I'm prompted to ask this question, by feedback on this answer of mine regarding a bit of every-day language (such as "It's raining today, isn't it?").

I'm familiar with StackExchange sites for which pragmatic answers suffice, and on the other hand with sites where supporting references are often preferred. My question is essentially this — which one is this site trying to be?

I am a native English speaker, and while I am not a linguist, nor have the skill with the language of a Stephen Fry, I fancy myself someone who is able to communicate distinctions in meaning of the sort that often come up on this site, and to explain those same distinctions in meaning. It's entirely possible that the way in which I understand some phrases (and the context which they suggest) is idiosyncratic, but I'm usually vaguely aware of when this is the case, and it is more often in corner cases of vocabulary (e.g. among words of five or more syllables).

On the linked answer, I found myself surprised by the comment left behind. I frankly do not know what precisely a "constant polarity tag" is. Though I might guess its meaning, and now knowing the phrase I could look it up, I found the objection strange, as I use these constructions extremely often (and successfully, to all outward appearances). But my question is not about the particular comment in this case, but the academic standards which they hint at. There seems to be a sense in which my answer is lacking; but that answer is likely to be typical of what I would contribute.

Question. Do we expect almost every answer here to be supportable in principle, at a moment's notice, by an appropriate decomposition into grammar trees, or citation of examples from literature / definitions from references — rather than merely practical and heuristic descriptions of how words and phrases are used?

4 Answers 4


The problem here is that your answer does not seem to rest on any evidence beyond your own intuition as a native English speaker. The trouble with intuition is that it does not really generate knowledge as such: there is no way for third parties to verify that your intuition is correct, or to adjudicate between native speakers who claim to have different intuitions.

In particular, you claim that constant polarity tags indicate "verification of something that is apparent" whereas the Grammarpedia article cited in another answer claims that "constant polarity tags are used to express surprise". So, verification or surprise? Which is right? Or can they be used for both? How am I to tell?

(As far as I can tell from a very quick search, the scholarly literature agrees with Grammarpedia and not with you: for example Huddleston and Pullum write, "constant polarity tags ... don't ask for confirmation, but suggest an attitude such as surprise, disbelief, disapproval or the like". But maybe a more thorough search would find evidence for your theory too.)

If this site is to be more than a venue in which people express their opinions, then people need to back up their answers with evidence, in the form of scholarly citations, corpus searches, results of experiments, and so on.

  • 1
    I take your point about intuition, though I think in this case the references are being interpreted too narrowly (or in the case of Grammarpedia, written too narrowly: the example which follows immediately afterwards in that article doesn't clearly exemplify the phenomenon they describe, for instance). I respect the wish to have some basis beyond one's own imagining. I merely found myself surprised that this meaning of the phrase was in any doubt, and I still wonder if some of the references cited are fully descriptive. However, I will bear some of your references in mind. Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 16:31
  • I'm not sure why you've gotten a negative vote here, though I suppose it doesn't matter much. As an academic and a language snob (albeit one perhaps happy to engage the language as a living thing), I do appreciate the interest in having a supportable basis for claims about language use; I just seem to have found myself at odds with some people's particular references in this case. Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 21:12
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    I don't see any problem with this. Every native speaker has years of experience in common usage. As long as you don't claim more than that, it can help a user. And there is often no true answer to questions like these, as the language and usage change.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 1:30
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    @Gareth Rees - people need to back up their answers with evidence, in the form of scholarly citations, corpus searches, results of experiments, and so on. Can you tell me where this is written anywhere on this site? Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 2:43
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    @Susan: The clause you quoted is subordinate to a conditional, namely, "If this site is to be more than a venue in which people express their opinions". Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 9:34
  • Don't let one negative comment get you down.

  • Most answers here are pretty much introspected opinion. It just turns out that when you stated yours in a formal manner, it got the attention of someone with a different formalized opinion.

  • Pronunciation and word meanings are easy to reference (dictionary) but syntax is hard (no easily accessible on-line grammar).

  • Don't sweat it. Your answer is way higher quality than the OP deserves (it's basic English)

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    I'll go with this perspective. Having just checked out OP's much-maligned answer, I thought it was perfectly clear without getting bogged down in technical terminology that most people wouldn't be familiar with anyway (especially not the questioner himself, who clearly wasn't a native speaker). The user who took issue with it posted his own answer which was 4-5 times longer, but to be honest I got bored long before I reached the end, so I just upvoted the other one as "more likely to be useful to anyone who ends up seeking enlightenment there, rather than going to ELL in the first place". Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 22:42

I would encourage you to just learn what you can from valid comments without being discouraged by them. Even native speakers get frequent corrections from non-natives. As you've already deduced, some of the comments come from differing visions for this site, hashed out long before either you or I joined, and still ongoing. In spite of posted guidelines to answers, some members want to maintain a higher standard for the entire site and will comment negatively on or vote to close questions others find acceptable. (One closed question recently became a featured question, drawing 1200+ views in ~3 hours; obviously the moderator reopened it.) One member repeatedly insists that I support all my answers from canonical references even when the answer is straightforward to a native speaker. As your answers will without doubt prove themselves valuable, you may well get fewer comments of the nature you have given (I read that and wondered what it meant as well.) I have learned a lot from negative feedback (I just don't reflect on English in the same way non-natives do); some comments I just read and ignore. I hope you can sit back and enjoy the site.


I think this is a great question -- one to which I don't necessarily know the answer. It seems like there's several competing ideas for what this se will be.

I think that's going to be inevitable. On the other se's that I participate in there are similar quirks and flaws. I will mention some of the quirks of each. For instance on stackexchange, you get reams of terrible code with solutions ranging from one misplaced } to people asking you to draw blood from a stone. Also any question that involves SQL will bring out the injection attack monitors. On japanese.se, there's endless requests for translation without demonstrating any prior work. On philosophy.se, there's weird questions from people with not training or knowledge of philosophy.

For english.se, I see (a) questions from non-native speakers that are largely reference, (b) questions that are basically about the nature of the English language rather than about style and usage, and (c) questions that are about style and usage from high-functioning speakers (native or not).

I don't see how english.se can avoid getting the same hundreds of questions ad nauseum but neither does the php tag on stack exchange. (I say this as someone who worked professionally as a php programmer writing OO code in PHP with a 2nd or 3rd degree normalized DB design, so I'm not dissing the language's possibility per se).

Personally, I think we should source answers if possible, but this is also sensitive to the level of the asker. If we're doing (a)-type questions, I don't think it matters as much. But for arguments about oxford commas and inversion, sources would be best.

  • BTW, isn't "we should source answers" a rather lazy and hence unclear phrase? It took me a while before interpreting it as "we should provide sources in answers". Another interpretation being "we should seek answers". Just sayin'.
    – Martin F
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 1:40
  • I don't know. I think that's a great question to ask on elu. I had never thought of it as unclear, but you might be completely right. I will ask.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 1:42
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    Good idea -- but be prepared to be sent to 'ell :-)
    – Martin F
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 1:43

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