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Update: Yeah, so I sort of went on a brief EL&U vacation about a week after I started this topic, and forgot about it when I came back. Any last feedback before we push this live? I've changed Names to Naming as per @nohat's answer to this question, and dropped the reference to Literature.SE, which closed a few weeks ago.


If you visit the EL&U faq, at the very top, there's a list of what on-topic and off-topic on our site.

However, this list is getting a bit awkward (at least in my opinion), and two items especially (Problems encountered by people learning English and How to improve my English) can seem contradictory to those who are not familiar with our site. I therefore propose a revision that is meant to not change the actual site scope, but instead one that is merely meant to clarify:

[On-topic]

  • Word usage and choice
  • Grammar
  • Etymology (history of words' development)
  • Dialect differences
  • Pronunciation (phonetics and phonology, dialectology)
  • Spelling and punctuation

[Off-topic]

  • Proofreading ("are there any mistakes?"), unless the source of concern is clearly specified
  • Writing advice or critique requests (see Writers.SE instead—note critique requests must meet their criteria)
  • Translation and non-English languages
  • Naming, including naming programming variables/classes
  • English literature
  • Jokes that do not rely on the English language

[English language resources?]

Changes to the on-topic list

The on-topic scope is mostly the same; I separated grammar only because I felt it deserved its own bullet point. The only real change I made on that list was dropping Problems encountered by people learning English, since basic questions are generally welcome on any SE site (if we want to establish minimum requirements for ESL questions, that's not within the scope of this question).

Changes to the off-topic list

The off-topic question list, on the other hand, did not escape as unscathed as the other list.

Proofreading has been clarified. Foreign language questions that are posted tend to deal with translation, so that has been given more emphasis.

I've also dropped How to improve my English, since that's extremely vague—most of those questions are not constructive or not a real question anyway, so little is lost there. The only exception that generally isn't covered is English language resources, which I'll discuss later.

Naming of programming variables/classes has been expanded to cover all naming, since it's not on-topic anyway, and I've also cleaned up the jokes entry. Grammar peeving has also been cut from the list since that's also not constructive.

Resources

The only uncertain entry that I extracted is the one concerning English language resources, and there has been no consensus (and little opinion) on whether those questions are on-topic or off-topic. For example, a meta answer asserting that they're off-topic received 0 votes in either direction.

Including deleted questions, 61% of questions tagged have been closed, but some of these, while closed as off-topic, should probably have been closed as not a real question, not constructive, or too localized. Those that remain on the site range in quality, from those which just barely survive to the exceptional1. I am not sufficiently persuaded that the community has made up its mind on resources yet, so if we do make these changes to the FAQ, I intend to leave the item off of both lists for the time being.

One last thing that is bold because I feel like having text in bold

My goal here is to attempt to clarify the FAQ. Have I done that? I'd like to make sure that I haven't made it worse before entering the change into the system, so please let me know.


1If you're wondering why this question hasn't been closed for being not constructive, there are several factors, including its age, the fact that we link to it in our faq, and the fact that we refer new users to it when they get questions closed as general reference, that keep it alive.

  • 3
    I'm happy with every change suggested here - as you say, nothing is really intended to change anything - simply to clarify (and condense, perhaps). On the "resources" issue, I see nothing wrong with pointing someone in the right direction through a comment, while voting to close the question. – FumbleFingers Feb 28 '12 at 2:48
  • +1 from me! I agree to this change. – Phonics The Hedgehog Feb 28 '12 at 2:56
  • Everything on there looks good to me, except for the inconsistent capitalization (Translation and (?)Other Languages). Is the "other" supposed to be capitalized? – user11550 Feb 28 '12 at 3:05
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    @Mahnax Whoops, I was thinking in Title Case there. Now fixed. – waiwai933 Feb 28 '12 at 3:21
  • Alright, good. I have no complaints now! – user11550 Feb 28 '12 at 3:29
  • This seems good. We occasionally get poetry and song lyric questions. are they inherently off topic or should they be closed as not constructive, as appropriate? – Matt E. Эллен Feb 28 '12 at 9:06
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    Should we mention Writers.se in the off-topic list? They mention us in their faq. We could say something like "Writing advice or critique (see Writers.SE instead)". (I know we have Writers as an off-topic migration option when closing, but I noticed that this isn't obvious for anyone reading our faq, even in the why are some questions closed? section.) – aedia λ Feb 28 '12 at 16:03
  • @aediaλ Added as per your suggestion – waiwai933 Mar 1 '12 at 3:23
  • Literature.SE is also a good off-topic place to mention, for 'what is the meaning of this passage?' type questions. – Mitch Mar 1 '12 at 17:45
  • Literature.SE is closing. – Hugo Apr 27 '12 at 19:06
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If the FAQ is under revision, I think the community should also consider beefing up the paragraph that provides general advice on how users can find their own answers to overly simplistic questions (i.e., Where can I find answers to simple and basic questions?). (I see too many simple questions with the phrase, "I googled but I could not find..."). I offer a suggested draft:

Before asking a question on this web site, please do some earnest research first, to ensure your question is not readily answered by sources freely available on the Internet. A search engine such as Google is a great place to start, but results about grammar and word usage are often buried beneath results more related to pop culture. Google may be a good first option, but other websites may offer more targeted answers to your question. Before posting a question here, be sure it cannot be easily answered at other helpful sites such as these:

(Of course, that list can be appended or modified, as the community sees fit).


We might also consider including a concrete example of a good and bad question:

UNACCEPTABLE: What's the difference between "isn't" and "is not"? Can they be used the same?

(This question is too general, and can be answered on-line with minimal effort.)

ACCEPTABLE: I was reading some information about contractions on-line, where this advice was given:

As with so many issues in English punctuation, there is no set standard for the use of contractions. Traditionally, contractions were barred from formal writing on the grounds that contractions indicated a lack of formality. While in certain cases this might still be true, particuarly in business writing (e.g., "Here's my application for the position in..." is a little too casual for many tastes), the use of contractions is sometimes dictated by what would otherwise appear as stilted language and over-formality.

We're trying to decide if "isn't" is too informal for our user's manual:

This system isn't designed to monitor time more precisely than units of tenths of a second.

Is "isn't" too informal? Should we use "is not" instead?

(This is much improved, for several reasons. The quote indicates the individual did some earnest research, and is asking for answers that may not be so readily answerable. Moreover, the question has been carefully put into context, so it can be intelligently evaluated.)


One last thought: perhaps the On/Off topic section of the FAQ could include a list of places where off-topic questions can be asked. Something like:

If your question is not a good fit for this community, consider asking it at one of these more general-purpose websites:

Who knows? Perhaps, if new users were directed to a more appropriate place for off-topic questions, fewer would get posted.

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For the most part, these changes are fine, except for the bit about names.

I think listing "names" as a forbidden topic is far, far too broad. The names of people, places, and things can certainly be on topic here. How to pronounce them, whether or not they are arthrous, questions about eponomy, etc., all seem perfectly OK to me. What we want to exclude are questions about the activity of naming things, which while tangentially related to English language and usage, is certainly an area which I believe ought to be excluded here.

  • Bit of a late follow-up (oops!), but I've made the change to the text in the question here, and unless there's any last-minute opposition, it'll go live with the rest of it. (Anyone who wants to complain about antecedents in that last sentence is welcome to do so as long as they do so silently.) – waiwai933 May 12 '12 at 0:33
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It looks pretty good, but I'm going to second aedia's suggestion that you work in a link to Writers.SE.

In particular, their guidelines for asking for a critique might be a good jumping-off point for folks who come here looking for advice on their writing.

  • Updated with aedia's suggestion. – waiwai933 Mar 1 '12 at 3:23
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1) why some topics are in Italics and others are not?
2) "history of words' development" Do we need to explain what etymology means-really?
3) Translation and non-English languages.
The original "Languages other than English (including translation)" makes more sense since translation is in a different category than a language. On the other hand, it's quite obvious that non-English languages should be not included. I think what is not accepted are "direct translations" since there have been questions about the equivalent in English of a term in other language, such as dokkoisho.
4) "Names," What exactly is a "name"? Examples: names or titles of a company/a document/a link or menu/ a tattoo ?

Would you leave untouched

  • "The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts. Questions on the following topics are welcomed here: " ?
    My suggestion-remove the link
  • and "But please, don’t ask any questions about these topics. They are out of scope for this site. "
    My suggestion: remove the confusing "these".
  • Italics are things I touched in some way; I didn't add the definition of "etymology" in, but I assumed that it was there originally since some ESL students might not know it (maybe?); I'll think about translation—I'm not totally satisfied with the current entry, but I see your point; Names are names—don't ask about company names, baby names, names for variables, etc.; Yeah, it's time to throw away the link—I didn't catch that; what do you think about "don't ask any questions about the following topics" instead? – waiwai933 Mar 1 '12 at 3:18
  • @waiwai993 that is acceptable – Theta30 Mar 1 '12 at 4:54
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On the whole great.

But for all those topics that you say you removed because they would be not constructive, too localized or not a real question, I feel like those should be mentioned somewhere. They're not as you say literally off-topic, but they should be given as examples of why some things are not good questions.

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