I have recently been taking a look at the French language site that corresponds to ELU. I am struck by a difference.

It seems to me that the ELU is often swamped with questions that involve helping someone to find a single word for some elaborate notion, or is looking for the best way of expressing something relatively straightforward, and that many of the questions have to be put on hold or closed down for lack of research, duplication, or some form of irrelevance. That is not to mention the input from questioners whose English is weak or who have to be redirected to ELL.

When I look at the French site, it seems to me that far more of the questions are serious questions about grammar, more often than not by people who have some grasp of grammar.

In part, of course, this reflects the fact that English is THE universal world language, whereas French is A world language but not in the way that English is. Perhaps also, the grammatical side of the teaching of English is more rigorous in France and French speaking countries than it has been till recently in at least the UK.

But (here comes the question), are there any ways to reduce the 'noise' that have not already been tried? I am sorry if this sounds élitist.

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    The post isn’t elitist, but the little chapeau that e is jauntily sporting in the last sentence is! More seriously, can you de-cappify your title? It it is way too loud. – Dan Bron Nov 6 '18 at 16:45
  • Yes, certainly. And your point is well taken. Thank you. – Tuffy Nov 6 '18 at 16:50
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    I think your considerations about the French site may well refer also to other “smaller” language communities such as Spanish, Italian or German for instance. ELU attracts a much larger audience than any other language site, and as a result the amount of off-topic questions is inevitably higher. – user 66974 Nov 6 '18 at 18:19
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    Is the French site actually more rigorous? While their "single-word-request" tag isn't super popular, the "translation" tag is the 5th biggest tag on their site. And it looks to me like they allow questions which don't show research, which we don't (at least in theory). Only a person more fluent in French than me could say if the questions are actually more "serious" or have a better "grasp of grammar". – Laurel Nov 6 '18 at 22:29
  • @JJJ It doesn't really matter what you call it ("rigorous" is OP's wording), but the question claims that ELU is swamped with off-topic questions while F.SE isn't. What I'm saying is if they had the same strict requirements as we do then they would definitely have a lot more downvoted & closed questions. – Laurel Nov 6 '18 at 23:52
  • @Laurel I am only a relative beginner at this. So mine is only a naive question. – Tuffy Nov 7 '18 at 0:18
  • @JJJ In practice, ELU operates with a degree of flexibility that may be a good thing, I guess. Perhaps also, that flexibility may reflect something important about the English language itself. – Tuffy Nov 7 '18 at 0:27
  • @JJJ ‘Research’ in Stack Exchange parlance refers to consulting the standard texts of the community. For ELU, that would be things like dictionaries, thesauruses, maybe Ngram, and the like. So the bare ‘what is the definition of word X’ lacks research, but the bare ‘how did word X come to mean different things in AmE and BrE’ might not. Importantly, not having googled something doesn’t automatically make it off-topic due to lack of research. So excluding no-research questions doesn’t really hurt the repository, so long as dictionaries etc remain available to the public. – Lawrence Nov 7 '18 at 14:26
  • @JJJ Yes, things get a lot muddier when it comes to questions about grammar. I’m not sure that I’ve always been consistent about this in relation to voting, but I agree that some of the simplest questions can also be some of the most interesting. I’ve answered a small selection of them and I think that at EL&U, considered answers to simple questions tend to be welcome, to the extent that they can even ‘save’ a poorly-worded, barely (or even un-) supported question. – Lawrence Nov 7 '18 at 14:46
  • Yes. Ironically, English is now the lingua franca! – Robusto Nov 10 '18 at 1:47
  • @Robusto Which poses an interesting question. Lingua Franca was not a bastard version of French, so much as a multiple crossbreed of the languages (mostly romance but including bits of English) of the various Crusader occupiers of the post-Byzantine Levantine world. The Greeks till comparatively recently used ‘Franki’ as a pejorative word for Europeans. But this Frankish language was, in fact a language. But as a metaphorical ‘lingua Franca, are the rules and usage determined by all its users, including all non native users? If not, why not? – Tuffy Nov 10 '18 at 8:54
  • Rules? What are they? We can be thankful for the fact that we don't use a language controlled by the Academie Francaise (vive le golf and le weekend), since what schoolteachers tell you is ungrammatical is commonly heard in the streets and on the boob-tube. English develops and changes, and the differences between the versions spoken in London and in New York are the result of taking what once was a common language and developing it in two different ways. But this divergence occurs in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Dialects within the UK are more prolific than might appear from overseas. – Ed999 Nov 12 '18 at 4:52
  • @Ed999 I could not agree more. AND YET, we exist in a kind of paradox. Plenty of questions are asking whether a particular sentence or clause or phrase is “grammatically correct”. Such questions are not automatically closed down on the grounds that they are not strictly about language usage. and if the basis of accepted usage is,well, statistical, what is to be counted in the stats? We are now far removed from times in which the potential evidence was confined to formally edited material from journalism, scholarship, law and literature. Nor can we screen the web for country of origin. – Tuffy Nov 12 '18 at 8:18
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    @Tuffy : What you say makes sense. Although, in fact, all communication on the net carries a marker identifying the domain of origin, including a country marker, so we actually can potentially classify comms by their country of origin. English is, IIRC, a contact language, formed from the contact (collision?) between Old High German and Norman French - much as Lingua Franca was a contact language. It is, though, well said that grammar in English is a set of invented rules, made up in order to teach foreigners how to speak English. Native speakers do not consider any rules before speaking. – Ed999 Nov 16 '18 at 14:08
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    ... but I don't think foreigners have a proper understanding of this basic fact. Grammar gives them some structures and syntax, intended to be helpful. But it is not how we learn the language. I would be surprised if, say, a Spaniard learns Spanish grammar before learning to speak Spanish. Why does he suppose, then, that we learn grammar before starting to talk? There is usually no harm in the rules, but not enough acceptance of the fact that the language comes first, and the rules attempt - later - to explain that usage. We should not damn the rules, but they are artificial. – Ed999 Nov 16 '18 at 14:16

There might also be causes of these questions intrinsic to the two languages themselves: the French language has grammar rules that may seem more difficult, because they are more explicit (words and modifiers have more inflections). English, by contrast has a vast and varied corpus, with words and terms coming from different origins, with frequent overlaps (see nimble versus agile, freedom versus liberty, etc.).

There are many explanations for this, one being that English was born as a spectacular collision of different languages in a very short period of time, and that today there are no absolute references for English language (hence British English, American English, etc.). As a first-degree approximation, we could say that English is much more "distributed" and "equalitarian" (this is not a moral appreciation, this is a statement of fact).

By contrast, French evolved as a slow process of absortion of Frankish into Latin, which gave it a much more homogeneous vocabulary. Furthermore, the reference for French is, geographically, Paris, and a higher degree of institutional normalization (indeed, the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, but other ones). There are national and regional variants, but almost all French native speakers over the world will recognize a hierarchy of grammatical and lexical norms, with Paris at the center.

To reflect the increased lexical complexity of English, dictionaries have a feature that French dictionaries often lack: the "synonym study", which explains the differences between words, sometimes in great detail.

French dictionaries do not have this feature, presumably because that language includes new words much more sparingly, and frowns on lexical doublets i.e. words that mean almost exactly the same thing (see article on it).

So here is my take:

  1. The number of lexical questions (right word, expression, what's the meaning of, etc.) on this exchange is bound to be much higher on this forum than on a French equivalent. There is no helping it, because it is intrinsic to the reality of the English language.

  2. The second part has to do with the etiquette involved in asking a lexical question. Since there are many sources on the English lexical corpus, such as dictionaries or thesauruses, etc., not to mention StackExchange, it is expected that a person with such a question should make a little research before asking a question.

How would you deal with this? With education, and sometimes with a gentle slap on the hand.

Fun Fact

There is another approach: back in an earlier geological era (early 2000s) when usenet was the dominant form of exchange on the Internet, there was a running gag on a French newsgroup : for some unknown reason, the most asked question was "what is the derivation of autant pour moi?". The approach to that question was humorous: it became a race to invent the most extravagant or surreal explanations, always imparted in the most serious and learned way. It was an unending source of fun for us...

These were much more libertarian times and furthermore there was no way to silence the jerks. I suspect that in this present era of ponderous seriousness and academic soul-searching, giving a surreal answer would be frowned upon and downvoted.

The point being that being rigorous should be understood as:

Characterized by or adhering to strict standards or methods; exacting and thorough

And not:

Adhering strictly to a belief or ideology; uncompromising or inflexible.

Forgetting to be serious about it, could sometimes go a long way.

  • Thank for this combination of scholarship and common sense. It is not the only possible answer, as you will surely agree. But I couldn’t have hoped for a better. Thank you. – Tuffy Nov 15 '18 at 21:56
  • Actually, I would strongly advocate never closing a question, unless it is merely abusive or trivial. If someone needs to ask a question, we ought to treat that question seriously, simply because English is such a complex language. If we accept that there is no central source of wisdom, it is unfair to turn down a request for help. But we might point someone to a place where it has already been answered. It is definitely wrong to reject a question merely because it does or does not raise a grammatical issue. – Ed999 Nov 16 '18 at 18:15

This might be a shot in the dark, but I believe the difference you have witnessed is down to the inherent properties of descriptive vs prescriptive linguistics.

The French language is officially regulated by l’Académie française. Both grammar and vocabulary are prescribed and are to be obeyed by every French speaker in France. Same goes for many other languages and countries, such as (de facto) Italian and Russian. That means it is easier to provide a definitive answer to a grammar rule, and there won't be nearly as many grey areas and uncertainties.

English, on the other hand, has no formal regulator which, while encouraging greater linguistic diversity and faster changes, does result in much greater confusion in what people perceive as a "norm". This leads to more heated arguments over seemingly trivial questions and multiple contradictory answers none of which are "wrong" per se.

I think the latter kind of language forums is much more interesting to both read and participate in, but others may disagree.


I'm surprised this answer received so many upvotes as it was meant to be more of an extended "I wonder if" comment. I don't personally believe this is the only (or even the biggest) reason why ELU users vote-close on more posts and generally act more demanding (and occasionally mocking) with submitted Q&As.

ELU has a special place among all language communities on StackExchange as it is the only place here whose users are not expected to be bilingual to communicate, which greatly influences its audience and the kind of questions they find interesting, making all comparisons to other SE communities difficult in many regards.

Furthermore, ELU is the most searchable language community here, so many new users come here directly from Google in hopes to get a "quick fix" for whatever writing problem they're having.

See the comments to the question and this answer for more information.

  • Thank you, I wondered about that, and it may well be right. I am not pressing the ✔️ only because there may not be a ‘right’ answer. – Tuffy Nov 7 '18 at 0:43
  • @Tuffy I'm glad that seemed to help. To be clear, there are certainly many other factors to it, and an English-speaking French forum will always be more welcoming to foreigners and their "naïve" questions than an English-speaking English forum, which is what you may be perceiving as rigour. – undercat applauds Monica Nov 7 '18 at 1:32
  • According to a page only 10k+users can see, only ~7% of question closures are "primarily opinion-based". It's not even in the top five close reasons. That being said, I do see lots of questions that could be answered entirely with facts being closed with this reason. – Laurel Nov 7 '18 at 4:24
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    I don’t think that there is any relashionship between prescriptivism and off-topic questions. It is just a question of size. Other language sites (Italian, Russian, German etc.) are much smaller in size and deal with a much smaller number of users. How many questions a day does the French site receive? – user 66974 Nov 7 '18 at 6:49
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    I really don’t think that l’Académie française is the cause for the disparity in the quality of posts between the two sites. – tchrist Nov 7 '18 at 18:36
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    Sorry, but Italian doesn't have a regulatory body (the Accademia della Crusca is not such a body). – Massimo Ortolano Nov 8 '18 at 20:59
  • @tchrist I agree, it's the difference in mentality and the tolerance level to newcomers and language learners that make a much greater difference. – undercat applauds Monica Nov 8 '18 at 21:19
  • @MassimoOrtolano I'm not an expert on Italian, so if you disagree with that statement you might want to edit Wikipedia pages on Italian and language regulators which state otherwise. – undercat applauds Monica Nov 8 '18 at 21:29
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    undercat, if you look at the about page of the Accademia you will see that nowhere they claim to be a regulatory body. And if you read the Wikipedia entry, you'll see the note de facto which means that the Accademia is certainly recognized as the major institution advising on the Italian language, but it's not an official regulatory body. Therefore, there's no need to edit the Wikipedia entries, but since you're not familiar with the Italian language, I strongly encourage you to edit your answer to better reflect the reality. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 8 '18 at 21:45
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    @MassimoOrtolano I've added "de facto" to signify that the de jure police will not come knocking on your door if you - God forbid - say "va buono" instead of "va bene". If you are still dissatisfied, please take it all out on Wikipedia, not me. – undercat applauds Monica Nov 8 '18 at 22:13
  • At the risk of being banned, perhaps we should only accept questions from enquirers whose grasp of English is sufficient that their first reaction is to laugh at the joke in your username, Undercat. :-) [NB: This is a joke, people!] – Ed999 Nov 16 '18 at 18:21
  • "Both grammar and vocabulary are prescribed and are to be obeyed by every French speaker in France." Lol! Where did you get that idea? On my last visit to Paris, I was shocked to hear how much slang is in the average Parisian's dialog. It is every bit as bad as Quebecios (my first 'language') or worse. – anongoodnurse Dec 8 '18 at 23:03
  • @anongoodnurse There's absolutely no doubt about that, the sentence you're quoting was written tongue-in-cheek. :) I myself had a brief stint living in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, a VERY diverse place both ethnically and linguistically, so I know first-hand how multifarious the French language can be. That doesn't change my point though—although there are many dialects of French around world, it is the standardized Metropolitan French that most non-natives study, whose grammar and vocabulary are prescribed by only one authoritative source, unlike English. – undercat applauds Monica Dec 9 '18 at 0:05
  • Thanks for sharing your experience by the way! – undercat applauds Monica Dec 9 '18 at 0:10
  • @undercat - omg, I'm so embarrassed now! But I'm glad if it made you smile (I hope, even if it's just about what an idiot I am!) :) (Hmm, though, wasn't François Hollande's French ridiculed by the people?) – anongoodnurse Dec 9 '18 at 2:46

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