The fine list of frequently asked questions and answers has in its opening paragraph two contradicting notions:
The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts.
which then continues with examples of topic welcome at the site
Questions on the following topics are welcomed here:
- Usage, word choice, and grammar
- Etymology (history of words’ development)
- Dialect differences
- Pronunciation (phonetics and phonology, dialectology)
- Spelling and punctuation
- Problems encountered by people learning English
I think that this is a serious problem.
"Linguists, etymologists and serious English language enthusiasts" very much sounds like a site where some sort of professional degree is required (similarly to mathoverflow; however their faq states in bold that they are looking for 'research level math questions').
On the other hand, at least the last topic of "Problems encountered by people learning English" is directly including in the audience the learners and beginners (as I said - at least the last, but also some of the other subjects would normally be perceived as extending to the 'language newbies' and not necessarily 'research level'; so this needs to be made clear).
This needs to be cleaned up because if the site is for students of English then there will be any number of valid but rather trivial questions that should be answered.
Also under off-topic there are subjects for which you can make strong arguments that they should be on-topic, such as
"Explain this joke to me", except in the case where the crux of the joke relies on an aspect of English covered by one of the welcomed topics above.
which gets most commonly humor usually employs literary or rhetorical devices to produce humor, see wikipedia
A joke is a phrase or a paragraph with a humorous twist. It can be in many different forms, such as a question or short story. To achieve this end, jokes may employ irony, sarcasm, word play and other devices.
there could be some exceptions where the question is asking about a some culturally specific knowledge and not about the linguistic aspect, but still I believe that even cultural references should get answered as, ultimately, it is part of learning the language. This extends to explaining many concepts and usage of certain words and culture, religion, specific technical meanings, etc.
I believe that these inconsistencies must be solved; the faq simply has to provide clear guidelines, otherwise there will always be people with (justifiably) opposite views on fundamental issues and there will be much circular running in circles.
Depending on who should be the audience of the site the 'general reference' should also be defined much better. The core issue regarding general references on EL&U is that most of the answers can be found online (unlike stackoverflow or mathoverflow where problems that need solving or working out are presented). The reason is simple - most of the questions are of factual nature. This can not be changed - site must work to accommodate for this.
In such questions even very technical questions will get answers which is a simple quote and a link, and even the most interesting questions will seem like a general reference to the person that already knows the answer. More importantly on a lower end of the spectrum there will be different views on what constitutes a general reference answer. For example, assuming diligently researched question, someone might have found dictionary entries for an unknown word, but is not sure if their interpretation is correct. To others this will seem like a general reference, but if students are allowed, it really is not - poster had gone through research and could not understand it to extent that is required. (A note here: rephrasing the question can help here to conform to the faq; however I think that even questions that could be rephrased should be tolerated and not closed).
So, I think that this should be resolved once and for all - who is the audience?
Depending on the answer I see two main possible outcome scenarios:
- create the site for students and refer questions that are not technical enough to the student site, update faq to reflect new policies
- create a newbie or general reference tag and meticulously apply it - will keep all language related questions on one site and allow people to segment the content according to tags, update faq to reflect new policies