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More and more the site seems to be invaded by questions from users whose grasp of English is rudimentary at best, asking something (often indecipherable) about an unquestionably fundamental point of meaning or some basic use of the language, as opposed to subtle and debatable points of more sophisticated usage.

Frankly, although I like helping people learn English, this misuse is pushing me away from the site. I find my enthusiasm waning. Over and over, our more experienced users have to occupy themselves with simply informing the questioner that they should be using the ELL site.

I think we need to find a way to encourage people much more strongly and reliably to post their questions where they are most appropriate, rather than letting just anybody post just anything here. What do you think about this?

EDIT/ADDENDUM May 10, 2013:

First, thanks for the excellent discussion.

Second, Andrew Leach's link to a related question is great. I researched a good deal before posting, and still didn't find this particular question. J.R.'s answer there is worth reading for anyone interested in this discussion. (I haven't read KitFox's link yet, but I'm sure it's very good, and I'll go there in a minute; I can't go there at this moment, however, for fear of losing what I've just written.)

Third, Mitch suggests that I want "less newbie traffic," but I want to point out that this is not precisely what I'm asking for if it implies that I want fewer newbie users. The fact is, I'm perfectly happy with anyone using the site; the more users, the merrier. What troubles my sleep, however, is the high frequency of newbie questions.

So let me focus on the core of what I'm really asking here, to which Andrew Grimm and RegDwight have alluded: I feel we should have SOME type of bar to hurdle, gate to unlock, prerequisite to qualify, or filter to screen out inappropriate use. Call it what you will, characterize it any way you like, structure it any way you please... but this is a call to put SOMETHING in place to somehow stop the "junk," as Mitch calls it, from landing here in the first place.

Maybe it's not feasible, and maybe the majority opinion does not agree, but that's where my question lies: Can we and should we aim for that kind of modification to ELU?

And by the way, the answer might be as simple as renaming; how many newbie questions would be posted on a site called "Advanced Linguistic Analysis of English Syntax?" (I'm being facetious, of course, but I hope the hyperbole makes the point.)

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    The encouragement is in commenting and downvoting and closing as GR. – Mitch May 9 '13 at 17:33
  • @Mitch That's my point, Mitch. We shouldn't have to do all that with such questions as these. They shouldn't be here in the first place. The occasional one or two, yes, but the point is that the site is not being viewed as what it is meant to be. Too many people see it as the RIGHT place to ask GR questions. – John M. Landsberg May 9 '13 at 18:58
  • Then we're not doing those things enough. – Mitch May 9 '13 at 23:11
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    @Mitch We're not doing WHAT enough? Wasting our time on questions that don't belong here? I think you're missing my point. If people were posting questions about cooking shrimp, would you say we need to be doing more commenting and downvoting and closing them, rather than more accurately identifying this site as ELU, and NOT a cooking shrimp site?? If you want an broadly ecumenical English site, fine, but that's not this. We have a problem, and saying "let's just do more of what we're doing wrong" really doesn't solve it. – John M. Landsberg May 10 '13 at 0:59
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    We're not doing enough of what I mentioned: commenting that a question should be researched first/rewritten/asked elsewhere (ELL, yahoo, etc), then downvoting (to show that we think it is not a good question (and should be improved (possibly by deleting)), and voting to close as GR. Those are all the primary methods "to encourage people much more strongly and reliably to post their questions where they are most appropriate". – Mitch May 10 '13 at 1:52
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    And a plug for this related Meta question seems appropriate here. – Kit Z. Fox May 10 '13 at 2:08
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    Does ELU currently have a page you have to read before the software literally allows you to ask a question? – Andrew Grimm May 10 '13 at 10:23
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    Perhaps we should have a captcha that asks you to perform a basic task such as completing the sentence "I [go/walks/gone/went] [in/to/into/at/on] school when [me/I/mine] [will/are/was/is/were/am] young". On a more serious note, we should outright reject any and every question that fails to spell the word English correctly. That is basic courtesy, really. You don't go to a LEGO site and spell it "Playmobil", either. – RegDwigнt May 10 '13 at 13:12
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tl;dr – This is a site design problem.

Most first-timers don't intend to abuse this site. They just want their question answered. They're as disappointed as anybody else when the answer is "already answered" or "off topic" or "too basic" or what have you.

I'm not suggesting that the site should start welcoming poor questions. The real problem is that the site fails to guide the first-timer. Some facts which should be red-crayon underlined for the first-timer, aren't. For example:

  • Do your research.

  • If you are still lost, ask here, and post your research so far.

  • Ask expert-level questions. There are better sites for learning English.

If these were red-crayoned, both the community and the first-timer would appreciate it. So let's not blame the first-timer or the community. This is a site design problem.

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    +1 Exactly my point. I don't think I (nor anyone else involved here) was implying any blame be ascribed to anyone. I specifically want something in the site design to solve the problem, exactly as you point out, exactly as I said right off the bat. I pointed out I'm very happy with anyone using the site. If you interpreted from the beginning of my post that I was blaming the users, then I would hope that's a misapprehension that would have been clarified quickly by the content that follows. Anyway, I agree with your answer. But one thing: what's tl;dr? – John M. Landsberg May 14 '13 at 7:37
  • @JohnM.Landsberg "Too long; didn't read." It's a slang term for "In summary." – user867 May 14 '13 at 7:38
  • @user867 Thanks, but seems weird. I now see that's what the abbreviation would mean, but how is that synonymous with "in summary?" Wouldn't it be synonymous with, "I can't be bothered; let me just comment on what the overall thrust SEEMS to be?" – John M. Landsberg May 14 '13 at 8:14
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    @JohnM.Landsberg: Yes, you're right, tl;dr is often used in that manner. Ostensibly, you can skip to tl;dr and read the summary and that's all, but sometimes it is used snarkily as you suggest. Words have many meanings. – Mitch May 14 '13 at 14:28
  • Without having first read MetaEd's answer I wrote something similar but infinitely less eloquently. – Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '13 at 16:21
9

It's a valid point. Over the year or so that I've been here, I've noted that

  • most of the questions show that the questioner is not a native English speaker
  • most of the questions are about nonexistent "rules" that people have been taught in school
  • most of the questions that describe something in grammatical terms don't do it right

and, unfortunately,

  • most of the answers are matters of opinion, either the answerer's or a usage critic's

This is unavoidable, I spose, since the stack.exchange model (and its software and procedures) was developed for social interaction in computing, and there are facts in computing, so things either work or they don't.

There are facts in language, too, but there are also so many nonfactual opinions about English stated with total Authority that it's hard to get at the facts. Also, facts like English phonemes or the English verb phrase or English negative polarity are not normally taught in Anglophone schools, so learning about them comes as something of a shock to native speakers. You can imagine how that plays with non-native speakers who've been exposed to the usual English BS.

Understand, we're not getting the majority of English learners here. Most Europeans, for instance, get the facts about English, and other languages, in their schools, and so do many Asians. My experience as a grammarian and teacher is that they understand English grammar much better than native speakers, because they've actually studied it beyond third grade, and paid attention. But in China or India or other Asian countries, for instance, ESL can often be pretty primitive.

I'm not sure what to do about it; I'm pretty sure the new ESL.SE is not the solution. It seems, if anything, to be less useful than ELU.SE. But I agree with John; my enthusiasm is flagging, too. I think it's the normal reaction of a teacher to a class where nobody ever learns anything -- you get bored trying and give up. Of course, this is not a class, and we're not dealing with the same people over and over again.

But that's what it feels like.

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    John, agree. Answers are much more important than questions; not giving new users the ability to ask interesting questions emphasizes that answers are what the site is about. And while ELL occasionally prevent a not useful answer from being posted, they also prevent a lot of useless questions from increasing the noise on the site, but something doesn't work the way we expect any more. – user19148 May 10 '13 at 22:12
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    I, for one, sincerely hope that you don't give up on this site because it's the mix of users and their diverse knowledge and experience that makes it so deliciously interesting and educational for me and others. – Kristina Lopez May 28 '13 at 2:38
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    I disagree that in computing things "either work or they don't." Yes, even in programming — hell, especially in programming — nothing is unequivocal. Religious wars about methodology, frameworks, best practices, languages (this site only has to deal with one language, if I recall correctly), coding and naming conventions — it all makes the triumph of triviality Swift lampooned in A Voyage to Lilliput seem quaint and somewhat sensible by comparison. – Robusto Sep 24 '13 at 2:12
  • [Cont.] Hell, computer science even appropriated from Swift the notions of Little Endian and Big Endian to describe which end of a byte should hold the significant digit.. – Robusto Sep 24 '13 at 2:14
  • Oh there's theory and wars galore in computolandia. But in the final analysis the program either works or it doesn't, and it either does what you expect or it doesn't. There's a pragmatic sanction. Language has no such, since there's no operating system in common, even among folks who agree they all speak the same language. – John Lawler Sep 24 '13 at 13:46
  • Well, except language either works or it doesn't too. I leave my rebuttal to Twain: "When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he does not say it." – Robusto Sep 25 '13 at 2:43
  • And he was right about Cooper, too. Cooper's unreadable today and Twain isn't. But he complained about Cooper's ignorance of facts, as well. And ignorance of facts is the principal problem here. – John Lawler Sep 25 '13 at 13:24
  • As for language working or not, sorry, no. We rarely notice when it doesn't work, because we just assume it does. People are not computers and every one is different, also unlike computers. I repeat, there are facts about language and they are not opinions. But those who believe their opinions are facts will argue endlessly and uselessly about them. – John Lawler Sep 25 '13 at 13:29
  • Come now, are you accusing me of an inability to distinguish between opinion and fact? Or are you trying to say that computers cannot be differentiated one from another? The computer in your phone is not the same as the computer on your desk, which is still different from the one in your microwave. I didn't want to get into a big argument about them, but it sounds very much like you're saying "I'm right and you're wrong, so there." Hey, I was just trying to leave you with a bit of humor. Did my language not work? – Robusto Sep 25 '13 at 21:00
  • I don't know most people here and don't track their ideas or beliefs much. I recognize you, and a few other people, by the flavor and tendencies of their responses, but frankly I can't remember who's who very much. I'm simply more interested in questions and answers than I am in arguing. – John Lawler Sep 26 '13 at 3:04
6

I haven't asked many questions because I know how to find the answers to most things that I'm curious about. For most things that I can't figure out myself, I worry that they're too esoteric or fuzzy, or perhaps better suited to a more specific SE like Linguistics or Writers and off-topic here: stuff like oddities of gender in demonyms, or why identical rhymes are inferior in English poetry.

4

Perhaps - and I may be downvoted for suggesting this, though I hope not - Perhaps the hope that beginner questions can be avoided on a site such as this is a vain one? After all, other Stack Exchange sites, though allegedly for expert Q and A, do receive and answer a fair number of beginner questions; They are effectively places for expert advice, and the expert discussion comes up as much in the answers to beginner questions as it does in the expert ones.

I worry that the OP has made the assumption that, unlike other stack exchange sites, ELU should only serve those who are already experts in its field, instead of nurturing those who will doubtlessly become experts in future.

I agree that having our experts' interest wane is a bad thing, but I suspect that that might be a problem of unrealistic expectations, rather than of gatekeeping; One cannot expect every question to be a challenge, just as one cannot expect to be able to answer every question.

In my mind, the ELL/ELU split seems like it should be made with tags, rather than by segregating the questions onto different sites. I can understand the expectation that the kind of 'English expertise' required to discuss beginner-level English and more experienced use should differ, but isn't that just a matter of degree? The subject matter is the same; All that differs is the amount of experience and understanding of it.

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    I reckon no debate is complete without questioning the assumptions on which it is based. – user867 May 14 '13 at 7:37
  • Very good point, and I upvoted it! I'm not, however, talking about expertise, but instead, about focus. As you point out, the whole issue can be characterized as a matter of degree, and I grant that point of view has some validity, but I'm saying this issue actually pertains to subject matter. I think there's a distinction to be made, the same one you would make between English 101 and English 501. Students enrolled in 101 who tried to take a seat in a 501 classroom would be redirected, not allowed to sit down and start asking 101 questions. – John M. Landsberg May 14 '13 at 7:49
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    @JohnM.Landsberg Why are we the only stack exchange site that forces our 101 and 501 classes to take place in separate buildings? If the problem is one of unrealistic expectations, perhaps it'd be productive to define what our expectations are? – user867 May 14 '13 at 7:54
  • I dunno, 867. Where did you go to college? Boston U. (me) pretty much has classes all over the place. It's not what building; it's which class. And you're circling back around to my original point: Let's define our expectations up front, rather than have people walk into class, select a seat, wait for class to start, and then somewhere in the middle say, "Well, I want to know XYZ," and THEN we respond with, "Oh, I see. Well, go ask about XYZ across the hall, and by the way, you're a half hour late for THAT class." – John M. Landsberg May 14 '13 at 8:09
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    @user867: are you saying that ELU is the only SE site that separates into beginner and expert (ELU and ELL)? What about mathoverflow.net/math.SE? What about TCS (cstheory.SE) and cs.SE? – Mitch May 14 '13 at 14:33
  • @Mitch Ah, I hadn't noticed those. Still, even if there are other SE sites that separate beginner experts from advanced experts, are we sure that the separation exists for a good reason in the case of ELU and ELL? – user867 May 15 '13 at 4:19
  • @JohnM.Landsberg Yes, I recognise that expectations aren't being met; What I'm saying is that maybe we should re-examine those expectations to see if they're reasonable. It's all very well to want to keep the knowlessmen out, but if that's incompatible with this stack exchange being a sustainable and useful resource, we may have to accept their presence. – user867 May 15 '13 at 4:51
  • @JohnM.Landsberg And yeah, my building analogy wasn't very good. Sorry about that. I was trying to ask what the reason for the ELL/ALU separation is when so many other SE sites happily mix beginner questions with expert answers, and thereby imply that the reasons that they don't do it might apply to us, as well. – user867 May 15 '13 at 5:15
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    @JohnM.Landsberg Reading back over what I've written, I just realised I never addressed your argument that ELL and ELU have different foci, and not just different levels of expertise. Do they really? The amount of overlap seems pretty non-trivial to me. Could you define the actual (rather than theoretical) differences purely in terms of focus, without relying on level of expertise? Perhaps I'm just looking at the wrong time? – user867 May 15 '13 at 5:23
  • This answer is so dead on that I voted down all of the other answers because it effectively deserves two votes. – Evan Carroll May 23 '13 at 7:42
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I fully agree with @JohnLawler 's observations. I more or less lost interest in the site and took a break from it because of the excessive zeal of a number of high-ranked users in deleting or ostentatiously turning their noses up at fundamental questions. The learners who ask these questions might inadvertently bring up an interesting issue that could be discussed and debated between more experienced contributors.

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    Your statement seems at odds with the OPs complaint. He is saying there is too much newbie traffic, and you're saying newbies sometimes say interesting things. We all want less junk. – Mitch May 10 '13 at 2:19
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    If memory serves me right, "the excessive zeal of a number of high-ranked users in deleting or ostentatiously turning their noses up at fundamental questions", was your starting point. Then the said users encouraged you to participate, to change things for the better. And you did just that. Rather than taking a break from the site, you became incredibly active, marching on to 3.4k and gaining a whole number of privileges in the process, including the right to vote to reopen. I'm not quite sure why you make it sound as if you're back to square one now, when you clearly aren't. – RegDwigнt May 10 '13 at 13:00
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    I have a feeling that points are not the issue. Points are not fungible and measure nothing. – John Lawler May 10 '13 at 16:47
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    @RegDwighт that is a good point, and my answer could be misleading. I suppose It took me some time to get tired of the site. But @ JohnLawler is correct that points are not really the issue. Points do let me vote to reopen, but they don't help me to compel whatever kind of collegial spirit I had hoped for on the site. – jlovegren May 10 '13 at 22:51
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    @John, agree, points are not everything since not everything that can be counted counts; jlovegren, agree, not everything that counts can be counted. – user19148 May 10 '13 at 23:37
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    Well put, Carlo. That's the biggest, toughest problem in any science. – John Lawler May 11 '13 at 0:15
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    @jlovegren: I feel exactly the same way. The main thing I don't understand is how people can expect academic questions on a site that is open to those without a major in English or linguistics: it's like setting up a thrift shop and complaining about the low number of antique vases you receive. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica May 22 '13 at 4:45
  • @Cerberus Very well said. And this helps me restate my original point with a new attempt at clarification: I fully support this site being open to anyone and everyone. But this site, just like every other, has a meaningful delineation of the intended subject matter, and therefore a reasonable expectation that posted questions will fit that. I believe this assertion applies no less to this site than to the Science Fiction and Fantasy site. But it's easy to identify that "When do you use a and when do you use an?" does not belong on the SF&F site (continued next comment). – John M. Landsberg Jun 8 '13 at 18:35
  • It's also easy for the vast majority of potential users to see, prior to posting, that said question doesn't belong there. So I'm not promoting exclusivity or snobbery; I'm simply saying there is a defined universe of subject matter for each site, and I wonder if we can and should attempt to make discriminating and identifying that universe as clear and easy for everyone who comes here as it is for everyone who goes to the SF&F site? – John M. Landsberg Jun 8 '13 at 18:43
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    @JohnM.Landsberg I think you have hit upon a nice proposal. the real point of contention is that there are substantial disagreements about what consitutes said universe. one faction will say that the a/an question is definitely out, because it is too easy. the other faction will want to leave the question in since some shallow examination leads to less trivial areas of English grammar. the opposition traces more or less the division between English scholars and linguists, a division which I imagine is lacking in the field of SciFi and Fantasy. – jlovegren Jun 9 '13 at 0:58

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