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After a decade and more than 100k questions and related answers, to what extent has ELU reached its goal? which, as stated in the tour link, appears to be:

we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about English language and usage.

Recent MSE events appear to have distracted a number of regular users from their usual activities on this, as well as on other SE sites (apart from MSE) and everything considered, we might take the opportunity to assess the situation on ELU so far, possibly to try to understand what lies ahead.

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    The coming into existence of the English Language Learners site has made this goal obsolete. – Shoe Nov 24 at 7:59
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    I think calling it obsolete is a bit strong. The goal probably needs qualifying. – Andrew Leach Nov 24 at 8:29
  • @AndrewLeach. Yes, obsolete as it is currently stated is more accurate. I fear however that it will be very difficult to restate it in a clear and concise way to differentiate ELU from ELL. – Shoe Nov 24 at 8:40
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    That's just some generic spiel. All tours have something similar, changing only the topic. It's hardly fair to suggest that's what the site's goal was even at it's inception. Since we're a site for "linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts" we're hardly going to compile every single question anyone could conceivably have about English. – Matt E. Эллен Nov 24 at 12:31
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    @user067531 we're here to avoid real work. By that, a resounding success. – Mitch Nov 24 at 13:37
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    I think ELL hasn't affected ELU much. We still get most of our questions from non-native speakers, and most of them are still the wrong question. – John Lawler Nov 24 at 19:08
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    How can a non-native speaker ask a "wrong question"? Naive, uninformed, unresearched, asked often before on ELL or ELU -- yes -- maybe even by some standard stupid or silly, but not wrong. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Nov 25 at 19:57
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    Wrong because the questions have stupid presuppositions that make any answer a wrong answer. – John Lawler Nov 26 at 21:59
  • @JohnLawler - if NNS make stupid questions, who’s providing them with wrong answers? – user067531 Nov 28 at 18:45
  • Their textbooks and teachers, usually. As Geoff Pullum has often pointed out, anyone at all can say anything at all about English grammar, and if they say it with sufficient determination and certainty, someone else will believe it and teach it. – John Lawler yesterday
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The site tour's assertion that "we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about English language and usage" is clearly not the aspiration of the actual site, as we users administer it.

The split between theory and practice is largely a consequence of the unreasonableness of the goal of "answering every question about English language and usage." For example, any question about what a word means is a question about English language and usage—and yet we reject any question that a person could answer by looking up a word in a standard English dictionary. Likewise, many English class homework questions are questions about English language and usage, as are millions of questions about, say, subject-verb agreement, each one unique in its particular details ("asparagus is" or "asparagus are"?).

We fairly consistently (and rightly, in my opinion) reject such questions, although we don't always clearly explain why, at bottom, we consider them unsuitable for this site.

But we also reject a number of questions that cannot be thoroughly answered without considerable research or special insight into English (such as questions about the origins of idioms, slang words, proverbs, or particular meanings of standard words)—on the grounds that the person asking them didn't demonstrate having done any research before posting the question at English Language & Usage. This, it seems to me, imposes a completely unnecessary limitation on our ability (or willingness) to provide detailed and useful answers to difficult and interesting questions of potentially broad and continuing interest.

EL&U has the potential to evolve into a free, accessible, Internet-era version of the great British periodical Notes and Queries (which still exists, by the way), but doing so would require us to adopt a more sensible and accurate approach to distinguishing between good questions and bad ones. The starting point for this would be to recognize that what makes a question bad is its excessive specificity (which makes it uninteresting to anyone other than the person who asks it) or its ease of being answered satisfactorily by a general-reference resource (since we don't aim to reproduce the contents of a standard English dictionary), whereas what makes a question good is its enduring interest, and its resistance to being resolved by a quick, easy answer.

Although the goal of building "a library of detailed answers to every [good] question about English language and usage" may not be realistic, I still find it appealing; and I would like to see this site continue to move, in its shambling, fitful way, toward fulfilling it.

  • Regarding your last paragraph, do you think ELU is actually moving toward that goal rather than away from it? To me ELU seems more like an echo chamber of a select group of users. To me, that seems to be the result of a lack of vision, which is exemplified by your fourth paragraph. The stated goal doesn't match our way of moderating in practice and new users are confused and most will be gone before they know what our deal is. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Dec 6 at 12:14
  • @JJforTransparencyandMonica: I think it's a problem whenever theory and practice are at odds, as I believe they are in the ways described in my answer. But I also think that it's a mistake to view EL&U as having a unified vision or voice or plan. That's not the site's fault; it's baked into a system in which a crowd of strangers adds and removes individual tiles to and from a huge mosaic. I don't agree with the actions and opinions of some of the other contributors/gatekeepers, but I imagine that they feel very similarly about mine. Controlled anarchy is the essence of system. – Sven Yargs Dec 6 at 17:39
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    ...But to your question about whether the site is moving toward or away from offering detailed answers to every good question about English language and usage, I look at it this way: Every time a good answer to a good question appears on the site and sticks there, we've added one lovely tile to the mosaic. Every time a good question is disabled for not following the "show research" close reason, progress is needlessly stalled—but an unnecessary delay isn't the same as a retrograde motion. So overall I do think the site is making progress. – Sven Yargs Dec 6 at 17:47

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