24

One of the essential components of the FAQ will be the list of on-topic and off-topic subjects for questions.

Let’s use this question to vote on what topics should be on and off topic.

  • I went looking for actual things which were voted to close as off topic but could not find many examples. – delete Sep 9 '10 at 15:58
  • Did you mean to link to that Webapps meta question? I don't see the relevance to this... (The model we are using in this q is just great though.) – Jonik Sep 17 '10 at 12:48
  • Whoa, that link was something totally different before. At least I thought it was. – nohat Sep 17 '10 at 16:23
  • 2
    Heh. I actually looked around their meta but didn't quickly find anything similar to this. (Please fix the link if you some day do find what you (thought you) meant.) – Jonik Sep 18 '10 at 11:50

18 Answers 18

26

{Off-topic}

Please proofread my document

  • 4
    Vague requests to "Please check my English" as a category of off-topic question might be clearer. On the other hand a specific question on whether a construction was right or not should be on topic. – delete Sep 13 '10 at 4:27
  • 3
    Sometimes there are interesting corner cases: e.g an otherwise ok question where "BTW: Do you think there's any other problem in this paragraph?" makes it sound a bit like a proofreading request. – Jonik Sep 14 '10 at 20:32
23

{On-topic}

Etymology (history of words’ development)

  • 1
    I'd make a request to at least check etymonline before asking an etymology question. – SrJoven Feb 15 '15 at 3:07
  • While etymonline is a great place to send someone looking for basic etymological information, it is not a particularly well-known resource, and we should not require that people know of its existence before asking etymology questions here. – phenry Feb 16 '15 at 17:32
  • @phenry I might agree with you, but might also point out that roughly the same effort to learn about etymonline must be expended to learn about the other reference materials that are suitable for dismissing a question as General Reference/show your research. – SrJoven Feb 17 '15 at 14:30
  • 1
    I agree with phenry that Etymonline is relatively obscure; however, the major online dictionary websites (TFD, Dictionary.com, ODO, MW, etc.) do include simple etymologies for most words. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that a question explain when the simple origin named is insufficient or suspicious. – choster Feb 17 '15 at 20:46
22

{On-topic}

Dialect differences

21

{On-topic}

Usage, word choice, and grammar

19

{On-topic}

Pronunciation (phonetics and phonology, dialectology)

  • 3
    Really? There is always an objective standard pronunciation (or two). And, in the other direction, I think questions about dialectical variation are fascinating! – Kosmonaut Sep 10 '10 at 19:38
  • -1 I would say it depends in cases which could be answered, clear without ambiguity, by listening to mp3 from merriam-webster, it should be off-topic. – stacker Sep 10 '10 at 22:53
  • 4
    Are the folks who are downvoting this suggesting that fundamentally the topic of pronunciation is somehow off-topic to a site about English language and usage? The pronunciation tag is the 5th most popular on the site. Why haven’t you been voting to close those questions? – nohat Sep 10 '10 at 23:09
  • @Ed Guiness: a comment saying that something is uninteresting is subjective. – delete Sep 13 '10 at 4:30
  • 3
    @nohat I downvoted because I would be less interested in this topic than others. This is a subjective poll of what we'd like to see, right? If this is a poll of what should belong to "a site about English..." then I'll retract my vote. – Ed Guiness Sep 13 '10 at 8:15
  • @Ed Guiness: My point is that it isn't possible to objectively say that something is uninteresting, since one's interest in something is inherently subjective. Thus, in claiming that this is "subjective and uninteresting", you have committed the very flaw which you accuse the topic of, of being subjective, yourself. – delete Sep 13 '10 at 11:27
  • 1
    @Shinto I down-voted because I wanted to see less of this topic, and I added an explanation - a subjective explanation - as to why I down-voted. Isn't that the point of the poll? I don't understand your comment that I "committed the very flaw..."? – Ed Guiness Sep 14 '10 at 20:44
  • @Ed I just think @Shinto is saying that on the one hand you are saying that pronunciation should not be on-topic because it is subjective (implying that subjective topics should be off-topic), and on the other hand you are saying that pronunciation should not be on-topic because it is uninteresting, but the claim that the topic is uninteresting is itself subjective. I don’t think that it matters if your opinions on the meta site are subjective or not, but Shinto seemed to think that you yourself being subjective takes away from the objection that the topic of pronunciation is subjective. – nohat Sep 14 '10 at 22:16
  • 1
    …as for me, I think the topic of pronunciation is neither subjective nor uninteresting, but that’s why we’re voting here. I think both Shinto and I would have found your downvote explanation more compelling if you had given more justification and argument for what seemed, to us, like a bizarre objection. Even if you (want to) change your vote I’m still curious to understand better why you thought pronunciation should be off-topic. I have edited the entry to add some subtopics, and you should be able to change your vote now, if you still want to. – nohat Sep 14 '10 at 22:21
  • @nohat I downvoted because... oh never mind, I'm repeating myself. – Ed Guiness Sep 15 '10 at 10:22
  • 1
    I too find that on average questions about pronunciation are "less interesting" to me - but not always, and sometimes the issues being explored may be positively fascinating. Anyway, I'm upvoting because I assume we're voting on what's on/off topic, not which on-topic areas we least like. – FumbleFingers Aug 4 '11 at 12:44
  • Downvote because phonetics and phonology rapidly depart from the domain-specific (English language and usage), unless specifically coupled with the domain. – JEL Aug 22 '16 at 22:28
  • @JEL I'm not sure I understand... do you think the discussion of how to pronounce words in English should be off-topic for this site? – nohat Aug 23 '16 at 0:02
  • Well, I suppose you could say it's understood, and especially when bolstered by "Languages other than English (off-topic)", but phonetics and phonology explicitly deal with speech sounds, first, speech sounds of 'a' language, second. Nonetheless, I'd be happier if the subject language was explicit: "English language pronunciation etc.". – JEL Aug 23 '16 at 1:09
18

{Off-topic}

How to improve my English

  • 2
    Yes, please this must be off topic or we'll drown in a flood of "advice" posts. – delete Sep 9 '10 at 4:30
  • 1
    I think it would depend on how particular the question is – Casebash Mar 26 '12 at 13:27
17

{Off-topic}

Criticism of English literature

  • Can you make this a bit less of a broad thing? E.g. "Criticism of English literature". There could well be things in English literature which are on topic. – delete Sep 9 '10 at 4:30
  • @Shinto done, per your request – nohat Sep 9 '10 at 5:53
  • Questions and answers about English language and usage are a subdomain of English literature criticism (analysis, interpretation, evaluation and, perhaps to a lesser extent, classification of such literature). If it was spelled out that the idea of this is to exclude certain types of criticism, I'd probably agree. As it stands, the notion that criticism is off-topic is vocal testimony that the nature of the enterprise at ELU is not well-understood. – JEL Aug 22 '16 at 22:36
  • @JEL I think you've got it backwards—this is a site that is fundamentally about linguistics of English—literature is an entirely different topic. Allowing questions about criticism of English literature would be like allowing questions about biology on a chemistry or physics site. – nohat Aug 23 '16 at 0:06
  • I suspect my immediate reaction, that which is backward is a matter of perspective, is not going to be productive, so I'll come at it from a different direction: the definition of 'literature' must include all written material, in this case in a particular language, English; soup can labels as much as Shakespeare. Your comment seems to assume that the domain of linguistics is agreed, and not subject to (expert) change. Yet matters as fundamental of the origin of language (gestural, articulatory) do not meet with universal agreement or have a history of consensus among linguists. – JEL Aug 23 '16 at 1:02
  • @JEL I'm still not sure what you're getting at... do you think that this site should be open to questions about e.g. transcendentalism and postmodern critical theory, or are you just here to wag your finger at us for not narrowly circumscribing the topics at hand enough to satisfy the most ardent definitionalist? – nohat Aug 23 '16 at 1:42
  • No finger-wagging involved. And yes, the site should be open to certain types of questions about 'transcendentalism' and 'postmodern critical theory'. – JEL Aug 23 '16 at 1:46
17

{Off-topic}

Please write my document for me

  • This is not the same as "Please proofread my document [that already exists]"; much rather, it is the equivalent of "plz give me teh codez" on SO. I am adding this in response to this question (now deleted, so only accessible to 10k users), which is very similar in spirit to "Please proofread my document" (off-topic) and "How to improve my English" (off-topic), but doesn't actually fall into either of these categories. – RegDwigнt Nov 29 '10 at 18:58
  • 1
    please consider editing your comment, because that link is dead. – Theta30 May 12 '11 at 8:33
  • @Bogdan: it is not dead. The question is deleted. Get to 10k and you will see it. – RegDwigнt May 12 '11 at 8:36
  • 3
    But is not mandatory for me, or someone who is using ELU to achieve 10K. They would click to a dead link without at least being prevented. – Theta30 Aug 27 '11 at 3:43
16

{Off-topic}

Peeving about grammar disguised as a question

  • I don't see why that should be put into the "off topic" category. E.g. I asked a question because I think it's annoying that people call the twentieth century "the nineteen hundreds" when that actually means 1900-1909; isn't it a point for debate rather than something to slam straight into the sin bin? – delete Sep 9 '10 at 15:49
  • 2
    @Shinto Sherlock: I would welcome a question asking about what to call certain decades, or how we come up with the names, or why we don't know/agree what name to use, or why these are always changing. These are really interesting questions that could lead to interesting discussions. But if the question is "people who call something X are wrong, don't you all think so" or "it's annoying that people say X", then I don't see how anything useful can come out of that. It's just an invitation to an argument that can't be settled because it is subjective. – Kosmonaut Sep 9 '10 at 18:41
  • 6
    I think Shinto Sherlock has a point here that I think the explanation of what exactly is off-topic should be crystal clear. Maybe “peeving about grammar disguised as a question”. In most cases, simply rewording the question to be more neutral as to the correctness of the inquired-about usage is sufficient to make the question acceptable, I think. – nohat Sep 9 '10 at 22:33
  • 1
    @nohat has it, this is more to do with the way questions are phrased than what is off topic. – delete Sep 10 '10 at 2:09
  • I can see the distinction, but don't we usually close "isn't it annoying" questions as off-topic? Should we stop doing that? – Kosmonaut Sep 10 '10 at 13:27
  • 2
    @Kosmonaut, I think it’s better to close a question like this as “not a real question” if it’s not a real question (and just peeving disguised as a question). If the asker rewords in a less peeving tone, then the question can be reopened. I think maybe with a re-wording this will generate more support. – nohat Sep 10 '10 at 23:19
  • I have to agree that it's all about (re)wording. There is something to be said about explicitly allowing questions of the type "I always follow rule X, why doesn't everybody else?" in order to debunk popular myths once and for all. I am thinking about "less" vs "fewer", "emails" and countless others. I think they are not only on-topic, but indispensable. They just have to be worded carefully (then again, so do most questions, to one degree or another). – RegDwigнt Sep 13 '10 at 15:03
  • If the only point of a "question" is to provide a soapbox for peeving about some usage, it seems to me that strongly implies it's "not a real question", so it can be assessed on that basis. Whilst I agree that in general a peeving tone is undesirable, I'm not convinced it's a sound reason in and of itself for closing. – FumbleFingers Aug 4 '11 at 12:54
15

{On-topic}

Spelling and punctuation

  • 4
    Please explain how Spelling can bypass General Reference to be on topic here, and how punctuation is an English language topic. – SrJoven Feb 15 '15 at 3:12
  • @SrJoven: questions about spelling patterns that apply to many words can be on-topic and not general reference; dictionaries usually only address the spelling of particular words. If we don't consider the OED to be general reference, some questions about historical spellings would probably not be answered by a general-reference dictionary. Punctuation is not the same in all languages; for example, in French a space is used before a question mark, and they use funny quotation marks. – herisson Dec 31 '15 at 4:13
14

{Off-topic}

Languages other than English

  • 13
    It depends. The question "Why is it X in German?" is obviously off-topic. The question "Why is it Y in English, if it's X in German?" could already be a tad intriguing, though still not automagically on-topic. However, the question "Why is it Y in English, while in most other Germanic languages it is X?" is perfectly fine IMHO, as long as the author doesn't produce the word "most" out of thin air. – RegDwigнt Sep 12 '10 at 16:15
12

{On-topic}

Problems encountered by people learning English

  • Hmm, what does this mean, exactly? – delete Sep 9 '10 at 4:31
  • 1
    I was thinking of questions like english.stackexchange.com/questions/2538/… and english.stackexchange.com/questions/2516/response-to-thank-you and english.stackexchange.com/questions/2353/… but perhaps when I got to this place in the list I became a victim of cloudy thinking. – nohat Sep 9 '10 at 5:48
  • 1
    +1 from me - as a non-native speaker (and not a linguist) almost any question I might have would arguably be in this category. (I.e. the answer would probably be obvious to a native speaker.) But: How does this differ from "how to improve my English" as off-topic? – j-g-faustus Sep 10 '10 at 1:41
  • @j-g-faustus “how to improve my English” means questions just like that—“How can I improve my English?”, “What techniques are there to memorize English vocabulary?”, that kind of thing. – nohat Sep 10 '10 at 1:51
  • 5
    +1 I think that a lot of times people who don't grow up with English tend to notice it's inconsistencies more often and more readily than do native speakers. I'm always happy to figure out that there's more reason behind something than "it just sounds right this way." – kitukwfyer Sep 10 '10 at 2:32
  • 1
    @j-g-faustus: it looks like the difference is how specific the question is. General questions asking for help with English aren't helpful for other readers in the audience, but specific questions make the internet a better place as people come across them in the future and have their question "pre-answered". Open ended questions are less future-proof. – Jared Updike Oct 28 '10 at 22:35
8

{Off-Topic}

How do I make this (citation, document, quote, whatever) conform to MLA (or APA, or any other) style guidelines?

[vote up if you agree it should be off-topic, vote down if you think it should be on-topic]

  • 1
    Agreed, unless the relevant style guideline itself is manifestly ambiguous or self-contradictory. But the questioner's first resort should be to the primary source, i.e. to the actual guideline. – Erik Kowal Feb 17 '15 at 8:32
7

{Off-topic}

Questions that can be best answered by a dictionary. Examples: Tenses, simple definitions, pronunciations. Exceptions can be made for unusual, uncommon or archaic words.

  • 3
    Questions about tenses cannot be answered by a dictionary; questions about pronunciation cannot be answered by American dictionaries. Both these kinds of questions are ON-topic. – John Lawler Apr 4 '13 at 21:08
6

{Off-topic}

Typography questions that do not already qualify for one of the other topics listed as on-topic. In other words, typography questions are not in and of themselves enough to considered on-topic.


See previous discussion.

  • 1
    I would be happy if typography questions of all kinds were sent to a punctuation stack exchange. Typography and punctuation are technology, not language. – John Lawler Apr 4 '13 at 21:09
  • 1
    So, nohat's Spelling and Punctuation is on topic but Typography is off-topic? – SrJoven Feb 15 '15 at 3:14
5

{Off-topic}

Gratuitous, condescending, or unasked-for grammar corrections. Otherwise there is a risk of the grammar-correcting flame in turn being flamingly grammar-corrected, ad nauseam.

I have been on the site for one day and have already received what felt to me like a sneeringly condescending slam of one of my own (apparent) errors in a question I wrote to the best of my grammar ability. And just in the last ten minutes I myself have been tempted to oh-so-smoothly (yet condescendingly?) point out other people's spelling and grammar errors three or four times. Whether that was a reaction to my own experience or not, it makes me think such behavior is a real and dangerous risk.

Like in the domain name suggestions thread where "GrammarNazi.Com" was seriously voted down because it has all the wrong connotations, I think some clear guidelines are necessary to help this place NOT be full of such people experiences that elicit such a label.

Maybe this isn't the fully correct place to mention it (so please tell me if so and I'll move the content) but I've also had one of my honest questions voted down without an explanation. Really? I remember pondering the question a full twelve years ago and wishing I knew the answer. It was a natural question to ask after finding the site. What gives?

There is a real risk in my mind of people experiencing a lot of negativity, here. On Stack Overflow, the focus is on solving problems. Also, there are often many, many good solutions to the same programming problem. But in many cases there is only one "right answer" in grammar and the focus can easily be on correcting mistakes. This naturally appeals to the intellectual (yet egotistical) elite who all too often want to both display their skills and smack down others in order to feel superior. It also makes it easier to take voted-down questions personally (which I am doing about my question because I honestly can't imagine what someone could object to about it). If I really didn't know the answer, and there's any kind of substantive grammar answer possible, how can asking the question be worth punishing?

Note: I am not suggesting all unasked-for corrections be banned. The point is how things are done. A simple "FYI: fait accompli should be italicized" or even editing the post to fix the problem is a lot better than making a comment or wisecrack that leaves the person possibly less than happy.

Update

I just found Should we correct (or point out) language errors in questions? which addresses this. To me there isn't enough emphasis in that question on the negative side-effects of correcting people's grammar tactlessly.

Feel free to edit my answer to fix grammar. No comment necessary.

  • 1
    I took the "fait accompli" comment to be an attempt to humorously ask: where do you draw the line? Your question was about pedantry, so they were making a point about it, not actually saying your mistake must be corrected. However, I agree with what you say in spirit — comments about fixing typos should not be needlessly rude. But, do you have examples that suggest this is really a pervasive problem? – Kosmonaut Sep 26 '10 at 17:08
  • I don't see it as pervasive. My point is that it would be a shame for it to become so. Also, I don't see my question as strongly exhibiting pedantry. I would really have preferred simple information than a joke. I'm going to update that question. See there for more. – ErikE Sep 26 '10 at 18:40
  • 1
    Oh well... some people prefer jokes, some people don't. We have all kinds here. – Kosmonaut Sep 26 '10 at 20:57
  • 1
    About the update: correcting obvious mistakes (by editing) is encouraged at every SE site, exactly as it is on Wikipedia. If someone has a big problem about his errors being corrected, well, they are on the wrong site; the FAQ is pretty clear about this. – Jonik Sep 27 '10 at 15:28
  • @Jonik I have no problem with errors being corrected. In fact, I crave error correction more than any person I know, in person and online. I'm the only person I know who will immediately ask, when someone uses a word I don't know, what it means. The point is how it is done. I guess I'm sensitive to unnecessary snobbery (and admit it's a danger for me, too). – ErikE Sep 27 '10 at 16:43
  • 1
    Don't get me wrong: I'm 100% for being tactful, in editing and other situations too. :-) (But if someone was inclined to edit posts untactfully, I'm not sure if emphasis in a meta question would make much difference...) – Jonik Sep 27 '10 at 19:34
  • 4
    This question is for what questions should be on-topic. It does not address the content of answers, which is what this response seems to be more about. I agree that some reasoned guidance on how to point out grammar errors is in order, but perhaps in the question about what should go in the FAQ – nohat Sep 27 '10 at 20:47
  • 5
    Also, my advice to @Emtucifor is try not to take downvotes so personally. It’s not a referendum on your value as a human being—voting is just a tool for the userbase to try to guide and focus the direction of discourse and you mustn’t ascribe too much thought and reason behind what is usually just a snap decision. – nohat Sep 27 '10 at 20:50
  • @nohat Fair enough. I also see you are 100% correct that this question is about question relevance, not answer or comment relevance. Would someone mind changing the title of the question to read "What are on-topic and off-topic questions here?" Also, I'm happy to delete my answer to this question as it turns out to be off-topic! – ErikE Sep 27 '10 at 21:46
  • For the record, I downvoted this answer in the vein of it not being a good Off-Topic suggestion. – MrHen Mar 25 '11 at 20:17
-2

Interpreting Shakespeare. Vote up for {On Topic}. Vote down for {Off Topic}.

  • See the previous highly-upvoted answer which regards literary criticism as off-topic. Also, thank you for bumping this question! I'd never seen it before and it's amazing. – Dan Bron Feb 15 '15 at 13:27
  • @DanBron Thank you for the kudos. I think interpretation is a bit different from criticism, but agree with the sentiment. – SrJoven Feb 16 '15 at 15:32
  • Please define what you understand by "interpreting". (Also in the next answer.) – Andrew Leach Feb 17 '15 at 18:50
  • Interpreting: "What did the author mean when he said, xxxxx?" – SrJoven Feb 17 '15 at 19:27
-5

Interpreting musical lyrics. Vote up for {On Topic}. Vote down for {Off Topic}.

  • 2
    It seems to me that this categorical reason is sometimes used to throw out questions that are not asking for the pop-song counterpart of literary criticism, but rather are asking about the meaning of a word or phrase that happens to appear in a song. I can't see any reason to reject such questions in the context of a song if we would accept them in the context of a sentence from a book or a line from a poem. I think a better counterpart for literary criticism (which I agree is not a suitable topic for EL&U) would be "analyzing [not "interpreting or explaining phrases from"] musical lyrics." – Sven Yargs Feb 16 '15 at 21:18

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