is english.stackexchange normative or creative?

as with anything that evolves, english improves through a creative process that introduces new features and remains cohesive through a normative process that removes rarely used features. i realize that some questions specifically encourage neologisms, but outside those are you expected to provide answers for which you could (in theory) provide citations to existing works? similarly, when voting on answers, should i upvote answers that effectively describe to me an elegant way of communicating to a modern native english speaker the objective of the asker. or should i only upvote those that are already widely accepted as "proper english"?

for example, take my answer to this question: Single word that unambiguously describes the product of folding i used a word "topology" in a way that seemed intuitive to me as a native english speaker. it was pointed out that topology has historically been used (in the context of mathematics) to describe an algorithm rather than an output. however, i felt that the perhaps somewhat novel usage would be clear in the context of the question (a math paper on folding). regardless of the quality of my answer, my question is about the validity of an answer that is novel usage. in the context of a question that does not invite such answers, can new words and new grammar be legitimately proposed?

perhaps another way of asking this question is to say: "is english.stackexchange about communicating effectively within the bounds of english? or is it about communicating effectively with people who understand english?"

this is a closely related question about the type of community we are trying to be/attract: How can we promote this site? it occurs to me, that for many users, perhaps the site is not about communicating effectively at all. as answers to the other question suggest, the site may appeal most to linguists who think all native speaker usage is "right" or "mavens" who have a narrow and pedantic focus on widely accepted grammar and word definitions.

alternatively, is there a way to efficiently flag questions and/or answers as either creative or normative?

  • 1
    In broad strokes, the linguistics terms corresponding to your "normative" and "creative" are "prescriptive" and "descriptive" respectively. ELU, mirroring the larger trend in contemporary linguistics, is largely populated by descriptivists. That said, ELU, being part of StackExchange, attempts, to the best of its ability given he subject matters, to adhere to SE's stated model: do answer questions objectively, expertly, and as often as we can, with support and corroboration from external authorities.
    – Dan Bron
    May 9, 2015 at 15:08
  • 5
    I can give you a concrete example, in re: your choice of (non-) capitalization. I find your all-lowercase writing moderately difficult to parse, because you've eliminated the most obvious clues as to when you're starting a new sentence. Of course, I can still read it, but your personal style makes the task more difficult (in other words, you may believe you've made English more "efficient", and indeed that may even be true for you, the writer, but it's decidedly more inefficient for me, the reader). But note: while I disagreed with your choice, I did not change it. See what I mean?
    – Dan Bron
    May 9, 2015 at 15:12
  • i considered using the terms "proscriptive" and "descriptive", but it seems that most of the questions on the site are about solving a current problem. in that context, one must make a value judgement. simply describing the past is not sufficient to answer the question unless you accept the implicit argument that the asker should do the same thing that was done before. the only question is whether we as a community want to encourage (prescribe) novel yet effective communication, or we want to encourage repeating existing usage. May 9, 2015 at 15:48
  • There's nothing about prescriptive which necessitates "adhering to tradition", though "because it has worked in the past" is certainly one reason, out of an infinite well of reasons, someone might prescribe some action (btw, proscribe [from your first sentence] and prescribe [from your last] are antonyms; at least according to the ossified fossils of definitions which appear in my dictionary...).
    – Dan Bron
    May 9, 2015 at 15:48
  • to take your example of my writing style. i think you are suggesting that it is "better" to use capital letters because that is what you are used to. i however am suggesting that it is "better" to use all lowercase because it is easier to get used to. admittedly, nearly all english speakers are currently accustomed to capitals, but that is a question of short-term vs long-term clarity, and perhaps off topic. May 9, 2015 at 15:48
  • i chose "proscribe" because it seems that normative arguments are generally more concerned with what you shouldn't do than what you should do. using either word, i think your point was about value-based vs objective discussion. perhaps i misunderstood you. May 9, 2015 at 15:51
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    No, no, that's the very point I'm making. I'm specifically not saying using capitals is better because it's "what I'm used to", or because Strunk and White suggested it, or because its traditional. I'm suggesting using capitals because from a information theoretical and cognitive science perspective doing so makes sentence boundaries easier to spot and therefore the parsing of your sentences easier for your audience. In other words: because it improves communication (in another context capitalization serves to disambiguate words, also improving communication).
    – Dan Bron
    May 9, 2015 at 15:52
  • 1
    well, if you are arguing for a visual break between sentences, then i would suggest a separate symbol like a pilcrow rather than a separate glyph for an existing symbol. but again, i think we are perhaps off-topic by going down the theoretical linguistics road. perhaps a more relevant example would be repurposing a word. i will update my question with one of those. May 9, 2015 at 15:56
  • btw, i would totally upvote your last comment if i had the rep. i certainly picked a bad example for the question i was asking :) May 9, 2015 at 16:06
  • 2
    And to think I was about to ask the OP to use capital letters. The post looks like five or six long sentences. The full stops are tiny, or my eyesight is failing me... best look for my glasses.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 9, 2015 at 18:26
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    @DanBron I don't think 'descriptivist' is the same as 'creative'. Descriptivists are rule based as much as prescriptivists, they just think there are more nuances to them (i.e. there is not one single correct English). 'Creative' is about making up new things (I think). See my answer for fuller explanation.
    – Mitch
    May 9, 2015 at 21:30
  • @jamesturner You seem to have two questions here, one about general ELU community behavior which I attempted to answer, and one about the particular ELU question about folding. My response to the latter is that neologisms happen all the time in general, and also in mathematics, but, as in any technical field, a neologism in mathematics is usually stipulated, that is defined explicitly to be used in a particular way, no matter what its everyday (non-technical) usage or connotations might be. Whether that word with its stipulated meaning catches on is a social occurrence (not enforced).
    – Mitch
    May 10, 2015 at 0:01
  • By halfway through it was getting so tiresome I just gave up. Not having read the entire text, I can't really have an opinion on the actual matter being queried. My downvote is purely for the orthography (does that make me "normative" in response to OP's unwelcome "creativity"? :) May 11, 2015 at 16:11

2 Answers 2


In your terminology, the community at ELU is almost entirely normative, meaning answering according to existing rules and variations (more on that in a second).

The community has explicitly noted that they should mostly avoid things like neologisms or changes to grammar rules that are proposed to be better (by some criteria) and therefore is not (in general,- there are infrequent exceptions to everything) creative. The SE (not just ELU) principles of having mostly answerable non-discussion questions directs us away from making up things or discussing the viability of a change in some rule (these are much too opinion based and or broad, two close reasons).

As to 'normative', I am putting prescriptivism and descriptivism together here, because they both are rule based.

Prescriptivists tend to hold that there is one correct grammar and style for speaking and writing. It is often the province of professional writers and educators.

Descriptivists tend to record rules on what people actually do (which is often at odds with the 'single' approved style/grammar). They still have the concept of a language mistake, it's just more lenient than a prescriptivist.

Descriptivist is a somewhat derogatory term that prescriptivists give to those people who insist on poor, 'anything goes' English, allowing profanity and textspeak in serious publications like Merriam-Webster, or allowing '10 items or less' at grocery signs.

Prescriptivist is a somewhat derogatory term that descriptvists give to those people who insist on grammar rules that are inauthentic and made up out of some bizarre pedagogy (split infinitive, no prepositions at the ends of sentences) or double negative (used in informal or varieties of English).

No one will say that prepositions come after the noun, or that "I Liking the two dog" is how to say it.

In some sense, in answers, we are all prescriptivists here, trying to tell people what is right, just that descriptivists will allow more variation, and describe differences between register and dialect. "I'm going to hospital" is totally wrong in American English, but totally right in British English. "I ain't going" is not something you should be writing in a newspaper article, but a foreign learner of English will have to know how to understand and say that (and the rules that govern it) to get by in certain subcultures of English speakers.

  • your answer helped me understand that e.l.u. is as the name applies focused on the englishness more than the effectiveness of communication. yet english is primarily a communication tool so a justified deviation from norms is more of a faux pas than a taboo in this community. May 10, 2015 at 13:04
  • Yes, that is a good way of saying it, a faux pas. Like farting in church. Some people do it by mistake, some people think it is the place to do it (come on, Uncle Dave), and others have an embarrassing medical difficulty. Then again half the things in church were made up at some point. Wait, farting in church is a taboo. Anyway, I think I was making a point. Something like someone's taboo, is someone else's faux pas is someone else's idiosyncrasy is someone else's way of doing things. Or a mistake.
    – Mitch
    May 10, 2015 at 14:04
  • +1 for the judiciously-balanced pairing X/Y is a derogatory term used by Y/X for their counterparts. May 11, 2015 at 16:15
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    @FumbleFingers I know! Those guys are total idiots!
    – Mitch
    May 11, 2015 at 16:24
  • If by justified deviation from norms OP means his non-standard orthography, I suppose "faux pas" is a credible designation. But in my case I find it hard to see any element of justification, since as OP correctly points out, English is primarily a communication tool. And precisely because of the lack of capitalization, at least 50% of the text failed to communicate anything at all to me ('cos I didn't read it! :). May 11, 2015 at 16:53
  • @Mitch, What makes you think that "Descriptivist" and "Prescriptivist" are derogatory terms?
    – Pacerier
    Jun 9, 2015 at 22:50
  • @Pacerier Derogatory is a bit too strong. I was being hyperbolic. I have seen both terms used negatively, especially in Joan Acocella's recent New Yorker article.
    – Mitch
    Jun 9, 2015 at 23:56
  • @Mitch, It's misleading. Because it's not at all clear that it's meant to be hyperbolic.
    – Pacerier
    Jun 10, 2015 at 10:01

suppose that for unexplained (but possibly mystical) reasons of my own i decide to capitalize every Seventeenth word in my answer to this question. on the one hand, such a decision seems difficult To characterize as "normative" since it isn't something most people do, and since it isn't calculated to Make what i write easier for readers to comprehend. but on the other hand, if i enforce It consistently, it clearly qualifies as a rule (albeit an arbitrary one) regularly applied and rigorously enforced Across the length of my answer, which can be viewed as its own miniature universe obedient to The physics i choose to impose on it. surely such predictable regularity is the very essence of "Normative."

at the same time, since i thought of this rule myself, with little or no encouragement Or precedent from others, it indisputably qualifies as a creative approach, though "creative" seems an odd label To attach to an innovation that, once instituted, requires nothing more than careful counting. but that's the Contradiction here, isn't it? to be meaningful to others, words, sentences, punctuation, capitalization, and myriad other aspects Of written language must be normalized at some level. otherwise readers are forced to deal with the Worst form of humpty-dumptyism—the form in which the humpty-dumpty figure doesn't bother to define glory because, After all, it, like any other word, means whatever he wants it to. very creative is mr. Dumpty.

still, to answer questions creatively, we must do more than consistently apply a limited set of Boolean operators. we must deal in nuance and impression and inventive example. and we do, at times. I think that the idea that "normative" and "creative" pull in opposite directions is misleading and ultimately Incorrect. it may be that for pascal, operating in an existential universe of big questions demanding solution, Chopping the methodology of answers into esprit de géométrie and esprit de finesse made a certain amount Of sense—but that, i think, is because he was trying to understand all solution space as Fundamentally mathematical or at least logical. here at el&u, prospective answerers are under no such pressure or Obligation.

so i would say that the primary goal that answerers at this site seek to achieve Is to supply answers that cover the question fairly and (if possible) thoroughly in a way that Both the original question asker and subsequent readers can understand—which calls for a combination of the Normative (orderly argument and logical clarity) and the creative (constructing apt examples and respecting the imprecision of Language). it isn't an either or situation. oh and as for the seventeen thing—it's about the Locusts.

  • you make good points about being thorough and addressing future readers in addition to the asker. May 10, 2015 at 13:12

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