I think it's time that we addressed the conceit that ELU is a site for "linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts." Its framers and many of its devotees intend for it to be precisely that, but it is not, and—for a number of reasons which I shall explore here—it never will be. In my opinion, this mistaken belief is harmful to the site, the people who come here to use it, and even to the Stack Exchange network as a whole.

Stack Exchange is designed for knowlege transfer: information is supposed to flow from the people who have it to the people who do not. I've been a member of Stack Overflow since the private beta days, and I currently have accounts on 18 sites. Different sites have different rules and cultures, and most sites don't tolerate questions from the genuinely clueless. Yet with the exception of this one, every SE site I've seen adheres to a basic unwritten rule: if you know enough about the topic to formulate a serious question about it, you're entitled to an answer. For example, the front page at Mathematics SE is full of questions I couldn't understand to save my life, yet they still get basic arithmetic questions, and if those questions follow the rules (don't ask people to do your homework for you; supply enough information to make the question answerable; etc.), they get answers. There's none of this "general reference" nonsense, because MSE is the general reference.

It's especially important to understand that the Stack Exchange Network is engineered for the more inclusive MSE model, not the more exclusive ELU model. The "Hot Network Questions" section on every page of every site is designed to drive traffic between sites. Visit any page at Biblical Hermeneutics or Bitcoin, at Arqade or Poker, and odds are very good that you're just a click away from one or more questions at ELU. Once you get here, you are told repeatedly in several places that anybody can ask a question, and you don't even need an account to do so. By now, the Stack Exchange network is well known to the Internet community as a place where one can ask "questions that are clear and specific, representing real problems that you face." People who visit this site have a reasonable expectation that it is a place for asking practical questions about English usage. For them to be told that their reasonable and well-phrased questions are "off-topic" is mystifying—not to mention incredibly rude.

The basic unworkability of this exclusionary attitude is illustrated starkly by the fact that even the people who are most dedicated to the "serious enthusiasts" conceit act like they don't believe it. ELU has a reputation for being a site inhabited by close-happy snobs, yet if we were truly serious about being a site for expert linguists we would probably be closing about 90 percent of the questions. Few of the questions that get asked here would ever be asked by someone with a bachelor's degree in English, let alone a professional linguist. Yet most of them get answered, and many of them get upvoted, and relatively few of them ever get closed. Those of us with 4- and 5-digit reputation scores have made them on the backs of these relatively basic questions. Don't make me link to individual profiles. We all know it's true.

Meanwhile, the overzealous "no reference questions!!" attitude here leads us to close the very questions we're theoretically here to answer. Example: If there's one topic that should be in scope for a site dedicated to English language enthusiasts, it's etymology. There is nothing more peculiarly English than the details of how this language came together and evolved, and the etymology of even the simplest words may prove illuminating and fascinating as they are followed from Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare to today. But what happens when someone dares to ask about the origin of a word? "Off-topic." Get thee away from us, child; we are serious linguists and cannot be bothered with your silly questions about where words come from. Off-topic.

"But phenry, aren't many of these questions a better fit for ELL?" English Language Learners is not the answer. I've been a professional writer for more than 15 years, and I'm good at my job because I have an innate sense for the "look and feel" of English. As a result of that, though, I'm way behind on some of the technical underpinnings of grammar and syntax—I'm still not sure I completely understand the difference between a participle and a gerund, for example. (One of the reasons I enjoy answering questions here, in fact, is that it forces me to figure out why my answer is correct before I give it.) So I understand as well as anyone that anybody can have questions about the fundamentals of English. To tell 40-year-old native speakers of English that they need to go to a site for "English language learners" is insulting and arrogant.

I want to make it clear what I'm saying here: when I say "this is not a site for serious English language enthusiasts," I'm not advocating a position, I'm stating a fact. Barring structural changes to the Stack Exchange network, the Internet-using world as a whole will always see this as a site for asking practical questions about English usage at all levels, and no one here has the power to change that. So there are two ways we can respond: We can continue to circle the wagons, turfing questions that don't measure up to our rarefied standards, growing ever more insular and hostile to outsiders in pursuit of that beautiful, pure conversation about advanced English linguistics that will never happen. Or we can face reality and accepted that ELU is to English as MSE is to mathematics: while we shouldn't feel obliged to tolerate questions analogous to "What is two plus two?", serious practical questions at every level of proficiency should be welcome here.

So if ELU is to be a place where the common rabble are welcome, then whither the serious linguist? Well, gosh, people, Linguistics SE is ready when you are. When I look at the English tag over there, I see exactly the kind of advanced questions that people here pine for. The Promised Land already exists, and it's right in front of you. If I were in charge of the DNS zone file, I'd even create english.linguistics.stackexchange.com as a shortcut to the tag, along the lines of facebook.stackoverflow.com. If that won't work for some reason, there are other options. MSE has its own "big brother" site, MathOverflow, for professional mathematicians. I don't recommend asking basic arithmetic questions there. If you want a site for "serious English language enthusiasts," go to Area 51 and propose one.

Whatever else happens, for this community to continue seeing itself as akin to MathOverflow while the rest of the world views it as analogous to Math SE is unsustainable, misleading, inefficient, shortsighted, and rude.

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    I disagree. I think you are short sighted, and defeatist. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 19:17
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    ELL is "a question and answer site for speakers of other languages learning English." It serves a purpose as that. To use the existence of ELL as an excuse to bar basic practical usage questions at ELU is ludicrous.
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 19:39
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    @MattЭллен - To call me "defeatist" is to assume that I share your goals for the site, which I think is pretty clearly not the case. I don't believe ELU needs to be defended from the commoners. I think good questions with good answers make ELU a better site, whether they're asked by people with doctorates or not.
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 20:08
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    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 - If ELL was only ever intended to be ELU's wastebasket, then that's what the proposal should have said. Instead, the people who fought hard against labeling ELL as what it is (an ESL site) swore up and down that it would not become that. You can't have it both ways.
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 20:21
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    I do agree that EL&U should have been made general-purpose and "advanced" topics moved to a new site— kicking Germany out of the euro instead of Greece, as it were. At current rates ELL will never catch up to EL&U in visibility or participation, and thus never attract the questions it is supposed to. A new user would be foolish to submit a question to a less-developed, lower-visibility site when the same question would receive a substantially similar answer, possibly from the same person, on the bigger, older one. Based on my observation of both sites, creating ELL was a strategic error.
    – choster
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 1:41
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    @choster: We should not view the site charter as the unchanging word of God. SE sites can and do adapt to changing cultures. This question was asked by Joel Spolsky himself in 2009 to demonstrate that SO was open to questions at all levels. The user base later decided that it wanted to be more restrictive than that, and the question was closed. Here at ELU, the user base as a whole has clearly decided that it wants the site to be less restrictive, and ELU should adapt, even if it disappoints those who are committed to the site's original vision.
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 3:16
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    @MattЭллен - No! The user base is asking those questions. It is a very small group of high-rep users, numbering around a dozen or so, that wants to close them. It is absolutely crucial that we not confuse the two.
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 31, 2014 at 19:59
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    I think a key problem is that the name of this se is english.stackexchange. A large portion of the ESL questions arrive here because the other site is more obscure in name. But maybe I'm entering the wrong part of this discussion and that was all decided earlier?
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 1, 2014 at 9:44
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    Many of the most basic, least comprehensible, and least adequately framed questions are posted by unregistered, low-rep users who either don't respond to requests for clarification or launch into a tirade of semi-legible slang over how rude and insular our community is when we outline how their post does not meet the requirements of our FAQ. I prefer not to count these among our user base.
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 0:52
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    RE: If ELL was only ever intended to be ELU's wastebasket, that's what the proposal should have said. ELL is not an ELU dumpster. ELL gets plenty of good questions that might be of little interest to fluent speakers, but are still challenging to explain and answer to its target audience (like hoping to catch you, completely great, and go for pie, to name a few). All SE sites get their share of both good and bad questions.
    – J.R.
    Commented Apr 20, 2014 at 11:16
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    I have to say I was kind of stunned by the number of downvotes this question has. Well, first I was a little surprised by the low score this question has, given its age (almost 3 months as I write this) and the thoughtfulness with which it was written. That made me check the vote tally. So now that I've checked it, I'm guessing the main reason it's so polarizing is the provocative title. But I thought a downvote was supposed to mean "this is of low quality" rather than "I disagree with this". What's expressed here is hardly of low quality.
    – John Y
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 14:06
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    @JohnY - On meta, downvotes can be used to express disagreement, rather than evaluate quality. See the comments made by FumbleFingers here and here.
    – J.R.
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 0:51
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    Though I've only been a member of ELU for three months, it's been long enough to see plenty of evidence that backs up your position. There appear to be circa 10-15 users with wide-ranging moderation privileges whose rapidity and eagerness in closing questions they don't like reminds me of World War I fighter aces marking another cross on the fuselage of their fighters to represent the latest target they successfully shot down. I've already crossed swords with some of them (though I'll not pick fights by naming them here), but I'm pretty sure I haven't succeeded in changing their attitudes. -->
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Jul 15, 2014 at 11:11
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    Of all the SE sites, this is definitely the most close-happy. The OED is not a free service and as such is not accessible to those without online payment options, yet it is a research prerequisite. I've seen an etymology question closed even when the resources on the subject were inconclusive. Yet, there are still well-received questions to the tune of "what is the most common word that means the same as X". Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 14:12
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    @phenry, if you were looking for an irrefutable proof of how right you are and want to have a good laugh, when you have 10 spare minutes, take a look here. Ignorance-arrogance triumphs.
    – user119143
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 12:52

3 Answers 3


I've come back to this meta question on account of the 2014 Mod election. I have this to add: since the beginning of ELU, many answer-providing users have objected to being treated like dictionary operators. There are so many questions that could be easily answered by a simple dictionary lookup. There are so many questions that arise from a dictionary lookup. There is a major difference between

What is the difference between fast and quick?


What is the difference between fast and quick? I checked the dictionary and found that the definitions overlap. Are there situations when I should or shouldn't use one of these?

ELU users close the first one because we are not your dictionary operator. Is that too unwelcoming? Dictionaries should be a first-line tool in any English-related question. They are plentiful and there are many free ones and even Google has a built-in dictionary. There range from low (wiktionary) to high (OED) authority. There is just no excuse for not using one. Yet sooooo many questions boil down to a simple dictionary search.

"I don't understand this sentence: " <- look the words up in the dictionary first, or at least explain what part bothers you.

"What's the difference between X and Y?" <- look the words up first

"What's the origin of the word X?" <- look it up in a good dictionary, or on etymonline.

"Is X really a word?" <- did you try a dictionary?

Etc. I cannot count the number of questions I've seen that show zero effort on behalf of the asker. I should point out that I consider the situation here different from, say, StackOverflow, where a particular program might appear to match what the documentation suggests, yet still fail, or where the documentation you need to answer a question is actually 10 large documents which must be first memorized, then re-analyzed internally, or where there is no documentation at all. The English language is extremely well documented. And crucially, the most important document is widely available.

Should ELU user be required to allow any lazy questions? Even if this isn't a site for linguists, do we have to let just anyone post questions that are just "What is X? I can't be bothered to look X up in a dictionary"? I think most users who feel we are snobs fall into the category of "users who wanted us to look it up for them."

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    That's one reason I like the idea of "Needs More Research" as a close reason. But (based on a very limited sample) I disagree with you about "users who feel we are snobs". Commented Jul 3, 2014 at 2:23

I don't think anyone who has read any of my comments here or on ELU would call me a "happy-close snob". I do however close questions which are duplicates, but not blindly. I look at the original question and the answers provided; if they are well formulated, authoritative and clear I consider the new question to have been answered satisfactorily. I hope that when I post the "possible duplicate of" link no one is interpreting my act as being mean or snobbish. The intention is to help the questioner. I am saying: "Look here! Look here! This post contains some really good answers."

Similarly, when many good questions are closed as being general reference, (although I'd agree there is a tendency to overdo it) it is telling the OP that the answer already exists. Only this time the answer lies in a dictionary and not on ELU. Take for example the question about the origin of the word hag.

I've just looked at the question now, and I remember reading it at the time, the answer is a straight copy and paste job from Wikipedia. By no means is it bad because of that, look at how many ELU users copy and paste answers from the OED. But there is one fundamental difference. Before asking my question on ELU I can search on Wikipedia, the most famous online encyclopedia that there is and we all use and abuse it shamelessly. It's an accessible, reliable, authoritative, detailed and extremely readable source of information. On the other hand, OED is not accessible. Due to its expense, even the special twelve-month subscription offer caused me to catch my breath, not everyone has access to it. Let me add, I'm not the greatest fan of OED inspired posted answers, because a few fall in the trap of the "hag" copy and paste type answer, nonetheless I would never dream of closing questions that had been answered by using OED. I don't think anybody would.

Returning to the "hag" question, the OP received a good answer. It was a pity that the user did not supplement the answer with other references, or provided her personal insights but maybe there weren't any. I trust that the users who closed down the question, knew that nobody would or could have posted a better answer. By the way, I spent 10 seconds Googling "origin hag". The first result displays: Online Etymology Dictionary; the second, Wikipedia.

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    The highest-rated answer I've ever given was a straight copy and paste job from Wikipedia, which took me about 30 seconds to find. The question itself currently has 26 upvotes and it's less than a week old. Clearly the users of this site find value in such questions and answers when they fulfill the site's mission of transferring useful knowledge. (Why has this question remained open when a thousand like it have been closed as "off-topic," I wonder?)
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 22:58
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    So far, my experiences here tell me that you're one of the most welcoming users here. I politely and humbly request that you put your name forward in the next mod elections.. :)
    – Dom
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 1:04

I think just suck it up, and take it as a fun opportunity to be rude to idiots who ask lame-ass questions.

Consider the poor buggers on the Physics list ...

... half the questions there are superb insightful questions about physics. The other half are UFO-nuts wanting to know if their idea for perpetual motion will work.

I really think just take it as it is and have fun with it - Happy New Year!

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