I haven't been around here for very long, however I've been around here long enough to see patterns and get a sense of people's quirks, pecadillos and idiosynchrosies.

I have noticed that questions concerning spelling have frequently received comments and even answers that amount to "Because it's English, that's why."

I'm not talking about questions such as "Should I write centre or center?" or "Is it OK to put a hyphen in to-morrow?" (although I feel that those questions could lead to thoughtful and educational answers that would help the site maintain an image as an authority.) I'm talking about questions such as Why is "build" spelt with a "u"?.

This question was answered. I'm not knowledgeable about spelling so I can't judge the answer. As of this moment the question has not been closed. (Maybe we should have a few bookies around here that can take bets on how fast questions are closed and by whom.)

That said, I have seen countless other questions of a similar nature either closed or denigrated with comments that are literally "It's English--get over it."

I'd like to make the case that questions about the history of English spelling (even the "dumbo" questions) are quite on topic, relevant, and can contribute to the quality of the site. Isn't spelling and pronunciation an integral part of etymology? Isn't it a fact that when looking up a word's history that there are spelling and pronunciation changes that are important or contribute to our current definition? Isn't it a fact that many of these questions can't be googled because they require specific knowledge and the ability to assemble that knowledge into a cohesive answer?

I'd also like to say that if you don't know anything about English spelling or don't have the credentials to intelligently comment on the subject, you shouldn't be answering / commenting "It's English, that's why." When I first started on this site, there were a few users who answered spelling questions with long, scholarly answers that were awe-inspiring and humbling. I couldn't understand a lot of them but I could definitely tell these people knew what they were talking about. They were standard bearers that made me think twice about posting my answers. I don't see them around.

I suspect that the answer I will receive is "The community decided these questions are off-topic." Ok, fine. But what are the credentials for these people saying that spelling questions can't be answered or that we will never know because English spelling is a mystery? If your credentials are "I studied it in college while majoring in English," or "I did a research paper on The Canterbury tales and allusions in it to Beowolf." ok, I would trust that person's opinion. But if your credentials are "Why do I need to tell you?" or "I like reading about it in my spare time." I'm not so sure that is good enough to be closing questions as "unanswerable." I'm not saying everyone that answers needs to be currently involved in a Shakespearean quarto research project at Cambridge with an emphasis on spelling variations between 1606 and 1607 but some authority or genuine knowledge might be good.

I say we should expand a bit and let these questions be welcomed and answered. I say, if you don't know anything about the subject don't answer / comment / close vote. We can all learn something by inviting more of these types of questions, and it can help the site be more authoritative and inviting.

  • Yeah, I only got three upvotes, along with one downvote, on my answer, while @summelic got nine +1's, WTF. – Ricky Jan 18 '16 at 0:01

Both spelling and etymology questions are officially on-topic, which from my point of view makes questions about the spelling history of a single word on-topic. I would certainly oppose it if the question you linked to got closed; fortunately, I don't see any signs that this is going to happen.

I do find it irritating when people leave comments just saying "because." But I can also see to some degree where this is coming from: "why" questions can sometimes seem to be based on false or naive premises, which is frustrating. The people who leave these comments are certainly not all ignorant: I've seen very educated people make comments like this. They are trying to be helpful by discouraging people from looking for not-very-useful historical "explanations" as a practical guide to spelling words.

However (I saw a comment making the following point somewhere but frustratingly can't find it): this is a site for "linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts." We should assume that people asking questions here either already understand that spelling doesn't correspond one-to-one with pronunciation. If you disagree with this assumption, please at least assume that while that they would benefit from learning this, they also want to learn the (often complicated and unclear) specific reasons underlying specific cases: not for practical reasons, but just out of curiosity or academic interest. And often there are real reasons and applicable general principles, not just idiosyncrasies. Even in cases where there aren't, where professional sources are stumped and have no answer, find a citation for this! "Just because" is definitely not a satisfactory answer. There is a whole site for English language learners where people can ask questions if they don't want to get complicated answers.

  • Thanks for responding. The question about build that you answered today is the kind of question that I'd like to see more of but would also like to see fewer close votes or brush offs for. Many times "why" questions can't be answered but I feel that often they can...it takes a bit of digging to get at those answers and aren't as easy as SWRs and they have to stand up to scrutiny in ways that other questions don't. – michael_timofeev Jan 17 '16 at 7:18
  • @michael_timofeev: I agree, why questions can be difficult to formulate, but they should be welcomed (I think of the guidance for them as much like that for "constructive subjective questions" listed here) – sumelic Jan 17 '16 at 7:21
  • Incidentally, it also seems similar to the "YX" problem described in this comment (cousin to the more well-known "XY" problem): meta.stackexchange.com/questions/66377/… – sumelic Jan 17 '16 at 8:36
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    "We should assume that people asking questions here either already understand that spelling doesn't correspond one-to-one with pronunciation," No, the quality of questions on this site is on average so low, that for new users, we should not assume this. – curiousdannii Jan 17 '16 at 10:11
  • Please spell idiosyncrasies correctly. – deadrat Jan 18 '16 at 1:35

I was preparing for a similar question about punctuation questions which read more like a proof-reading request and answers are sometimes primarily-opinion-based. Good answers to punctuation questions quote some manuals, but there are no hard-and-fast rules on punctuation. I think questions on spelling has similar characteristics.

Questions about English spelling are tricky. Almost all the English words that we know at present time were spelled differently before Great Vowel Shift. If someone asks me "Why is that?", I would answer, "Because they were different in OE and ME in terms of pronunciation and sometimes their meanings. And those words have come to be the way they are now.

I fully understand why you are raising this issue and I would like to play the devil's advocate here.

I am not a linguist nor an etymologist. But if pressed to answer the linked question, I would say build is spelled that way to differentiate it from bild, biuld, buld or whatever form. "The major goal of the English writing system is not merely to ensure accurate pronunciation of the written word – it is to convey meaning". A quote from Importance of Spelling.

There could be millions of questions on spelling, i.e. Why does knight have K while night doesn't?, Why do guilt and quilt have u (very similar question to build)? Why is Mississippi so complicated? Why do ought, fought, sought, and caught, ect. have gh in them? I mean I could swamp this community with this kind of question if I make up my mind to sabotage (?) this community.

The key question is "Are they useful to users in this community?" I don't think every user would have the same opinion on this. Some might find this useful and some might not.

IMO, those questions that could interest as many current and future users as possible should be encouraged with upvotes.

It seems "Why is that?" type of question doesn't work very well in this community. If the question was asking about a specific trend of English spelling together with guilt, quilt or other similar words, it would have received more upvotes. But as it is, the question is about one specific word that looks like a few exceptions.

I upvoted the question and answer, but I am not sure if I would if someone asks a question about guilt in the future.

  • I would love to see more spelling questions of the kind you posed. Why does Mississippi have so many extra letters? The answer might lead to an interesting convention from 1789 or something. Also, personally, I feel that this site is all about creating a data bank of questions and answers for people to use as a reference and as curators we should be thinking of future users rather than the community. The community is largely composed of intelligent people who already know most of the answers. Is ELU for us or for "them?" – michael_timofeev Jan 17 '16 at 7:51
  • The other point I wanted to make is all too often I see people answering questions and one can tell from the answer that the person doesn't really know what they're talking about...I especially see this in spelling questions, many of which are protected with BS answers. So, if someone knowledgeable wants to contribute 2 years later, it becomes difficult. – michael_timofeev Jan 17 '16 at 7:53
  • Also, many of the spelling answers are just copy and paste from wikipedia without a real human interaction and interpretation happening. The questions and answers are treated as information and not wisdom, which is something I think we should be sharing in our answers. – michael_timofeev Jan 17 '16 at 7:55
  • If I had to hazard a guess as to why "why" questions are not popular, I would say it is that they open up people to criticism and accusations of answers that are opinions or speculation. Its easy to answer a SWR and slap a link to dictionary.com...not so easy to answer why "gh" is pronounced so many ways or why certain words can't be hyphenated or need an "e" at the end. – michael_timofeev Jan 17 '16 at 8:00
  • @michael_timofeev That's why I mentioned they are tricky. Actually I wanted to ask that specific question about Mississippi, but I decided not to because it could be a gen ref. Many of us use internet sources to answer questions. In terms of English Language and its Usage, spelling questions don't seem to be as much interesting as other questions about word choice/usage, grammar, etymology, and so on. That's why I think "spelling and punctuation" are at the bottom of topics that we can ask here in our Help Center. – user140086 Jan 17 '16 at 8:04
  • Well, I support you in asking more of those kinds of questions, because like I tell my students, "There are no dumb questions." and "Don't laugh. If he asked it, you're probably thinking it." Also, most of the stuff answered here could be found on the internet in a dead resource. What makes this site special is the human interaction and the transference of wisdom...we can see how people think and form answers and what the "information" means to them. We need that now in the world. – michael_timofeev Jan 17 '16 at 8:08
  • A point: there could be millions of questions on any subject, even on-topic ones. Certainly "single-word-requests," for example. I agree that we have to judge questions one-by-one based on what people find interesting and useful. With "build," the interesting thing about it to me is that the spelling pattern is quite rare. So it makes sense that the OP could not think of other words like it. "Guilt," "quilt," "bought" all follow more common patterns. – sumelic Jan 17 '16 at 8:15
  • @sumelic Absolutely. I can't agree with you more. – user140086 Jan 17 '16 at 8:17
  • @michael_timofeev you have a number of questions in these comments. 1) re "the person doesn't really know what they're talking about" - unfortunately this isn't a university where there is vetting on quality. Anybody can answer. I find it the instances you point out extremely annoying especially when there is no alternative answer. But that's the nature of a totally open system. – Mitch Jan 17 '16 at 14:37
  • @michael_timofeev re copy paste - that has long been considered a terrible answering method. if the answer is best answered by a copy paste (LMGTFY), then sure copy-paste, quote it, name the ref, link to it, and give some explanatory commentary. If it is not possible to to do every single one of those (OK maybe not a link, could be on paper), then do not do any of it. – Mitch Jan 17 '16 at 14:41
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    @michael_timofeev re 'why' questions are difficult to answer because 1) why metaphorically it requires an 'actor', an intentional process, which language just doesn't (usually) have. Language design isn't a person, unless it is a handful of spelling situations and you're Noah Webster. 2) literally 'why' is a cause and effect, and that requires a long, probably questionable and arguable research program or book length explanation. 'Why' did English lose gender? Because... well it's controversial. It's easy to say that it did, but to explain it, that is just not a good fit for a Q&A site. – Mitch Jan 17 '16 at 14:45
  • As for Mississippi -- in double dutch (jumprope), one would skip in, chant out the spelling of Mississippi and jump out. It is a very easy word to spell because of the doubling. 6 year old girls could spell it. But I doubt that French trappers jumped rope. Massachusetts is harder to spell. – ab2 Jan 17 '16 at 16:44
  • @Mitch maybe it's possible to answer the gender question on this site. A number of people used to post long, thorough answers. I haven't seen any in a while. Compared with them my answers are substandard. Janus used to post great spelling answers. – michael_timofeev Jan 17 '16 at 17:12
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    @michael_timofeev What makes this site special is the human interaction and the transference of wisdom And here all along I've been coming for the dismissive contempt. My bad. – deadrat Jan 18 '16 at 1:45
  • @michael_timofeev Absolutely true. Please believe me when I say that my remark was prompted by your observation and not by your posting history. My remark has something of the astringent, but I wouldn't call it sarcastic. I am sorry for my carelessness in making a comment that you would find wounding. Not my intent, but we all know where that paved road leads. – deadrat Jan 18 '16 at 2:00

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