Two questions of mine were edited to change "grammatically correct" to "grammatically acceptable" in the title and similarly in the body by the same moderator.

To seek understanding, and rather than merely reverting the edits, I searched here on Meta for any information about this issue and I was unable to find anything directly relevant. I did find this tangentially relevant answer (written by the same moderator) which suggests that both the words "correct" and "grammatical" should be forbidden from questions due to those words being strong signal that the question is unlikely to be useful to anyone else.

However, one of the title edits didn't remove the word "grammatical" at all, and this seems to be an implicit acknowledgement that the particular content of that question does make it of more general applicability and usefulness to other readers.

Both questions are attempting to ask about a general grammar principle, and the particular words in the example sentences used are largely unimportant.

  • To discuss garden path sentences productively, it seems inadequate to merely define them, and better to offer examples. I believe the example sentences my question presents for review don't stand alone as mere one-offs but are in fact generally instructive of garden-path principles by "showing instead of telling."

  • For the question about comparison sentences, the word choice also doesn't seem problematic to me. "I am [comparison]-er than [nominative or accusative pronoun]" just isn't a helpful way to ask that question, and would miss garnering site visitors or internet searchers who don't know those terms into the question to learn something interesting.

(Of course, I knew before asking the garden-path question that the sentences were grammatical; the precise point of asking the way I did was to try to capture an interesting phenomenon from the perspective of a person who was in doubt about them as a class.)

So here's this meta question as an attempt to hear from the community.

Why revert the changes? Because from where I sit right now, having seen no discussion or explanation, I don't really like them. To me, my questions were not improved. It could be argued that in the one title, "grammatically correct" can just change to "grammatical," and I'd be open to that, however the places where the body was changed from "correct" to "acceptable" don't sit right with me. If there is some requirement that askers of questions on English.SE categorically may not say "correct" instead of "acceptable," then from my current solo perspective without hearing any rationale, it is unlikely I would want to continue participating on this site—it is important to me for my own particular character to remain in my questions.

If there is some way that I can edit my own questions to make them more generally applicable, I'm totally open to hearing suggestions and then working to improve them. The edits in question, however, don't seem to do that.

P.S. Admittedly, the first question says "Feel free to edit my grammar. No comment necessary." And yet, I'd like to understand how the edit does in fact improve the grammar or avoids incorrect grammar. (Ba-dum-kshhh!)

  • 5
    The idea that there is a Higher Authority in charge of "correctness" is a familiar one. Correct, as a description of the grammar of some sentence or chunk of sentence, is a schoolroom term suitable for children learning their catechism or times tables. When used by adults about adults' English, it's just a social judgement and doesn't have anything to do with the grammar, since it's usually based on nonsense, like split infinitives and passive resistance. So linguists avoid the word, except when it's used in very specific contexts, which is not the case here. – John Lawler Jan 13 at 21:49
  • 1
    @JohnLawler How is your comment contributing to this discussion? I'm not arguing that saying "grammatically correct" is an objectively and 100% correct way to think about language. Your comment is, to me, off-topic and disrespectful. – ErikE Jan 15 at 19:50
  • 1
    You’ve purportedly posted this to solicit discussion from the community. An opinion expressing why someone might strongly object to “correct” in the context of asking a question on ELU is neither irrelevant nor disrespectful. It speaks to whether the edit could be seen as improving the post instead of just rearranging the words according to the editor’s preference. – ColleenV Jan 15 at 21:44
  • @ColleenV The question is not "does it make sense to call things grammatically correct" but "is the edit in accord with English.SE principles"? John's opinion that my use of "grammatically correct" is a non-adult thing to do is mere characterization, not observation, and it falls prey to the same criticism as tchrist's perspective which is that he's stating that correctness looks like not using the word "correct," which is hypocritical and self-contradictory. If John wants to post a new answer saying, "yes, I think those edits make sense and here's why", that's on topic. Lecturing isn't. – ErikE Jan 15 at 21:48
  • 1
    Someone expressing an opinion you disagree with is not lecturing. Whether the edit was a meaningful clarification is a key part to whether it would be considered in accord with ELU community standards. Whether “correct” has a perceptible difference in meaning from “acceptable” is therefore very relevant. – ColleenV Jan 15 at 21:56
  • @ColleenV So it sounds like his comment needs to be promoted to an answer, then? – ErikE Jan 15 at 22:01
  • 2
    This is Meta. Discussion in comments is a bit different than on the main site. It has been incorporated into tchrist’s answer though. – ColleenV Jan 15 at 22:03
  • 2
    While I'm very, perhaps overly, fond of a good bit of invective, I'd need it explained to me how @JohnLawler's comment regarding the use of 'correct' as "a schoolroom term suitable for children etc." is something other or more than thinly veiled name-calling itself an exercise "suitable for children". The tone of "spittle-flecked fury" (see "Which Language and Grammar Rules to Flout", a debate between Robert Lane Greene and Bryan A. Garner, The New York Times, 27 Sep 2012) dominates Lawler's... – JEL Jan 21 at 23:00
  • 2
    ...comment. The quote ("spittle-flecked etc."), originally from Lane's book, is followed by Garner's observation about Lane's use: "A little of that stuff is good-natured fun, but the condescending haughtiness is unrelenting." The debate in NYT is overall a good example of how a civilized, moderate discussion of the topic might play out...and notice the debate was published 10 years ago. Garner's point about 'descriptivists' abandoning their formerly overstated position as regards 'correct', 10 years on, is even more accurate today. – JEL Jan 21 at 23:11
  • 2
    Also, in the context of this question, I should point out that the edits here questioned, turning various forms and varieties of 'correct' into nominally equivalent forms of 'acceptable' were made to literally dozens of questions at about the same time by the same 'editor'. The conversions not only changed "correct" used in indirect discourse (that is, "somebody else said this was correct"), but also changed "correct" when it was expressed as the simple feeling of 'correctness' regarding some use or another. None had anything to do with linguists' use or nonuse of 'correct'. ... – JEL Jan 21 at 23:54
  • 2
    ... I've since rolled those changes to a "considerable amount" of questions back to the correct version, because the changes were clearly in conflict with well-known Meta SE guidance; think of it as my gift of labor to the local diamond moderator team. – JEL Jan 21 at 23:59

Questions about 'correctness', 'acceptability', 'appropriateness', 'preference' (all of which are normative terms) are quite suitable on ELU. They are in the proper (hah) domain of sociolinguistics, which is itself "a branch of linguistics" (OED). Answering such questions well may require great expertise and familiarity with the subject (English language usage); additionally, asking such questions well may require great expertise etc.

Somebody other than the author changing the meaning of questions by editing them doesn't fit in the SE model, as mentioned in the guidance given at SE Meta:

Edits are expected to be substantial and to leave the post better than you found it. Common reasons for edits include:


  • To clarify the meaning of the post (without changing that meaning)

From my point of view, the edits questioned are (a) not substantial, and (b) a (substanceless) change to the meaning of the question that might be seen as having the effect of privileging one discourse domain over another. Either case might rightly be seen by the author of the questions as not true to their individual voice and original intention.

  • 2
    If this were my answer, I would replace the “you”s with “the author” to make it a more general statement of why “correcting” the word “correct” is not a good idea. I would also change the speculation about the motive behind the edit to a more neutral description of how making a change like that not only can thwart the author’s intention in the statement of their question, but also their intent for the type of answer they’re trying to attract. A comment pointing out that “correct” may not have the meaning they intend would probably have been a better approach than an edit. – ColleenV Jan 14 at 16:55
  • @ColleenV, thanks, good advice, even if I didn't implement it quite as you had in mind. I'm still thinking about the "more neutral" bit. – JEL Jan 14 at 19:19
  • 1
    It was just intended to be some feedback, not a demand for changes :) It’s your answer, but I had a hard time upvoting it even though I agree the edit was ill-advised. I guess I don’t think it was a conscious attempt to stomp down a branch of linguistics, but a well-meaning attempt to make the question more palatable to a perceived majority or make the wording less unnecessarily (in their perception) controversial. – ColleenV Jan 14 at 19:21
  • I didn't take it as a demand (and if I had, me being obstinate and naturally contrary, would've reacted...differently). I did take it as a welcome suggestion for improvements, although by that I don't mean to imply you intended to suggest improvements--I take your "intended to be some feedback" as truth. – JEL Jan 14 at 19:25

I was cleaning up incorrectly applied tags, and ended up fixing a few bits of infelicitous wordings here and there as I noticed them along the way.

You’re always free to edit whatever you want here, and this is no exception, so if you don’t fancy an edit I’ve made, do whatever you feel you need to do to return it to a state that doesn’t get on your nerves.

Here’s why I made some of those changes, though, just so you understand my own thinking.

We endeavor to present ourselves as an SE site containing expert answers written by English linguists and enthusiasts. There’s another site altogether for learners. That one can focus more on right-and-wrong exam questions. Notice how many questions asking whether something is grammatically correct just want us to proofread somebody’s spelling and punctuation!

Mostly all people really want to know when they ask that question is to learn whether it’s ok for them to say or write something without others thinking less of them for using unpopular forms. Will they sound unlettered? Will their thesis get marked down for clumsy language? Does this align with what the AP Style Guide says you should or should not do? Things like that. That isn’t very interesting, and certainly is of no interest to experts.

Linguists don't really do “correct”, which is a prescriptivist term that has nothing to do with scientific descriptions of human language. It’s more a term you find used in normative education programs, like for marking off points on some ESL test or for teaching very young children.

Now go find someone with professional credentials as a working linguist and ask them what “correct” means. You may be surprised at their answers. Linguists are never going to pass moralistic judgments about how people “should” and “should not” use language. (And yes, we have at least half a dozen such professionals in our membership here, and quite possibly considerably more.)

That is not what linguistics is.

I therefore here reproduce John Lawler’s insightful comment on the original question:

The idea that there is a Higher Authority in charge of "correctness" is a familiar one. Correct, as a description of the grammar of some sentence or chunk of sentence, is a schoolroom term suitable for children learning their catechism or times tables. When used by adults about adults' English, it's just a social judgement and doesn't have anything to do with the grammar, since it's usually based on nonsense, like split infinitives and passive resistance. So linguists avoid the word, except when it's used in very specific contexts, which is not the case here.

It’s certainly true that sometimes linguists use notations like a * or % or ? or ?? to indicate different levels or types of unacceptability of a word or phrase or sentence. That’s because scientific descriptions of actual language often take into account sliding scales of acceptability that vary by speaker, register, context, and many other things.

But these are never moral judgements. That’s not a scientist’s job. A scientist’s job is, among others, to make sense of how some aspect of the universe actually works and describe what they’ve learned to others.

  • 3
    Interesting. The assertion that the word "correct" is an unacceptable moral judgment sounds to me like a moral judgment—making a moral judgment that I need to avoid moral judgments and then changing my post to carry out that moral judgment expunging moral judgment? If intelligent native English speakers who are not by any stretch of the imagination "learners" are discouraged from saying what comes naturally to them at this site, it seems like there's definitely a gap being left by stackexchange. Is it a goal to discourage participation by those who aren't professional linguists? – ErikE Jan 13 at 2:35
  • 3
    Also, the use of "acceptable" doesn't resolve anything. It just raises a question: acceptable to whom? Who gets to accept or reject grammar, and how are those materially different from correct/incorrect? The alternate words sound no less inherently tainted with moral judgment, if the original words are so tainted. And while I absolutely do get the prescriptivist/descriptivist distinction, it's rather prescriptivist to try to constrain the language on the site to non-prescriptivist, isn't it? There is a correct kind of prescriptivism after all, it seems. – ErikE Jan 13 at 2:45
  • 1
    Your question which I edited was addressed by not one but at least two of our professional linguists. Notice how they scare-quote ”correct”. That should tell you something about what linguists think of that word. They won’t be able to tell you until you define “correct” for them. It to me appears that a bunch of people involved, including not just our correspondents but also the friend you disagree with, all have very different ideas of what it means. – tchrist Jan 13 at 2:50
  • 3
    That's right—professional linguists express their view of my question and their responses, and unique perspective, are welcome and appreciated. And if they address any prescriptive assumptions in the question within their answers, aren't their answers made contextually less sensible if those prescriptive assumptions are simply removed from the question? But in any case, what would be much more convincing to me is a compelling case for how "acceptable" is any less prescriptivist than "correct." Maybe you should go all the way to "common" or "prevalent" instead of halfway with "acceptable"? – ErikE Jan 13 at 2:54
  • 1
    Oh but you see, acceptable immediately invites further definition: acceptable to whom and under what circumstance? That isn’t something that the facile yes–no correct ever does. – tchrist Jan 13 at 2:56
  • 5
    How does "correct" not invite the same questions by any informed or intelligent person? Won't "acceptable" fail to invite further definition by any uninformed or unintelligent persons who don't have what it takes to ask the same question about "correct"? My question has been okay on this site for ten years and three months. Has something changed since then? Are there meta threads you can reference that will elucidate this shift in thinking to prescribe how we all ought to be non-prescriptivist? – ErikE Jan 13 at 2:58
  • 1
    You were shown the underlying grammar behind them all, which makes them ipso facto grammatical. That doesn’t mean you have to like them. I’m done with commenting here. – tchrist Jan 13 at 2:58
  • 3
    Sorry, come again? It's probably exposing my inherent stupidity or my non-professional-linguistness, but I have no clue what your last message is even trying to say. Edit: saw your edit that you're done with commenting, but you should know that your last few messages drove home for me a real impression of some serious elitism on your part. I knew I sensed something off about your edits and the way you were talking. Well, good luck in following the dictates of your "infelicitous" feelings and in handling the unwashed masses who get on your nerves with their prescriptivist writing! – ErikE Jan 13 at 3:00
  • 3
    This answer presents a very narrow sense of 'linguist' as the "one true" and only acceptable use of the term. – JEL Jan 13 at 21:20
  • 4
    It is well and good for the descriptivists on this site to passionately defend descriptivism, but it is quite another thing for them to suppress prescriptivism by editing (arguably) prescriptivist assumptions out of other people's posts. It is fairly obvious that descriptivists are in the majority among the regular contributors here, but nothing in the specification of the topic of this Stack Exchange says that it is only for descriptivists, and that prescriptivists are prohibited from contributing to it. – jsw29 Jan 16 at 22:24
  • 'It’s certainly true that sometimes linguists use notations like a * or % or ? or ?? to indicate different levels or types of unacceptability of a word or phrase or sentence. That’s because scientific descriptions of actual language often take into account sliding scales of acceptability that vary by speaker, register, context, and many other things.' Quirk and Svartvik demonstrated this in a classic piece of research, and Garner similarly adopted a Likert-like scale of acceptability in a recent edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage, now several years old. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 17 at 19:56
  • 1
    @jsw29 Calling well-meaning, good-faith attempts to edit poor wordings into good ones “suppressing prescriptivism” is a gross mischaracterization. It is simply wrong. We don’t need political posturing here. – tchrist Jan 17 at 19:58
  • 2
    @tchrist, I don't doubt that your intervention was well meaning, and I greatly respect all the hard and often thankless work that you have been doing here over many years. You have changed the OP's wording because you regard descriptivism as so obviously correct (!) that you think that anybody who uses a term that arguably implies prescriptivism must have just inadvertently used an 'infelicitous' wording. But that''s not how the OP and the author of the other answer on this page see the matter. The OP wanted to say precisely what he said. – jsw29 Jan 17 at 22:13
  • 2
    "Good faith"? The change from "correct" to "acceptable" in the later of the two questions altered changed "a friend...argued that they and mine were not correct grammar." Changing that is not good faith, unless you were there and know that wasn't the friend's argument. – JEL Jan 17 at 22:14

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .