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Some questions about language have single answers that are incontrovertibly the case for all speakers of the language (for the standard (yes this is somewhat circular)).

But English is large, it contains multitudes, there are a number of standard varieties: there's British, there's American, there's Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Canada, Ireland, etc. numerous sub-varieties in each of these places, World English, Globish, colonial diglossia, code switching, etc, etc, etc. And is 'standard' really, an artifact of an unconsciously consistent community or of an explicit government supported education system?

My question here is:

What if an ELU question has more than one perfectly acceptable correct answer, different for different varieties?

Over the years, I'm sure I've been caught several times giving what I expect everyone who shares my standard language (AmE) would agree wholeheartedly with, but then there is some other answer that seems to be highly-upvoted, commented as 'this is the right answer', and my answer commented 'Your answer is nonsensical animal speak'.

That is, one kind of speaker speaks one way, and another kind of speaker speaks another. My answer is not wrong, it is totally correct for a large group of people, but totally wrong for another group of people.

...and neither of us know what the other uses.

What should we do? How should we deal with it?

Non-exhaustive possibilities:

  • answer only for your own variety, no acknowledgment of the others, let the chips fall where they may (others can give the answers for their own variety).
  • answer only for your own variety, acknowledge other possibilities, let the chips fall where they may
  • answer for UK and US, acknowledge no other possibilities (sorry Canada)
  • combine answers into one mega answer (either your original answer, the other correct answer, or in a totally new ecumenical answer)
  • comment to the OP that there are different viable answers (pointing out the labels of the varieties)
  • some other possibility either combining old features or introducing new ones.

The primary difficulties I see is that it's hard to know other varieties confidently and the SO software intentionally doesn't allow 'accepting' more than one answer. But surely there are other difficulties.

Of course this was inspired by a recent question about the largest proportion when it is less than 1/2.


I feel like this question should have been meta-addressed in September 2010 (the second month of ELU), but scanning I couldn't find anything and there are too many possible topics that I can't find anything by search.

  • 1
    The main benefit of creating a 'subculture' is 'numbers'... there are 'little majorities' everywhere. Outsiders realize they can't blend in, eventually--'I'll just wear purple'--it doesn't work. – KannE Apr 21 at 0:20
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One way I've done it in the past is to make the answer explicitly locale-specific. Tags can be used.

Screenshot of british-english tag in answer

Adding this at the start has the several advantages of

  • clearly identifying the answer's applicable locale/dialect
  • heading off any potential disagreement from users from other locales
  • appearing in search results using the tag

I suppose this comes under "answer only for your own variety, acknowledge other possibilities," since it allows other answers headed with other tags (or even the same tag).

The asker will accept the answer which helped them the most; others will upvote if they find the answer useful. Clearly identifying the locale should mean that the answer is not "not useful".

Hopefully the question would include a dialect tag, or edited to include one after the fact. Even if it's edited in to be specific to a different sort of English, that doesn't mean that the existing answer isn't useful.

  • That seems reasonable. Once you become aware that one's answer is variant specific, add the tag (to your own answer). As to voting sorting out the good answers, the voters don't identify their standard variety, so it is hard to judge (anecdotally it seems there's a preponderance of AmE speaker-voters, but time of day, random interest can sway things considerably. I don't think there's much of a solution to that (given the existing software). – Mitch Apr 10 at 14:18
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    Whenever I'm talking about something that's variable (and that's all phonology and plenty of syntax, at least), I try to mention that I'm talking about American English, my native language. I went and looked it up and I mention "American English" in 82 different answers (and gods know how many comments). After a while, the news gets around, one hopes. – John Lawler Apr 16 at 23:31

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