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I decided to try and understand the purpose of this site better, so I looked at the definition on the tour page:

English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's built and run by you as part of the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites. With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about English language and usage.

It only made me more confused. I think there are two sides to this description, and they don't fit on the same coin imo:

English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

I would not consider myself any of these, so perhaps I am not supposed to be here?

It's built and run by you as part of the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites. With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about English language and usage.

But wait, built and run by me? So I am supposed to be here?

And the purpose is to build a library of detailed answers to every question about English language and usage? Hang on then, why are questions closed as general reference?

Just because the answer is in a library somewhere else, doesn't mean we have satisfied our objective, does it?


  1. So if this site is for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts; where do I fit in as a non-linguist, non-etymologist, non-serious-enthusiast English speaker (I am an enthusiast, but not a serious one)?

  2. If we intend to build a library of every question, why are questions closed because the answers can be found on another resource?


The contradiction I see is that linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts are incapable of asking every question about English language and usage. In fact, this site needs beginners and intermediates, to achieve its goal of cataloguing every question. Additionally, experts cannot ask simple and widely wondered(?) questions with real purpose, because 9999 out of 10000 times they already know the answer.

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    I'm confused and I'd like to learn what other old-timers have to say about this. tchrist FumbleFingers @Robusto RegDwight Cerberus Colin Fine Jon Hanna John Lawler, etc, etc, in addition to our moderators. – Centaurus Jul 4 '14 at 22:25
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So, you've hit on two long standing debates that do not have quick, easy answers. It isn't trivial to explain exactly where we stand on these issues and there are plenty of differing camps.

But here is a quick overview to get you started.

(1) So if this site is for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts; where do I fit in as a non-linguist, non-etymologist, non-serious-enthusiast English speaker (I am an enthusiast, but not a serious one)?

There has been a ton of discussion here on Meta regarding the target audience and whether the audience that we originally wanted is the audience that we ended up with.

And I'm sure I missed many. The short explanation is that the Tour text was written ages ago when the goal of ELU was very much to be a definitive experts site for English. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion.

Things got even more complicated with the introduction of ELL:


(2) If we intend to build a library of every question, why are questions closed because the answers can be found on another resource?

The General Reference close reason has also been the subject of much discussion. Instead of wading through the many, many posts, I'll just point you toward the query.

The origin of the close reason was outlined by Jeff Atwood back in 2011:

The minimum bar for a question is not “is this on-topic?”, but rather “is this somewhat interesting and on-topic?”. I’m not saying every question needs to be utterly fascinating, but please endeavor to make your questions more than a constant stream of no-duh underhanded softballs requiring nothing more than a quick cut and paste from Wikipedia, IMDB, or some other standard internet reference site.

There’s nothing useful any expert can learn from ultra-basic questions. Allow your Q&A community to fill itself with enough “General Reference” type questions and you’ll soon find no experts there at all.

This does appear to conflict with the goal of building a library to answer all questions but I think that Atwood would amend the goal to:

It's built and run by you as part of the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites. With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every interesting question about English language and usage.

"Interesting" is somewhat subjective but the purpose of the General Reference close reason is to set an objectively measurable lower bar for what "interesting" means. If the question can be answered quickly and definitively by the dictionary (or any other reference on the List of General References), than the question is not appropriate for the site.

Given the massive number of posts on the subject, even this lower bar is not universally agreed upon.


The contradiction I see is that linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts are incapable of asking every question about English language and usage. In fact, this site needs beginners and intermediates, to achieve its goal of cataloguing every question. Additionally, experts cannot ask simple and widely wondered(?) questions with real purpose, because 9999 out of 10000 times they already know the answer.

The original goal was to build an environment where experts can learn from each other about a particular subject. It isn't actually to build a library of questions and answers. The "library" is a side-effect of getting a bunch of experts to dig into a subject.

To put this another way, the library is intended to serve subject matter experts. It isn't intended to fully, completely document the subject. In the case of English, there is really no reason to replicate the entire dictionary on ELU when any expert in the area is already going to consult a dictionary when it would be relevant.

This doesn't mean beginners and intermediates are unwelcome. But the beginner and intermediate questions being asked should still be asked in a manner that is interesting to answer. It is really rather boring to respond to a question that can be answered by looking it up in a dictionary. All you do is copy/paste the text into an answer and push submit. That boringness is bad. The General Reference close reason is intended to avoid making our contributors suffer through that boring work.

The remaining debate, therefore, is whether the General Reference close reason is succeeding or not. Is it doing what it should? Is it doing too much? As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of debate on the subject. I won't add my opinion to this post — I was merely trying to explain how we ended up where we are. I'll let the others give their two cents on the subject.

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    It's important, but probably futile, to point out that the "experts" have been utterly wrong in almost every imaginable way for almost as long as there have been people holding forth as "experts". Etymologists have managed to miss almost all of the Celticisms in the language, grammarians have been imposing a grammar that is not the grammar of English, and the various "Standard Englishes" (which are nothing more than dialects that know the secret handshake) agree on relatively little, and varieties of regional usage mean that even the most comprehensive dictionaries miss a lot. – bye Jul 5 '14 at 9:37
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    We have one (and only one) reliable and scientifically-derived grammar (Huddleston & Pullam), and it doesn't claim to be a complete grammar of all of the varieties of English, just a good start. We have an opportunity to build something here that actually reflects the living language that English is, with all of its quirks, foibles, dings and regional variations. Why are we choosing to look backward and gold-plate the mistakes that have already been made? – bye Jul 5 '14 at 9:42
  • @bye: Sounds like a relevant question for meta. Again, this post was only intended to provide a little historical context. – MrHen Jul 5 '14 at 14:15
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    I did mention the futility of it, did I not? The place is lousy with (metaphorical) schoolmarms and non-native users who have the surface appearance of competency due to the (relative) consistency of the "Bishop's grammar" and its heirs, successors and assigns, but who would easily be caught out by small children in casual conversation (even if they have no discernible foreign accent). (I don't mean to catch all fish with the same net—RegDwight could probably pass the equivalent of a Turing test, and I have no idea how exceptional he is.) – bye Jul 7 '14 at 12:49
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I would not consider myself any of these, so perhaps I am not supposed to be here?

Perhaps, but in fact frivolous English language enthusiasts are also tolerated. Stack Exchange decided to cross-advertise questions from one site to another, so any exclusivity there ever was is now out the window for any site that doesn't ruthlessly slam those not up to scratch. I think MathOverflow is still doing all right, primarily because "question is comprehensible to anyone other than a specialist" is almost sufficient grounds to close over there.

But wait, built and run by me? So I am supposed to be here?

This is Stack Exchange boilerplate. The "you" means people who are still here and reading after applying the filter of who the site is for. OK, so you might have applied the filter incorrectly, in which case you will be expelled into outer darkness at a later date.

More precisely, I suspect it's the "empowering you" that appears in phrases such as "you decide!" and "you may already have won a prize!". It means someone else, probably not you, but here's hoping you get a look-in.

Hang on then, why are questions closed as general reference?

Again, Stack Exchange boilerplate. Again, optimistic language. "Every question about <insert site subject>" really means "every question that's on-topic for the site and not closed for any of the listed close reasons and not spam or abuse and probably some other reasons for not allowing the question that we haven't thought of yet".

Since this site is supposed to be distinct from "English language learners" (who ironically are generally more enthusiastic than native speakers, albeit less so than at least some academics), the issue of what's on-topic is clearly going to require quite a lot of making it up as you go along. Not just evaluating against the literal criterion, "is this question about English language? And if not, is it about English usage?". Unfortunately, like all Stack Exchange sites, you're supposed to actually read the help centre to find out the details. The concise description is just a shorthand.

If you want to pick holes in this kind of rah-rah language, then mission statements are exactly the place to look. Bravo! ;-)

  • You're attitude is exactly the kind of elitist crap that's bringing SE down. I use the network because it is open to everyone. The door is fully open and inviting everyone in. Instead of adjusting to and accommodating for the new trends that rise with traffic increases, you elites butt your head against unwitting new users and condescend to anyone that you feel like belittling. I personally don't give a monkey how much reputation anyone has on any site, there's no excuse for unprovoked rudeness, and little excuse for provoked rudeness. – Dom Jul 15 '14 at 16:46
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    @MrE.Upvoter: I have no idea what you're talking about. StackExchange sites have a topic. The topic of MathOverflow is research-level mathematics. This means it's not OK for people to ask questions on it that have nothing to do with research-level mathematics. Mathematicians who aren't at research level don't get to cry when they're redirected elsewhere, same as people who ask about fishing don't get to cry when they're redirected elsewhere. StackExchange sites are open to everyone to read, but not to post off-topic, nor will they ever be. This is not elitism. – Steve Jessop Jul 15 '14 at 17:32
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    ... MrHen's answer above goes into a great deal of detail about the debate on EL&U about what its topic should be. Whatever the final outcome of that debate is, I promise you it will never be "every question about English". That is not elitism either, except in the sense that since StackExchange considers itself better than other sites, there are whole types of question that it will never allow. Such as, for example, "I fancy a chat. What are your favourite verbs?". Clearly about English, would be fine on a discussion forum, clearly off-topic here and always will be. – Steve Jessop Jul 15 '14 at 17:45
  • To be honest, a lot of that came from the actions of many high rep users, you just compounded the problem for me. The fact that I'm not a serious English enthusiast does not give you the right to call me frivolous. Furthermore, I should be welcomed and informed of how the site functions by veteran users, not tolerated. Attitudes need to change from "we've set our rules, follow them or go away" to "how can we continue to improve our site for higher traffic I.e. to help more people". The culture of tolerance needs to change to encouragement, help and improvement. – Dom Jul 16 '14 at 9:18
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    @MrE.Upvoter: I believe that I have as much right to call you (and myself by the way) "frivolous" as you have to call my attitude "elitist", to say that I'm "condescending" or "rude". That is to say, some right. You feel that the purpose of this site should be to help you, but that's not inherently correct. The policy of welcoming everyone to do anything they like is incompatible with well-focussed sites with a topic and a purpose. There's a debate who it should help, and the losers of that debate don't get to pretend every site owes every internet user something in return for their traffic. – Steve Jessop Jul 16 '14 at 9:35
  • As a site user, my purpose is to help people. The more responsibility entrusted to users, the more they should be willing to help and encourage other users. This is not the case right now. If I help others, and treat others with respect, I should be extended the same courtesy. Additionally, elites appear to tarnish all new users with the "time-wasting noob that probably won't respond to a nice comment" brush. To an outsider it might appear that all knowledgeable English speakers are rude twats! The condescension and lack of positivity towards new users needs to change. – Dom Jul 16 '14 at 9:46
  • You're arguing technicalities while I'm arguing culture. This conversation went nowhere fast. I can't be asked to spend any more energy on this or ELU. – Dom Jul 17 '14 at 9:26

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