I have noticed that some learners make efforts to disguise a quotation in their question.

I suspect this is because they have had it drilled into them that plagiarism is a deadly sin (which it is of course).

What they don't appear to realise is that a correct quotation with a proper attribution to the original author is good practice.

Perhaps none of this would matter but for the fact that their attempt to rewrite a sentence that they already don't understand, usually ends up so mangled as to be incomprehensible. (I don't want to single anyone out but if it's vital to the discussion I could provide a link to such a question)

Can anyone think of a solution to this?


I have invented an example for the sake of clarity.

The student submits the following question to English Language & Usage:

How can I use the expression "distant type"?

I saw a friend write the sentence, "X got bigger because of distant type Y"

What does the phrase mean? How can I use it?

On investigation it turns out that the original was

"... obtained results suggesting a totally unexpected acceleration in the expansion of the universe by using distant type Ia supernovae as standard candles..."

Accelerating universe From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This example isn't exaggerated and it is quite common in my experience.


I plan to raise this issue on Academia SE. The difference is that here I am explicitly asking about ways to deal with the problem (as I see it) on this site. Under Academia I shall be asking if there is a solution with regard to academic students when pursuing formal courses. I see this as sufficiently different to justify both questions.

  • 5
    It really is vital to the discussion that we have one or two examples to discuss, however invidious: otherwise you will get nothing but generalisations, which is itself a not uncommon problem here Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 10:45
  • Examples don't need to be links, if you want to protect the innocent. You could just include them in the post here.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Aug 8, 2015 at 8:37
  • You're right I've added an illustrative example. Commented Aug 8, 2015 at 9:27
  • I'd say in cases like your example, we'd almost always close as "unclear what you're asking" and move on.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Aug 8, 2015 at 11:45
  • 1
    I’m having a hard trouble identifying your distilled point here. I would suggest you please make your actual question, “Can anyone think of a solution to this and other repeated problems that aren't explicitly covered in the introductory tour?”, the second sentence of your posting. However, “and other repeated problems not explicitly covered in the introductory tour” is too fuzzy and open-ended to be of any practical use absent specific details of just what these “other problems” actually are. I don’t mean they aren’t real, just that you should specify which ones you are referring to.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 19:47
  • @tchrist - Rather than do that, I've deleted the reference to 'other repeated questions'. Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 21:48
  • Here's a recent example I found (look at the edit history of the question): english.stackexchange.com/questions/267048/…
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 9:03

2 Answers 2


I don't believe that failing to attribute, as you have phrased it, is either common or a problem on this site. If anything, we have the opposite problem. Asking "Is this a common phrase?" when a writer uses a metaphor or productive suffix is not really answerable; it would be better dealt with by the OP looking outside the context in which he found it, and searching for other uses.

But your example brings up a problem that really is common: unfortunately it is neither new nor soluble. A thoughtful OP may try to generalise the phrase he is asking about before asking "What does this mean?" Unfortunately, by definition he does not fully understand the locution, and so his paraphrase may alter or destroy the meaning. The only way to deal with this is for questioners to be clear in their own minds whether they want to know "What does the writer mean here?" or "What does this mean as a phrase?"; in the latter case, it is also necessary to be sure that it actually is a common construction rather than a one-off turn of phrase.

  • 1
    Yes, the incorrect generalisation of a phrase could be exactly what happened in my made-up example. The asker thought "distant type" was an idiom and then tried to create a more general version by using X and Y. Maybe your answer gives a better explanation of what I've been seeing. Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 11:08
  • 1
    +1 A little more narrowly: I think what happens is that learners bracket out the specific part of an utterance they don't understand and present that for explanation, not realizing that very little in English (or any other language, I imagine) means much of anything outside its context. Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 13:58

Contrary to what @TimLymington says, I think there is a problem with querents (often, non-native speakers) asking what some particular string of words "means", but failing to supply full and/or accurate context.

Having just checked the current ELU Help pages, I can't find anything explicitly exhorting querents to provide a link to at least one fully-contextualized example of the usage they're asking about.

I'm active on both sites, and it's feasible I'm conflating instances on English Language Learners, but at least ELL has the (highly upvoted) Meta post Please, everyone… details. Please (And we have a link to that page in the ELL Help section, for all the good it does! :)

It seems to me that almost daily we get one or more questions concerned with meaning-in-context where any supplied context is either inadequate or has been accidentally distorted by the OP in some way.

An inevitable side-effect of this is that some answerers jump the gun and post responses based on contextual assumptions that are later found to be inapplicable. I seriously doubt we could force all querents to get it right first time, but I think there's at least a chance that more established users (the ones most likely to be answering) can be persuaded to delay answering if comments requesting clarification or crucial links (that might significantly affect the response) remain unaddressed.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .