can be written in a comment before or after closing the question. (I mean: yes, answer in a comment but don't leave the Q open!) – English Student Oct 13 '17 at 20:49
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    Along with deciphering handwriting, we've in the past been asked to listen to audio samples to determine what a person is saying. It's rare but it happens. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 17 '17 at 14:24
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    I like this list a lot – I just wish you'd either tweak your ELL example or else direct the reader to Google rather than ELL. ELL was not created to answer "elementary grammar" questions which can be easily queried, such as its vs. it's. Rather, ELL was designed to answer questions which are intuitive for native speakers, but would pose a challenge for the learner, such as "Do I say 'switch the light off', or 'turn the light off'?" A dictionary would tell you that either is okay, but a native speaker could tell you which is more commonly used. – J.R. Oct 18 '17 at 15:06
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    @sumelic I liked the original title more before the edit, actually. (wink :) ) It expressed the typical stupefaction and disbelief of a user whose question has been put on hold. – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '17 at 18:45

Discussions, open-ended questions, controversies, opinion based situations

ELU (and more generally the SE system) is considered to be a Q&A system, where people ask more or less deterministic questions, and people with more experience try to give authoritative answers.

But sometimes questions don't know enough to ask towards a simple answer. The question may be asking for an opinion rather than a fact. Or there may be a lot of nuance that requires back-and-forth between more than one person to extract the nuance.

The best place to get answers like these is

ELU chat

You can ask in the main site or convert to a room specifically for the subject (in order to talk only about your topic). The main site is usually best because people will usually be just there and willing to help and respond to nuance questions.

There are a few caveats about SE chat (any of the chats on StackExchange...I don't know about other chat platforms). Though SE chat is ostensibly intended for a back and forth discussion for which a comment chain under a question is unwieldy, it tends to be more of a general conversation. Some chatrooms are entirely on-topic, but ELU tends not to stay focussed. People sometimes pop in to ask quickly 'Is this sentence right?' and get answered fairly quickly with a little back and forth, but a longer philosophical discussion usually just doesn't happen. It's more likely to slip into the politics of whether the British Empire is to blame with supporting material from SpongeBob youtube videos followed by multilingual puns about how to greet Romanian sharks. And the weather. Not puns about the weather, just discussing the weather.

A lot of discussability depends on the people. ELL chat may have people that will stay on topic, but it is a bit sparse (people don't hang around there very long to have a discussion. ELU is sometimes sparse, but also sometimes crowded and chaotic, so may be hard to have a satisfying resolution in the conversation because the thread may be difficult to follow.

Outside of ELU I'm not sure where the community would be. If you are a language learner, most of the language learning apps like HelloTalk or iTalk have one-on-one chatting situations which might suffice, but then you are limited to a single point of view.

Comparison of English with other languages

or

Questions that are not specific to English

or

Questions about language in general

These are questionably off-topic. Sometimes it's just fine to ask them here on ELU. But if English is not the center of the question, then it might get a better answer over on

Linguistics

Hints on how to learn English better

As that can be time intensive (or impossible), on-line may be more feasible. Generic questions asking for generic advice on how to learn English ("I want to improve my vocabulary/accent/fluency") only really have answers that are generic (work for any language at all). The answers are things like take a class, listen to youtube videos, repeat over and over, etc. There is an SE site dedicated entirely to such questions:

Language Learning

There are some generic responses that might help: There are a handful of glib responsesFor example:

The way people usually learn their first language is by immersion: - Be Born with or Adopted by at least one English Speaking Parent - Move to an English-only speaking place - Immerse yourself into situations where using only English is possible

But if you want more feasible options, here are some suggestions:

  • Best progress is made by doing over and over often the thing you want to learn. - For understanding, read read read, whatever it is you like. news, comics, cereal box ingredients. If you like it, you'll be more likely to continue doing so.
  • For vocabulary, read those things with the vocab you want (online news is hugely available).
  • For listening comprehension, listen to youtube (things you enjoy), with and without captions.
  • For speaking/writing fluency, try conversation services:

But for more specific language learning questions on the SE system, ask at Language Learning.

  • 1
    you can add “www.hinative.com” to those conversation services too. Nothing is off-topic there. “Hinative” IOS & android apps are available too. – Soudabeh Oct 25 '17 at 19:20

Proofreading or grammar check

  • Reverso

  • Grammarcheck

  • Grammarly

  • MSWord has a built-in grammar and spell check (of questionable utility). It might be a good first pass in checking number agreement or dangling participles (but not choice of words). Don't rely on it as correct but just as a way to get rid of obvious stuff you missed.

  • There are online services for readability.

    • Upgoer5 editor "Can you explain a hard idea using only the ten hundred most used words?"
    • Readable Flesch-Kincaid complexity scores
    • Hemingway Editor "Makes your writing bold and clear. It's like a spellchecker, but for style. It makes sure that your reader will focus on your message, not your prose."
  • The EL&U-Meta question "Where can I ask for free proofreading?" has suggestions for a number of proofreading options, including some of those listed above and peer-to-peer options.

Meaning of poetry, lyrics, or jokes

... or really any passage at all, fiction or not. Plain explaining any of these is off-topic (What did they mean by 'pompatus of love'?"). They are simply too open to interpretation. There is no 'right' answer. (of course there are all sorts of on-topic questions about such passages, just not 'What does this mean?'.

Parts of these questions can be converted to on-topic ones 'What exactly is the pun?', 'Is this syntax used in regular day-to-day speech?'.

Sometimes these are just strange uses of vocabulary or syntax, and that should be amenable to ELL.

But for 'What does Stevie Nicks mean when she sings 'Thunder only happens when it's raining' when that is just simply meteorologically not the case?' there are innumerable websites just for that.

Really, just

google 'meaning lyrics [the lyric in question]'.

Translation

While not strictly off-topic, these kinds of questions usually are because they are more readily answered by consulting easily accessible dictionaries or there is just not enough info given in English to explain the nuances of the non-English word or it is sometimes painful to answer 'there is just no such exactly corresponding word in English, because hey, they're different languages'. Also, there may not be any professional translators around on ELU to answer what is actually a translation question.

So before asking the question of ELU, try out these sites:

  • sites for professional translators answering translation questions (sign-up is required):

  • individual words

    • readlang - translates words you right-click on
    • Leo - centered on German but translates words to many languages. Start with English, go to German, then off to any of many. Has a really good discussion board for nuances of words and phrases, a lot of the discussion is in English
    • Lexilogos a comprehensive list of language services for many (all?) languages
  • passages
    • translate.google.com - it's right there in the name. It's fun to make fun of weird repeated letters in some foreign script creating post-modern English poetry, but google gets better and better (especially with common world languages like Spanish (Chinese isn't all there yet but it also is improving).
    • BabelFish
    • Reverso like dict.leo but centered on French. But frankly you'd hardly know it. Does everything.

Also you can use the usual translating techniques of following the translation chain of synonyms - English to French back to English and back to French. The common words are probably accurate, or the diverging path means you have a vague word.

  • 1
    Downvoter, any suggestions on how to improve? – Mitch Oct 16 '17 at 0:51
  • Most of those sites are very bad. If you want to send people somewhere, send them to sites where real, live translators hang out like Proz or Translatorscafe. Google translate is an abomination. And the two sites I mention are like this site for ELL and ELU. Only for translation. None of the sites you mention can handle the types of questions people ask on ELU. Think about it: Is ELU an automation site?? – Lambie Jul 12 at 15:21
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    @Lambie 1) please add those links. Those would be great suggestions. 2) GT transcends itself at every update, but that implies it has any transcendancies ahead, especially for languages with smaller translation corpora. 3) ELU/ELL are not at all translation services, but also, not particularly good for word or sentence translation. 4) not sure what you mean about automation site. But those suggestions are great I'm sure. Please add any links with a blurb about their purpose – Mitch Jul 12 at 15:27
  • By automation, I mean GT is automation. As are the other sites. Someone just hits a button and some utterance with some translation is just entered into the databases. There is no oversight by a human. – Lambie Jul 12 at 16:00
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    Currently 3 downvotes. Is that because the sites are bad? Any better suggestions? – Mitch Jul 12 at 18:23
  • The English language is to this site (forum) as other languages are to those sites. That is, people ask terminology questions or phrase questions and they get answers from real people (mostly pro translators). Whoever is downvoting these suggestions are simply clueless. They are the most well-known sites for terminology. Though not for translating entire texts. I do take this very personally. There is also wordreference.com. I cannot imagine why they are downvoting. They just don't know anything about translation! (I must say I find it particularly annoying.) :) – Lambie Jul 12 at 18:28
  • I also have to say I am not surprised as I can think of a few participants who seem to dislike anything I post. The forum.wordreference .com one should be added. But I am now disheartened. Those downvoters should despair. I guess they all prefer machine translation. Ha ha. Frankly, there are no other sites that deal well with translation though there are machine-translation sites like systran and some others with databases full of mistaken entries (for example, linguee). More shite, as far as I'm concerned. – Lambie Jul 12 at 18:36
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    @Lambie Note the first sentence to this answer: single word translation is not off-topic, but that the best answer is probably on one of these sites. If those sites don't satisfy your curiosity (after due diligence), then sure ELU is a good place for it. – Mitch Jul 12 at 18:36
  • Kindly note that no one else has commented re this except me. That should tell you something. They are either doing it out of spite or because they simply do not know. I think the latter is the most probable but I'm going boogey boarding now before the waves drop and my mood sours even more. :) Thank you for your diligence. – Lambie Jul 12 at 18:39

Question: I'm learning English and don't understand something

Solution: The best way to learn is by talking with native speakers

There is no substitute for long face to face conversations with fluent native speakers of English. For many people, the easiest/only way to do that will be to take formal language classes with a qualified native speaker. Yes, learning English well will take a lot of time, effort, and often money. But to be fair, it takes all those three for every other language as well, unless you're lucky enough to learn them as a child.

  • "unless you're lucky enough to learn them as a child." __ too true @curiousdannii: non-native me was simply lucky to learn English as the primary language at school from age 3, so I always try to remember that famous opening sentence from "The Great Gatsby"! ["Whenever you feel like criticising any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had."] – English Student Oct 14 '17 at 4:11
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    @EnglishStudent If you do learn from age 3, that's normally considered young enough to be native. However you may be a native speaker of Indian English which has many differences from other dialects. – curiousdannii Oct 14 '17 at 4:17
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    Not quite a native speaker -- although Indian English is our bread and butter, we were taught regular English at school -- the significant difference is that our spoken English education was vastly underdeveloped 35 years ago (and still underdeveloped in many parts of India) so my written English is far superior @curiousdannii. – English Student Oct 14 '17 at 4:20
  • It seems to me (native speaker) that ELU has a unique set of resources for advising on learning English--non-native speakers from many backgrounds, linguists (American and British) who have taught, other experts. A possibility is to allow questions about how to learn (or allow them for a while) and create a community wiki of answers from the experiences and advice of, e.g., those who have commented on this answer. – Xanne Oct 17 '17 at 6:55
  • See also, for an approach different from this answer, google.com/search?q=Antimoon&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8. – Xanne Oct 17 '17 at 6:56
  • @Xanne Learning English really isn't the purpose of this site, that's much more ELL and Language Learning. – curiousdannii Oct 17 '17 at 7:04
  • @Xanne re: 'allow questions about how to learn ... and create a community wiki of answers'. Yes, those kinds of questions are common enough here. The SE site Language Learning was created to address exactly that. – Mitch Oct 17 '17 at 13:18
  • @Mitch You missed the point of my answer if you thought it was appropriate to edit it into recommending online learning because the alternatives are too time intensive... as I wrote, there is no substitute. Online cannot replace face to face time with native speakers. – curiousdannii Oct 17 '17 at 13:45
  • @curiousdannii I don't think you understood the point of my OP question then. The answers here are formatted 'Common off-topic question: Suggestion on how to get that question answered elsewhere than ELU'. I edited to give that format. Since that edit wasn't to your liking, can you edit to show what the Common off-topic question is that would result in 'Take a class' as an answer? Is the topic in the list I gave? (that's not necessary of course). – Mitch Oct 17 '17 at 13:57
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    @curiousdannii The answers here are intended to give people concrete next actions to take if their question is closed as off-topic. In some sense, 'Take an English class' would then be the front page of ELU (and then nothing else). – Mitch Oct 17 '17 at 13:58
  • @Mitch No, because ELU is explicitly not focused at English learners. If someone wants to learn English, I'd rather encourage them to take classes than go to ELL. But neither option is about what ELU itself is for, so why would we say "Take an English class" on the front page? – curiousdannii Oct 17 '17 at 14:00
  • @Mitch Does this edit match the format you were after more? – curiousdannii Oct 17 '17 at 14:02
  • @curiousdannii Sure, that format is closer but the content, 'I don't understand something', is too generic. If you're asking a question here, it's pretty sure that you don't understand something. Also, it's too broad. All sorts of people come here as non-native speakers learning English - that in itself is not at all an off-topic situation. The answers here are intended to address very particular off-topic situations with some suggestion that will help them immediately (mostly a link to another Q/A site). Look at the other answers here to see what is intended, immediate practical suggestions. – Mitch Oct 17 '17 at 14:14
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    @curiousdannii Maybe I'm reading too much into it. But as it is written, I think this is a very condescending answer, and the yuuuge text appears to be yelling at me (or others). – NVZ Oct 20 '17 at 6:40
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    @NVZ Ah, well that's just the standard markdown heading. I guess I can make that smaller. As to condescending, I'd prefer to say realist. There are no short cuts to learning languages, and most people need native speaker contact, not websites. – curiousdannii Oct 20 '17 at 6:47

Elementary Grammar

ELU is for interesting grammar questions. If it is an elementary grammar question, one that you would learn by rote in a language learning class, then the best place here on SE is

ELL

  • 1
    This is assuming the "elementary grammar question" is not readily solved with a simple Google query. I've left a more detailed comment under the main question. A good ELL question is not a good ELL question because it's elementary; it's a good ELL question because it's difficult to figure out from readily-available resources or hard to explain. This one, I think, provides a decent example. – J.R. Oct 18 '17 at 15:12
  • @J.R. 'Elementary Grammar' may be simplistic but I couldn't think of a better short title that would lead to ELL. Sure, lots of questions can be answered by LMGTFY, and may well be a way to answer questions closed for the 'do some research first' reason. If you can reword things (not too drastically!) to capture the diff between ELU and ELL where the final result would be 'Try ELL', I would be happy. – Mitch Oct 18 '17 at 15:22
  • I already tried to capture the difference in an answer here. I also provided a bit more detail when answering a related ELL meta question. – J.R. Oct 18 '17 at 20:40
  • (cont.) Interestingly enough, one of my most highly-upvoted answers on ELU happened when explaining the difference between sitting on a chair vs. in a chair Were that question asked on ELU today, I'd likely suggest it get migrated to ELL – not because it's an elementary question (prepositions can be tricky), but because it's one that doesn't require any expertise to answer (aside from English fluency). – J.R. Oct 18 '17 at 20:42
  • @J.R. prepositions are horrible meddling words :) Users closed this question as a duplicate of Get in vs. get on, but it's not a duplicate. Instead, it was a perfect fit for ELL, and if you read the OP's post, he explains his confusion quite well – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '17 at 18:55
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    @Mari-Lou - I agree; I just wish more users asking questions that are "a perfect fit for ELL" would write those questions on ELL. – J.R. Oct 23 '17 at 20:48
  • @J.R. can you not ask the mods here to migrate the question. It's not even a duplicate. – Mari-Lou A Oct 23 '17 at 20:53
  • @Mari-Lou - I could, but I'd prefer the OP make that request. (I wouldn't want to ask mods to migrate a question that the OP would prefer remain here on ELU, particularly when the OP has been active in the ELU community for a long time.) – J.R. Oct 23 '17 at 20:58
  • Would someone be so kind as to tell me how you ask a mod to migrate a question? Thanks. (Besides clicking on vote to close etc.). Is there some other way? – Lambie Jul 12 at 17:25
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    @Lambie voting to close with the reason being 'migrate' is how it works. You can 'flag' the question (and then a moderator sees it) in order to check to see if it is migrat able to a given site (if that is in question). But the moderator is to going to just do it on a single person's suggestion. – Mitch Jul 12 at 18:17
  • Wow. There seem to be a lot of downvotes on all these answers (this one, and the others). Any ideas what the reasons might be and how the answers might be wrong and how to fix them (if at all)? – Mitch Jul 12 at 18:22

Good question. Where are you? Staying on-point, have you tried going here: https://www.myenglishteacher.eu/blog/english-grammar-9-websites-to-learn-and-practice-english-grammar/

I haven't checked them out, so I cannot vouch for any of the sites listed there. Who is the audience? There are differences between U.S. and U.K. usage, mostly in spelling but also in terms. Example: "Lift" vs. "Elevator".

For international audiences, there's a manual for that. Its base is in what pilots need to know: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplified_Technical_English.

Hope that helps.

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