This pertains to both asking and answering questions.

According to the Area 51 FAQ:

To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and challenging questions, not the basic questions found on every other Q&A site. Your goal is to make it clear that this is a professional site.

  1. Ask real, expert questions

    • Remember, pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around!

On the ELU FAQ:

The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts.

From an answer on Meta:

Thus, if you want to come on our "campus" and learn with your fellow students, we expect users to be armed with the basics and fundamentals of the field. Users who fail to meet the absolute minimum standards of a practicing professional, whatever field that happens to be (think FizzBuzz for programmers), should be helpfully directed to other resources where they can learn these things before coming back.

If you don't enforce some basic standards for participants, you soon won't have the benefit of any experts at all. And God help everyone on your Q&A site then.

As a non-expert, I sometimes feel "out of my depth" or at least ill-positioned to contribute. I consider myself an "enthusiast". On this site I expect to learn and sometimes be corrected on what I thought I'd learned.

I personally dislike the amount of questions that don't meet the site's aims, namely, basic reading comprehension questions couched as "meaning" and please-write-my-report-so-I-don't-sound-dumb "usage" questions (and I've given my (voting) support to ELL). The questions aren't the problem; it's that they (and the homework, non-native speaker, general reference, etc. questions) don't belong here in most cases.

Perhaps due to the glut of "softball" questions, a layperson may think, "I can answer that!" I've seen native and non-native speakers very adamantly declare what is "right" and "wrong" in their questions, answers and comments. This raises the question: who is right?

The Question:

If a person:

  • Does not have a subscription or access to OED
  • Does not have access to academic journals or a thorough library / university
  • Is not a linguist or received a degree in English studies
  • Is not an academic with ties to "authorities" on relevant matters

In short, if one is not an expert, does one have any business answering most questions on this site? That is not to say that one should be barred or discouraged from answering. However, that person's contribution to a question and the community as a whole would seem likely to be limited. Similarly, any questions from that person may be unlikely to have value (even if they are popular, they may be trivially answered). Perhaps one in that position should stick with voting, flagging and performing minor edits to best serve the site. Would that be in line with the site's philosophy?

On SO, a major goal is solving a problem. However, on ELU that problem seems rarely about the topics in the FAQ but is instead about how to write or speak "correctly" (i.e. proofreading, writing conventions, "which sounds better", etiquette, etc.) -- though perhaps I misinterpret the site's purpose. Does this site have too many "non-experts" involved where they don't belong?

Note: These are anecdotal observations, and I don't claim my answers or questions are of value.

  • 7
    Your four bullet points can be satisfied by someone who does not speak English very well and doesn't understand the nuances of usage, including which preposition to use in a particular case, what idioms mean, how word order affects meaning, etc. I've seen people who, by your criteria, do qualify as experts, furnish OED citations that completely miss the point of the question and therefore give what I would consider substandard answers. For example, to say what a word means today should be governed by what it meant in OE or ME is ludicrous. Yet we have such answers on ELU.
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 12:54
  • 143 views and not a single answer in the positive zone - WOW! [And a really important question, to boot.]
    – bib
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 1:59
  • 1
    Yep... that is why I am not posting an answer to this important question. Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 4:36
  • 1
    @Robusto: obviously these points aren't sufficient to be able to provide a good answer. The question asked is whether they (or something similar) should be considered necessary. Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 19:39

8 Answers 8


As to your qualifications, I'd vote no, no, no, and no.

Does not have a subscription or access to OED...

By no means would this disqualify someone from answering questions here. The OED may be the most comprehensive dictionary available, but there are plenty of other online resources that will suffice for many EL&U questions. (I wouldn't say X is "not a word" without checking the OED first, but I'd have no problem describing the difference between X and Y based on information derived from other credible dictionaries and resources.)

Does not have access to academic journals or a thorough library / university

It's rare to find a question here that would require that level of research to answer. (I wouldn't mind seeing one every now and then, but, even if I didn't feel qualified to answer it, such a question wouldn't prompt me to slink away.)

Is not a linguist or received a degree in English studies

My background is in computer science, which matches the background of several other EL&U regulars. I don't claim to be a linguist. I can offer advice on conversational English, or do some basic research into idiomatic meanings, but I have no problem participating in a community where I'll be able to answer the questions in some cases, while in other instances I'll have the privilege of learning from others who have more expertise in certain areas.

Is not an academic with ties to "authorities" on relevant matters

I think my ties to academia have helped me in this community, but I'd be surprised and disappointed if anyone else regarded such experience as a prerequisite for participating. (Heck, if I wanted to surround myself with academicians, I wouldn't bother to visit EL&U – I'd simply take a walk around campus.) Diversity is one of the best parts of EL&U, so long as it all remains civil – which it generally does.

A few things have gone a long way in helping me achieve success and acceptance within the community; your question seems like a good place to share these "secrets."

(1) I generally make an effort to avoid answering questions dogmatically, and to cite references where I've done my research. In other words, instead of saying,

"there's no such word as..."

I'd be more inclined to say:

"I'm not aware of that word... Moreover, when I checked X, Y, and Z, I couldn't find it..."

That approach generally goes a long way to keeping yourself safe from those sharp "go look in the OED" comments.

(2) When people have disagreed with me, or corrected me, I'd rather try to see their side of things, and avoid getting into confrontational arguments. Even if I don't completely agree with someone else's point of view, I try to be accepting of it, and learn something from it. The last thing I want to do here is make a fool of myself by arguing about something when I'm in the wrong.

As an aside, I've seen a lot of non-natives assume that they were being "picked on" or "ridden off" because they were non-natives, when really they were simply being obstinate about something they obviously didn't know a whole lot about. After the first comment, had they simply said, "Oh, thanks for letting me know about that," or "I didn't realize that, maybe I should change my answer," I think those same folks would soon realize that most of the ones they'd assumed were being adversarial had really been allies all along.

For the record, Zairja, I've regarded your contributions here as intelligent, and beneficial to the community at large. In fact, just the other day, I learned a new word (enjambment) from one of your questions.

But perhaps I've strayed from your real question:

In short, if one is not an expert, does one have any business answering most questions on this site? Perhaps one in that position should stick with voting, flagging and performing minor edits to best serve the site. Would that be in line with the site's philosophy?

so now I'll give my short answer:

If a user has something worthwhile to share, then, by all means, share it. If it's not worthwhile, it won't get upvoted. If it's distractingly bad, it'll get downvoted. Hopefully, a user will learn from that feedback, and eventually reach a state of equilibrium.

  • Wouldn't equilibrium imply as many downvotes as upvotes? Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 15:32
  • 3
    @TimLymington: That's not the kind of equilibrium I meant :^) I meant that, through voting and comments, users will eventually get a good feel for when they should contribute, and when they should refrain.
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 21:10

This is a worthwhile discussion point and I am surprised it hasn't been raised before (perhaps it has and I missed it).

I make no claims to be "an English Language Expert". I fail all four of your bullet-point tests, and I hope to slip in under the "serious enthusiasts" clause, as I am interested in words and the way they are used (this can sometimes be distracting during casual conversation). I have a shelf of books on English (chiefly usage and slang) to refer to.

Anyone who, when answering (or asking) questions, explains themselves coherently, cites evidence (either with links or other references - not everything is on-line) and notes points that tend to contradict their opinion qualifies as an expert in my book. The answer may be wrong but at least it won't be groundless, and we can all learn something from it.

  • 3
    Brian, doesn't your library card give you OED access? Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 19:41
  • 1
    @TimLymington Lots of libraries don't. Appallingly, the library at the university where my wife is taking an MA in English doesn't. They subscribe instead to something miscalled "Oxford Reference Online - Premium Collection". Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 20:18

The history of Wikipedia to my mind puts to bed any argument about the relative value of open access with moderation versus reliance on the authority of "experts".

Wikipedia was created to complement Nupedia, an online encyclopedia project edited solely by experts, by providing additional draft articles and ideas for it. Wikipedia quickly overtook Nupedia, becoming a global project in multiple languages and inspiring a wide range of additional reference projects.

Everyone who's used Nupedia and found it more useful than Wikipedia, please go ahead and downvote me.


I've only participated in SE sites for a few months. I do far more learning than "teaching" and have far more questions than answers. (My profile might indicate otherwise because most people have already asked the questions I have.)

Some newcomers can have a negative perception of how SE operates. However, if you look at the "top users" it's clear that SE (specifically ELU) isn't a circle jerk but a community. I think there are niches in the community for all user types. The FAQ gives a good outline on how to get involved in a productive way. Nevertheless, there is a mismatch between what some users want to get out of the site versus what the site can reasonably provide. This creates friction and doesn't benefit the community. I'm not sure if it's even much of an issue in the larger scheme of things.

Could more be done to communicate to new users what the site expects of them (assuming they want to participate with questions, answers, edits, etc.)? Is such an effort worthwhile? I'd be curious to see what brings people to ELU and what folks wish to accomplish by sticking around.

Either way, it's good to know that people with a genuine interest are welcome, so long as their attitudes and site contributions fit with the community's guidelines. As the "summer of nice" comes to a close, I hope that these guidelines will continue to be politely (but firmly) communicated to people who step outside them.


I personally don't believe there is such a thing as 'an expert on English Language and Usage'. There are certainly (both here and elsewhere) experts on etymology, phonetic shifts, grammatical rules and their construction.... There are also masters of individual dialects (whether Valley-speak or Liddesdale), geniuses who can coin a word or phrase so fitting that it crosses the Anglosphere in a few months, and journalists whose livelihood requires the use of up-to-the-minute slang. Many of the first group are in or near academia; not so many of the second group. But who would claim to know about all of English? Nobody I've met. And if there isn't an academic field of study that covers 'EL&U', how can academic qualifications be required?

Certainly a scholar's approach is so useful as to be almost required for a respected user; define the question clearly, cite relevant references whether they support your point or oppose it, and consider the weight of the argument rather than who is putting it forward. But nobody, surely, believes that scholarship in this sense is only found in academia? I have heard that it may even hinder your progress within the department...

  • 2
    I am shocked, shocked to hear you say that scholarship is not always valued in academia. Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 20:20

The role of non-experts entails from the role of ELU. If ELU is intended to be a place to obtain expert advice, then it must have experts answering, instead of programmers or EFL teachers or whatever posing as experts.

In the real world though, how would that be ensured? It can't be, so anybody, expert or not, can pose as one, so ELU cannot be an expert site. The question answers itself - ELU cannot stop non-experts and is forced to accept them.

Maybe a better question is whether there is any way to deter non-experts, and an even better one is whether ELU really wants to.


In short, if one is not an expert, does one have any business answering most questions on this site? That is not to say that one should be barred or discouraged from answering. However, that person's contribution to a question and the community as a whole would seem likely to be limited ... Perhaps one in that position should stick with voting, flagging and performing minor edits to best serve the site.

I fail your four points. And I'm quite happy to vote, flag and edit, and vote to close poor questions. But that doesn't mean that I'm not able to contribute usefully; and learn something myself. I've just received the Peer Pressure badge, which wasn't something I was trying to do.

Q&A sites really are chicken-and-egg.

To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and challenging questions, not the basic questions found on every other Q&A site. Your goal is to make it clear that this is a professional site.

The only way of indicating that a question is not interesting or challenging is to downvote, comment and close it. Unfortunately you can't stop under-par questions being posted — or being answered. Questions should be on the topics mentioned in the FAQ; but if they are not, is that the fault of existing non-expert members who have answered questions? Or of existing non-expert members who have asked similar questions so they appear in the questions list? I would suggest the latter; which would in turn indicate that an even more draconian approach to deleting questions needs to be taken. Is that desirable?

Sidenote: It would be very tempting to suggest a rule such that you can only answer a question if {your rep} + {the questioner's rep} + {the rep of other answerers} was more than, say, 6000. That would stop new users answering other new users' questions — which may be of low quality; and ensure that those who have valuably contributed to the site's ethos have an active role in continuing to do so. New users would be able to answer a question once it had been validated either with an answer from a trusted user, or by being asked by a trusted user. It wouldn't stop low-quality questions being asked, though.

  • 1
    If a question's not interesting to you, ignore it; it may interest others, and they may see something in it you've missed. And your sidenote would hypothetically be interesting, but ignores the fact that this site is part of the SE family, so any such change would have to be universal. Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 15:36
  • 2
    That's why I resisted the temptation to suggest it.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 15:52

During my brief period in EL&U I found that serious discrimination is experienced by some members of this community and I called on the 'moderators' to respond with policies that address effectively neutral treatment as the FAQ state.

Discrimination is alive, insidious and clearly targeted at those minorities of members like me and you, the majority of whom are not native of English language or do not have access to Oxford Dictionay of English Language.

Alas, people’s hopes and dreams to have a lot of points are being denied from some highest member of this community; they see no possibility of upward because of their illiteracy.

Members who have worked hard, played by all the rules and truly believe in the principles of the StackExchange system are trapped in isolated life with a lot of negative votes and closed questions.

I think they feel discriminated against and, ipso facto, rejected by rigid notions of standar English and 'pseudo-expertise'.

My concern about statements made by highest members of this community has been viewed as at best unwelcoming and at worst of a crazy nature; at the contrary, I think the messages coming from the highest members of EL&U must be unambiguous in signaling full commitment to promoting the spirit of EL&U, in which improvement of questions is at first place: questions must be cultivated not rejected!

Alas, that is only the vision, but not the reality of EL&U.

In this light, I concluded that the particular problems faced by you and me in this community is a direct consequence of discrimination and consequently require policy initiatives targeted to address the special circumstances that they face: a broader and more robust approach is required. Penalties for some 'moderators' should be sufficiently severe to act as a deterrent to future violations of the FAQ.

In the area of non-expert, for example, I believe that more must be done and can be done easily to create opportunities for all members and to transform the pourpose of the EL&U services to reflect the broad diversity within the entire community: linguist, expert, pseudo-expert, non-expert and illiterate people.

Rather than being considered to violate the FAQ, I think such action on the part of the highest members should be seen as essential to achieving a true vision of spirit of EL&U.

I commends 'moderators' for opening a public discussion on inclusive action policies. But when you hear 'moderators' using the terms 'NARQ' or 'GR' it sounds like a coded instruction to reject the questions; the terms conjure up misleading perceptions of privileges given to those from certain backgrounds.

Much more also remains to be done to establish an acceptance of tollerance for illiterate members. Currently, there is a widespread feeling within the community that to become a member of EL&U is not sufficient for full acceptance; that acceptance will be granted only with total assimilation of unacceptable 'moderators' system.

  • 10
    I have not felt discriminated against, nor do I take any constructive criticism personally. I occasionally detect a hint of condescension, but SE is full of egos -- these are the "best and brightest", in a sense, so that's expected. Also, SE may be a game ("dreams of points"), a distraction, an ego-boost, or to fulfill an altruistic desire -- in short, many things to many people -- but I think you're way too caught up in it. Step back. Breathe. I don't think you and I are on the same page at all here.
    – Zairja
    Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 1:17
  • @Zairja ... I hope for you, but I'm on the black list! Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 1:24
  • 11
    I don't think it has to be that way. You seem to have an overbearing personality that could easily rub folks the wrong way. You admit you are not an English expert, but rather than humbling yourself, it seems that you assert that you know best. Your enthusiasm is your strength and could be a great asset to ELU (or SE, in general). I would spend some time reflecting how to channel that energy into something productive rather than butting heads. Again, it's only my personal advice. :) Edit: There is no "black list". Just don't engage in behavior that will get your account banned.
    – Zairja
    Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 1:33
  • 7
    Why do you keep using "moderators" in quotes? We are elected members of the community, and if you truly feel there is intolerance then bring it up constructively. However, @xavier, remember that attitude (and having a good one) is important here. We all have something to learn, but demeaning people who don't understand how you've tried to word a question isn't helpful for anyone.
    – user10893
    Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 3:49
  • 4
    "to become a member of EL&U is not sufficient for full acceptance" - well, no, it isn't. Anyone in the world can post things on a web site and the other users of that site are under no obligation to accept it. Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 6:38
  • @simchona ... 'moderators' in quote means 'users with the black lozenge', of course! Commented Sep 1, 2012 at 18:08
  • 5
    As a non "native of the English language" I have never felt discriminated upon and also I find that joining EL&U (or other SE sites) in order to fulfil one's "hopes and dreams to have a lot of points" is the an entirely wrong approach.
    – None
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 7:50
  • 1
    @XavierVidalHernández Actually, the moderator character is a diamond not a lozenge. Specifically, it is ‘♦’, U+2666 BLACK DIAMOND SUIT, rather than ‘⧫’, U+29EB BLACK LOZENGE.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 11:54
  • What is this affirmative action business about? StackExchange as a minority entitlement program now?
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 11:55
  • 2
    Re: 'NARQ and GR as coded instructions for rejection' those can be used in a vague manner to vote to close questions that are just too difficult or too easy to answer. Re: 'perception of privilege' - this is an Q&A place, don't you hope and expect there to be people here who actually know something? The whole SE framework is geared to help match up experts to the quetsions. If that is elitism, then I think that is a good kind of elitism.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 16:20
  • 1
    RE: "some mistake can be occurred..." ~ did you use a spell checker?
    – J.R.
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 17:36
  • @Mitch ... sorry, I think that elitist approach must be repudiated. "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" are basic ethical principles that should underlie the conduct of each member of this open community, in the real spirit of SE framework! Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 17:45
  • @J.R. ... sorry, the spell checker was unactive when I wrote that; feel free to edit the footnote ... Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 17:49
  • The spirit of the SE framework? So do you like the idea of reputation or not? That shows who's better at answering questions and who's not. That's all the elitism I'm talking about. So if you don't like elitism you don't like SE.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 2, 2012 at 21:09
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    @XavierVidalHernández It's egalitarian in that anyone can participate. It's a meritocracy in that rep shows (roughly) "how much the community trusts you". If your contributions to the community lack merit, then your rep will probably reflect it. Unhelpful, misinformed answers are downvoted. Vague, "spammy" questions without visible effort are downvoted. This is why SE works (for the most part). Having the ability to participate does not give your voice any more value than another. Your value on the site is based on merit. ¿Comprendes? (:
    – Zairja
    Commented Sep 3, 2012 at 1:28

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