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
  • As I've (only just) commented elsewhere, the joke thing is a recent addition (made by Jeff, unilaterally) - see this meta question for more context.
    – psmears
    Commented Jul 15, 2011 at 16:18
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    @psmears see my answer. Provided that someone has done their own research on the joke -- which for an ESL person means "I asked another English speaker, and they could not explain it either" -- then it's a lot more likely to be OK. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 16:59

5 Answers 5


As I've mentioned in this answer, I am most definitely for including learners of the language. Perhaps here is a good place to elaborate a little bit on why.

Simply put: non-native speakers often ask the most interesting questions. They have a different perspective on the language, because (unlike native speakers) they constantly have to think about and concentrate on how the language works. So, just like a newcomer to a house will immediately spot a mark on the wall that the inhabitants have long since ceased to notice, odd quirks of the language that native speakers use every day jump out at them.

I am not talking about simple questions that could be answered in moments with a dictionary; that is irritating and a waste of our valuable time.

But dictionaries – and indeed grammar books – are far from the whole story: the language is full of rules and conventions that native speakers somehow just know intuitively, but that aren't written down anywhere. Even the remarkable 1800-page Cambridge Grammar of the English Language - written by some of the foremost experts on English grammar living today – fails to mention some common, perfectly grammatical expressions despite their use frequently since at least Dickens. This is the sort of thing that fascinates experts in grammar, whom we presumably want to attract.

And it's not just grammar: a few words from a dictionary definition seldom do justice to the range of expression, the regional variation, and indeed the rate of innovation of the language. Even simple words such as those for fizzy drinks show immense variation.

In short, by excluding genuine questions from those with a fresh perspective, we would be blinding ourselves to many aspects of the marvellous richness of the language.

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    +1 for noting the inherent value of the unique perspective of non-native speakers. This site absolutely relies on their unexpected questions to elucidate unusual features of English grammar that naïve native speakers don't think about.
    – nohat Mod
    Commented Jul 15, 2011 at 17:39
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    that's fine, so long as they have to explain the context, rationale, and expectation behind their question. A simple drive by "what does {x} mean?" means the effort is completely disproportionate. In return for typing a sentence in a box, we will provide you with a linguistics degree? That's unfair on a lot of levels. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 16:45
  • @Jeff Atwood, but things are not that simple and I wonder if closing the question is the real answer. For example, afaik, so will not close a question asking about a bubble sort as a general reference, but will handle it as a duplicate. I understand that this can not work here as the number of trivial questions is orders of magnitude higher. However, the criteria is still utterly subjective; the decision chart helps a bit, but again it remains subjective and open to interpretation. I believe closing reasons should not be left to interpretation, as if they do they create noise (such as this).
    – Unreason
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 13:39
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    @unreason the world is not simple and judgment is always required. The point is that you have to require effort when submitting a question to keep standards within this community high. High quality answers isn't enough, we must require similar quality from the asker as well. Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 19:15
  • "they constantly have to think about and concentrate". Not true. At least not for me, and I'm quite certain I'm not the only one. Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 12:28

To me, this is a question of effort.

When the question asker provides none, and gets several excellent, detailed responses that took 15 minutes to compose in return, this is a) unfair to the answerers and b) more critically, teaching askers to be profoundly lazy.

Many of the problems I see on English can be summarized as "lazy askers". Think about it from their perspective: they drop in some barely coherent one or two sentence rumination (like, say "what does this joke mean? {joke}" or "what's the best word for poop?") and get an amazing answer from someone with actual linguistics or English degree.

What is that teaching people who frequent the site?

I don't disagree that some trivial questions can be interesting, but the asker has to demonstrate some research effort and provide context and background for their query. Spoiling lazy askers is a very dangerous long term precedent to set. Just because you know some English, have a pulse, and can type a few words in a textbox does not mean your question is worthy of us to answer.

We need to set the quality bar higher for questions, and I measure that largely based on "gee, did the asker even research this at all? Did they provide context and an explanation of WHY they need to know this?" If they can't explain why they need to know, say, the difference between 'tits' and 'boobs' -- I don't think their question is genuinely deserving of an answer.

Additional guidance (and a flowchart!) at:

  • @nohat this, from 5 hours ago. One sentence question. What research did the asker do that they can share with us? Also this. Where did you hear it? What do you think it means? Lots more on english.stackexchange.com/review/… Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 18:13
  • @nohat: The evidence regarding low quality questions obviously revolves around personal definitions of low quality questions. Before all of this mess, I would have unequivocally said that the community tolerates low quality questions. This week, naturally, people are acting differently. (This isn't to say I was/am right; I'm just adding another data point.)
    – MrHen
    Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 18:20
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    @Jeff. Laziness, whether conspicuous in EL&U, on the Internet, in mankind or in other chordates is nothing more than an imbalance in favour of the universal concept of economy. It is as necessary to our equilibrium as its natural counterweights: interest, curiosity, passion, physiological needs, reproductive arousals... If one elects to fight it within the limits of EL&U, then the answer can be as simple as a way for mods to "freeze" mediocre questions (with a time out) in order to give the OP a chance to express more commitment. Today mods have to chose between let live or kill instantly[...] Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 18:44
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    [...] mods are thus understandably reluctant to wave the axe for borderline cases. Branding them laxist or lazy is too easy. If they had an intermediate weapon, they would possibly use it more actively. A frozen question could be neither commented upon nor answered, extended to possible existing comments or answers. Only the OP would be given, for a limited duration, the ability to hoist his question to an acceptable level. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 18:48
  • When the effort involved in closing low-quality questions and educating the asker about asking better questions exceeds the effort involved in just answering the question, which scenario is actually better?
    – nohat Mod
    Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 19:00
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    @alain "the answer can be as simple as a way for mods to "freeze" mediocre questions (with a time out) in order to give the OP a chance to express more commitment" this is exactly what closing is. Closing doesn't prevent voting or editing, only answering.. and of course closed questions can be reopened through voting or a moderator. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 20:16
  • @nohat that depends if you want to incentivize and encourage laziness. That said, if you feel the question is unusually interesting, I can support it in some cases. But the bar has to be fairly high. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 20:18
  • @Jeff, Then it's very aptly named. A closed question is rarely amended and reopened. I know of just one unique case of a question that was 1/ closed 2/ edited by the OP 3/ reopened because deemed improved and that was a very painful and I dare say humiliating process for the OP and it made a disturbing spectacle for onlookers. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 21:21
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    @Alain I am perfectly happy to reopen closed questions assuming that there has been improvement, and the same presumably goes for the other mods. We don't want to humiliate the OP, but on those occasions where misunderstandings occur, there's little we can do. I don't really know if there's anything further we can do in that regard...
    – waiwai933
    Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 22:23
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    @alain if you think closed questions should be reopened, use your votes to make it so, flag it for mod attention, discuss the question here on meta, or best of all edit the question and make it better! Be the change you want to see, man! Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 22:39
  • @Jeff, I surely did vote to reopen this question in the context of a Homeric fight in the chat room. As for editing, my spelling is so terrible that I feel as guilty as a leprous whenever I dare to touch someone else's post ;-) Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 23:36

I think the audience cannot be -solely- "research level English Language questions" because then it would essentially be linguistics (anything serious would tend to be non-English specific or at least be terribly informed by analysis of other languages) for which there is an area51 proposal, linguistics.SE. So I think our model should be math.SE and not mathoverflow, let's say middlebrow, technical English questions allowed but not research level. I'd say at the level of the [Language Log] blog or a NYTimes 'On Language' column (Safire or Bill Zimmer). I'd also like to see more at a higher level like English questions and negation with do in syntax.

I am ambivalent about ESL-type questions for reasons that others have stated, they can be maddeningly General Reference, but they can have quite a bit of interest there.

To me, the poor quality of questions lately has not been the stigmatized joke or lyric explanations (with the great heat created here on meta) but rather just...well...not exactly lowbrow, just not that ... I don't know and so I find it hard to answer your question directly.

  • Maybe you are referring to the sense of déjà vu that some questions give when you read them. At least it happens to me when the same kind of answers starts to be asked all in a sudden: Somebody asks (for example) about the usage of me for the subject of a phrase, and then other questions about them, us, his appear.
    – avpaderno
    Commented Jul 15, 2011 at 15:20

You can't have it both ways is a nice English saying and applies actually everywhere a trade-off has to be found, which is... well, pretty much everywhere.

  • If you want audience, you want volume and you can't afford to be too choosy,
  • If you want quality, you need more selective rules for contribution and that automatically means less volume. Besides, since most people actually join because they have a question, that can only apply to answers. Another important remark is that moderating EL&U has nothing in common with moderating SO. Stupid questions or duplicates pass through SO unhindered because
      a/ SO throughput is extremely high and you'd need 10 times as many mods,
      b/ technical ignorance or bad taste is only spotted by technical people and rarely frowned upon,
      c/ the average number of votes and view per question is so low that only a tiny proportion of questions do make it to the multi-collider.
    Moreover, the irony is that the multi-collider filters in only the simplest questions (borderline to general reference) simply because they automatically attract more views.

As for cultural- or language-related sites, the contradiction is in the Stack Exchange Network (SEN) itself.

To get their business model running, the SEN founders need a large audience, which implies encouraging a steady flow of incoming questions (cf the rules applicable to the electorate badge). In English large means "extensive"; in French it means "broad". The distinguo is more than just a subtle one. A broader audience fatally produces questions (and answers) of more variable perceived quality.

The SEN founders endeavoured to elaborate a low cost model whereby communities would auto-regulate themselves. The way they achieved this is by first drawing in an elite (through site betas, mod elections and a sophisticated and addictive rep accounting system closely modelling peer recognition) and then entrusting this elite with the drudgery of separating the wheat from the chaff.

That process actually does work but not exactly in the way the founders intended. When they have the feeling it does not work, you can expect some reaction.

The deltas are in my view as follows.

  • Inasmuch as the community elite is also very much focused on high quality, their understanding of quality does not necessarily coincide with that of the supermods.
    Just one example: linguists (like Eric Partridge or John McWhorter) relish the study of slang or creole because this is where linguistic phenomenon are the more dynamic - as they are unhampered by prescriptivism. In contrast, many site admins on this planet are as scared of slang or profanities as Gaulish people were that the sky might fall on their head and will instantly label any question related to these topics as "low quality".
  • Mods who are also contributors by nature, will presume the innocence of posters (especially non-native ones) whereas site admins will give priority to the overall reputation of the site at the expense of sometimes hurting the feelings of "undesired" users. Unavoidable collateral damage one might say - but someone has to hold the shaft of the axe and today it is clear that paid supermods are missioned to "teach" unpaid mods what and how to axe.
  • Linguists (most often polyglots) are bound to be more open-minded and will need to come across higher thresholds of offensiveness for their alarm to go off.

As a result, site admins and language-focused communities are potentially on a collision course. I personally did not realise this until recently. Whoever believes one side is going to kowtow to the other is living in cloud cuckoo-land.

There are only a few alternatives:

  • EL&U moves towards a more authoritarian model in which contributors are cherry picked, red tape is unrolled and faithful enforcers are anointed. A recipe to make the Washington Post as exciting as Pravda. But Pravda was the mandatory newspaper; SE is not the only English/culture enthusiasts site. The odds are therefore very low that the community can survive if it feels it's being herded; after all EL&U's success was no accident – it was also the result of its freedom.
  • Some common ground (another nice English expression) is found, whereby, as some have already suggested, the material deemed too scruffy can be taken out of the showcase and be dealt with in the back office. You just need to add a Boolean to some tags (and filter the tagged question out of the high visibility pages).

One last word to underline is that this kind of debate is completely ignored by most new users. Whenever they have a question to ask, they'll Google up for an online forum (they've seen tens of forums all over the net) and will go ahead without perusing the FAQ and just trust their common sense as to whether their question relates or not to English.

In any case, each discipline uses its own specific criteria to estimate what's good quality and what's low quality. It is thus probably better judged by people whose contributions in that very discipline have been peer reviewed and collectively recognised as good rather than by some 'deus ex machina'.

In other words the system is sound and works reasonably well. Singularities actually tend to happen when it is not followed in letter or in spirit - be it by its intended users or by its very creators.

  • Hear, hear! A very insightful analysis of the conflict between the community and TPTB.
    – nohat Mod
    Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 15:48
  • @nohat, thanks for all your edits. This is the kind of help I need in order to improve my written expression. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 16:40
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    @nohat you can see my answer for clarification. It's important to note as the site grows you will have more and more problems like this, NOT less. Which is why you have to trend toward strictness, or degrade toward Urban Dictionaryhood. Your choice.. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 16:56
  • @Jeff Atwood: Is in fact the case, as suggested by Alain, that EL&U has 'paid supermods' teaching unpaid mods what to axe? Would it not be more effective to simply present the issues on meta? btw - I personally endorse 'trend toward strictness'; nothing too excessive, but we should always nudge in that direction. I think the rep model is an excellent q&d substitute for the established 'peer review' model, which can potentially work very well in the context of SEN. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 21:14
  • @fumble I am only proposing nudges, as in a general trend towards being slightly more strict in what we require from askers. And specifically on joke and potentially offensive questions, I believe requirement should be a bit higher still in those particular cases as well. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 21:18
  • @Jeff Atwood: I have yet to find you setting forth a position I don't either already agree with, or come to endorse after considering things more deeply. I'm 100% behind the "higher requirement" stance. But my question was, are such stances already being 'silently promoted' from an unseen higher level on EL&U? I would have hoped that overt agreement on such issues could be reached in meta, and FAQs etc. updated as appropriate to reflect the sensible concensus we should be able to arrive at. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 21:36
  • @fumble only in the sense that joke questions are now listed in the faq with specific guidance. Other than that, not to my knowledge. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 22:38

I proposed most of the original content of the FAQ, including “problems encountered by people learning English”. There is a brief discussion of it on the question about what should be off topic. I agree that questions that can be answered by a simple dictionary lookup should be closed. I also agree that questions that are posed without background information are good candidates for being closed if the question itself if fairly trivial.

However, as a contributor who enjoys writing answers, I can say without reservation that the most fun answers to write are the ones that unintentionally elucidate something about the language that a native speaker would never have thought of. I would strongly oppose altering the criteria for question acceptance to discourage those kinds of questions, because it will certainly make contributing significantly less enjoyable.

And our main purpose is to encourage questions that the most valued members of the community enjoy answering, right?

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    that is fine, so long as the quality bar is applied and we do require that the asker provide some kind of rationale, context, planned usage, etc. around their question. I also support experts deciding that "even though the question is trivial, it happens to be interesting" so long as, again, the bar for interestingness is reasonably high. Commented Jul 16, 2011 at 22:46

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