Note: This question is somewhat open-ended and prompted more by curiosity than any sort of actionable problem or idea. It seems to me like an interesting discussion topic, but if people view it as unclear what I'm asking, too broad, or off-topic for any other reason, I will understand.

The question came to mind while I was thinking about tchrist's question: What can be done to bring up site quality?

I'm both interested in the perspective of users who have been here for a long time, since the early days of EL&U, and in the thoughts any user has about how a site like this moves through different stages.

As with any topic, there are some questions about English that are "frequently asked." They are the questions that many people wonder about and search for online. In the "grammar" branch, many of these questions are addressed by sites that write content seeking search engine traffic to promote their brand or make ad money, like Grammarly, Grammar Girl, dailywritingtips.com and the like.

Simply by virtue of mathematical probability, those questions were often addressed early in EL&U's history, and create many duplicates.

According to this SEDE query, the most frequently duplicated questions on EL&U are:

It shouldn't be too surprising that these highly duplicated questions are all very early questions and, in two cases, among the first 20 questions out of over 91,000. Their frequent duplication is not because "more time has passed" since they were written (logically speaking, that would ignore the fact that had the questions not been asked, their first duplicate would, theoretically, replace them in that rank). It's because they are questions that people wonder about a lot and as a result they got asked very early.

I know, none of this is surprising, but I just wanted to make that point before moving on to speculate about how this trend affects the experience of answering questions on EL&U over a wide span of time.

As the site progresses, the questions asked that are on-topic and not duplicates are increasingly likely to be obscure, to the point that we might imagine their obscurity being pinched up against some vague, blurry, unreal boundary where there are no more on-topic questions left to be asked. Of course, that scenario ("all on-topic questions have been asked--let's pack up and go home!") is never really going to happen to any subject, but the increasing obscurity of novel questions is certainly more likely to be a problem with a subject as relatively static as the English language (relative to, say, Stack Overflow or Computer Science).

So my question is, essentially, could this phenomenon be related to tchrist's observation that more questions are getting closed? Are there certain tags that are becoming more clunky than others over time? By my observation, it seems that many of the most upvoted questions today are etymology related or single-word-requests--both categories that, to some extent, are less burdened by the limits of obscurity. Is that noticeably different from what EL&U was like over different spans of time? Or am I extrapolating too much from the extreme examples of very early and very "frequently asked" questions?

  • 2
    Ironically , SWR and etymological questions are among the more controversial ones as for their dubious usefulness on ELU. There are previous posts on Meta about these two categories.
    – user 66974
    Jan 27, 2018 at 15:12
  • I'm pretty sure the founders (Jeff and ) have copious amounts of commentary on their blogs from the late 2000's on their philosophy of the engineering of SE, primarily on how to manage the online societies, and the dynamics of changing interest.
    – Mitch
    Jan 27, 2018 at 15:46
  • I've written something below, maybe not a real answer, but thought I'd share it anyway. What have I to lose? ;)
    – NVZ Mod
    Jan 27, 2018 at 16:01

1 Answer 1


Our aim is and always have been to build a library of detailed answers to every question about the English language and its usage.

Unlike other, say, tech or science subjects, the changes happening to the English language may not be easily noticeable enough to warrant more or frequent new questions here.

So I for one do think that we might run out of fuel sooner than other stacks before reaching that imaginary finish line. We still have a long way to go, so fear not.

  1. More questions are getting closed, and for a variety of reasons.

More and more people are signing up to the internet, googling for answers, finding out about ELU, asking the same everyday questions, and so on.

  1. Certain tags are becoming more clunky than others over time.

The more people and questions we have here, the more tags that end up disorganised, and since the current user base is not too keen on reorganising tags, the whole thing can seem clunky or ehh.

  1. Most upvoted questions today really are etymology related or single-word-requests.

They happen to hit HNQ real quick, and bring in the cavalry of upvoters. Of them, some choose to add to the chain of SWRs, because it's fun and well-received in most cases. I bet some people might even think ELU is actually a place mainly for SWRs than anything else.

  1. Noticeable difference from what ELU was like over different spans of time.

I have been lurking on ELU for a very long time, even long before I signed up 4 years ago. ELU answered a lot of my everyday googling. Only noticeable difference to me personally is the absence of Barrie England. I loved reading his quick answers. They were short, lacking most of the links or definitions we require now, but were good, nay great nonetheless. He's unintentionally one of the many reasons I decided to sign up.

  • 1
    First and foremost , for a community to remain a lively and attractive place, you need the active and constant contribution of its experienced users. As for the site I think it is far from being mature, there are still so many good questions out there. You just need ask them properly.
    – user 66974
    Jan 27, 2018 at 16:02
  • @user159691 You're right. We still have a long way to go. Updated answer.
    – NVZ Mod
    Jan 27, 2018 at 16:09
  • +1 for B.England's concise but nearly always 100% accurate answers. Of course, the quality of questions asked four, five years ago were a lot more relaxed and simpler then.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 27, 2018 at 19:10
  • 5
    It would be helpful to recognize that good, even great answers, can flow from simple or flawed questions.
    – ab2
    Jan 27, 2018 at 22:18
  • 1
    Thanks for a thoughtful answer. "What have I to lose?" is what I thought when I posted this question as well. :) I will have to go through B.England's answers and explore. I've only encountered them by chance when I'm looking through old posts, but he seems to be quite legendary. Jan 27, 2018 at 22:40
  • 1
    B. England could get away with short answers that would be flagged and deleted today because a B. England answer by definition had a reliable source. Similarly, I doubt that Physics SE would require a source in an answer from from S. Hawking. Many of England's answers are the worst possible model for users today.
    – ab2
    Jan 28, 2018 at 3:52
  • All the more reason that he is not participating anymore I think. It would be odd to ask B.E or S.H. to add definitions and cite sources.
    – NVZ Mod
    Jan 28, 2018 at 3:54
  • 5
    @NVZ - I think that citing sources is not only useful to the poster to support their own answers but mainly for the entire community who would find reliable sources an important tool to fully understand and appreciate the answers, also after years, whoever the original poster was.
    – user 66974
    Jan 28, 2018 at 6:48
  • 3
    People need to check FACTS before spouting unsubstantiated opinion. B.England often cited the OED and Cambridge Grammar of English, and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Maybe he didn't add links, but they would have been pretty useless in any case. The truth of the matter is that he is an expert of the English language, he doesn't Google answers, the answers are already in his head.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 28, 2018 at 11:47
  • "Unintentionally?" Maybe I don't understand that word and need to post a question at ELU! Jan 31, 2018 at 22:45
  • @aparente001 With that I meant that he did not know me, and also did not ask me to join.
    – NVZ Mod
    Jan 31, 2018 at 23:51
  • Thanks for explaining. (Feedback: way too compact in my opinion.) Feb 1, 2018 at 3:11
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA Ab2's assertion is, in my opinion, mostly accurate. When you combine both sets of results, it constitutes 354 out of 2,720 answers. Most of the time I stumble onto a Berry England answer, it lacks any form of citation or evidence, and many of them are single line answers too. He's more the sort of contributor we allow to coast by on his own expertise, due to being a graduate of Oxford University and the U.K's. Open University Diploma program, and the website was more lenient when he was active too.
    – Tonepoet
    Feb 7, 2018 at 9:16
  • @Tonepoet sometimes everything that needs to be said can be done in a single sentence. The fact that he is the top user on EL&U, and every day has at least two posts upvoted, despite not posting anything for over almost four years speaks for itself. By the way, was his single line answer "wrong"? How would he have been able to cite the OED or any dictionary for that matter?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 7, 2018 at 9:44
  • Here's another single line answer but this time citing the OED The OED gives ‘username’ and has three citations, from 1971, 1997 and 2007, in support.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 7, 2018 at 9:44

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