I was reading this question about usage of abbreviations and nicknames/abbreviations in a newspaper article, and noticed that the question earned a couple of downvotes, as well as two comments (to the question and to the first answer) about its inappropriateness on EL&U.

While I agree with the comments that the question has nothing to do with grammar or etymology, I think that the question still asks about interesting and important aspects of English usage, as in, how the language is used outside of grammar books.

I realize that questions of writing style have a place on Writers.SE, but I'm not sure this sort of question really fits there either.

So, to use the linguistic terminology that I was taught in college - are questions of linguistic pragmatics, like the one in the linked question, on topic on EL&U?

  • 2
    Questions for both usage and pragmatics are encouraged here. I consider these two differently, usage being for choice of word or syntax, and pragmatics more about the understood implications of an utterance ('implicature'). This particular question may have been too -culturally- narrow or topical for some people.
    – Mitch
    Apr 29, 2013 at 15:52
  • @Mitch I would agree, but it seems from the comments that what bothered people is the fact that the question didn't deal with grammar and syntax. Apr 29, 2013 at 18:08
  • The first comment is about grammar and syntax. That is the only one. And it is the only one that looks bothered by the question.
    – Mitch
    Apr 29, 2013 at 18:18

3 Answers 3


This site has had its fair share of "what does this word/phrase mean in this context?" questions. Not all questions on this site can be answered with a reference to grammar, etymology or a published work.

A question that cites and asks for clarification of current use of English in a publication is not off topic, AFAIC. Use of English includes idioms, set phrases and commonly known circumstantial abbreviations, like "W." for George W. Bush.

Just because there is no published reference book that can be quoted to explain these current phenomena of living language does not mean that the question is off topic.

I feel that the members who were critically rejecting the question do not really have a point. This site has hundreds of questions that don't have a connection to grammar and/or etymology and hundreds of answers and upvotes on comments that cannot be found in any reference book.

The question is a valid one. The asker tries to understand if a specifically worded reference to real people is common usage or not. Common usage always occurs BEFORE these items make it into the printed and published reference works. So, claiming that the question is not valid because the answer cannot be found in any reference book is rather short sighted.


The question asks about referring to people by nicknames. Is that English Language & Usage?

Is it English? Undoubtedly.

Now, Usage in “English Language & Usage” has a particular meaning:

usage noun

7. a. The established or customary manner of using a language; the way in which an item of vocabulary, syntax, or grammar is normally used, esp. by a specified group or in a particular domain or region.

b. An instance of such language use; a word, phrase, construction, etc., used in a particular or characteristic way by a group, in a region, etc.

[OED, my emphasis]

Thus, using OED’s examples, one might ask about wagon as a verb, or pronouncing ask as /aks/, or how the expression my lover is used in the British West Country.

I’m not convinced that nicknames qualify in this case as “items of vocabulary, syntax or grammar.”

Is it Language?

I’m indebted to Kris who has reminded me just now of the question about Odin’s tears. That question concerned a particular turn of phrase,

The skies will burst open and Odin’s tears will drown the world of men on the day when...

which the OP was intrigued about. Asking about a metaphor (or any other device) is asking about the language. I reckon that question is on-topic — and indeed I answered it as being a colourful turn of phrase and gave a couple of interpretations. It matters not whether the speaker misremembered where in Norse mythology it came from, although it’s certainly useful to point that out.

Does asking about nicknames fall into the same category? Possibly: Yoichi’s question is buried a little, but it’s stated as

Is it a customary way of Americans to call dignitary’s names [sic] by an initial or an abbreviation like “W” and “Bar,” or is it just Ms Dowd’s idiosyncrasy?

The question asks about custom and practice when referring to people.

Is that Language? Or is it Etiquette? It’s borderline. In effect, the question is turned round from “What’s the best way of expressing contempt for a public figure in a newspaper column?” — and we have quite a number of “What’s the best way of...” questions.

SE has had a couple of attempts at a site on etiquette: One | Two. None of the example questions cover this aspect of public language, or even the “What’s the best way of...” questions, so it probably should be asked in ELU.

That said, focussing on a particular article and attempting to generalise from the particular is not a good form.

  • The question also asks about the meaning and usage of "Silver Fox".
    – Hugo
    Apr 28, 2013 at 12:16
  • 1
    Well, there you go. Two questions in one. However, in the context of this Meta question, that comes down to "Is it Language or Etiquette?" too.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Apr 28, 2013 at 12:57
  • Are you really saying that because the Etiquette sites never got off the ground, etiquette questions should be on-topic here? Apr 28, 2013 at 18:32
  • @TimLymington No, I'm saying that the Etiquette sites never considered this sort of question.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Apr 28, 2013 at 18:33
  • 1
    RE: "The question asks about custom and practice when referring to people." I think it's a little bit different than that; the question asks about custom and practice when referring to dignitaries. (I realize that that nuance doesn't definitively the answer the "is this on-topic" question, but I do think it makes the question more interesting, and more focused from a linguist's standpoint.)
    – J.R.
    Apr 29, 2013 at 0:26
  • @J.R. True: it's still a Language/Etiquette distinction, but it does move the borderline. I'm not sure how it moves it, or in which direction!
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Apr 29, 2013 at 11:13
  • I don't think it's an etiquette question at all. Yoichi didn't ask whether it was polite to use nicknames but whether it was common usage in English or just Maureen Dowd's idiosyncrasy. There's no question but that this asks about language usage. Let's not forget that language & culture significantly identical, that much language is considered behavior (pragmatics: the social use of language), and that in that context, language & etiquette are inseparable conjoined twins. EL&U is just too damned unfriendly & always has been.
    – user21497
    May 9, 2013 at 15:14

To contrast Andrew Leach's interpretation of the word usage, I'd like to paraphrase wikipedia's article on the word:

Fowler defines usage as "points of grammar, syntax, style, and the choice of words".

The Chicago Manual of Style says "the great mass of linguistic issues that writers and editors wrestle with don't really concern grammar at all—they concern usage: the collective habits of a language's native speakers."

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