This is prompted by a discussion in comments in this question about a gender issue in English. Comments I (and others) made against Caleb's answer gradually veered into a more general discussion of discrimination, and precisely to avoid getting too deeply into gender politics, I used a more neutral example. But this example ends up in a place only marginally-relevant to Caleb's answer. And a general discussion of unconscious prejudice may be interesting, but is clearly off-topic at English.SE.

In a more formal SE site than this I'd delete my comment as steering too far off-topic from the answer. On a different English.SE question I'd not have entered the discussion.

But at the same time, the question is expressly about a gender issue in language.
We certainly don't want to prohibit or discourage questions about discrimination in language and how to avoid it (which was the context here)! Answers to such questions will inevitably touch on such issues - how can they not? And I can't find a point at which my discussion with Noah in comments completely ceases to be potentially of interest to someone reading this question.

I'm not sure I'm drawing the line in the right place here, so I've left the discussion as is and I'm soliciting community opinion. Any thoughts?

3 Answers 3


I suspect on a stricter stackexchange site, that question would have been closed as “subjective and argumentative” — it’s certainly on-topic, but it’s very hard to imagine any authoritative, objective answer for it.

If questions like that one are allowed, then longer and more disputative comment threads seem an almost inevitable consequence. So long as they stay on-topic, polite, and preferably high-quality (i.e. opinions backed up by facts/sources as far as possible), my vote would be to allow them. I’d feel really uncomfortable with a policy saying in effect, “Yes, this answer was controversial; and yes, your response is good and relevant; but no, you shouldn’t post the response here!”

(On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if we should be a little readier to close questions for subjectivity here in the first place. They’re very interesting to discuss; but SE is quite deliberately designed to not be a discussion board, thus giving rise to problems like the current one. I’m not sure — I have very mixed feelings about this issue.)

  • +1; This more or less expresses my opinion on the subject.
    – MrHen
    Apr 4, 2011 at 23:01
  • Thanks for that thought. It matches my first reaction, but I wasn't sure I entirely trusted my first reaction. (I certainly wouldn't want the question closed as subjective; it seems to me that in principle it permits a clear, objective answer - any word which carries an equivalent connation to "guys". A good answer may not exist in practice, but that isn't a flaw in the question.)
    – Tynam
    Apr 5, 2011 at 8:10

I asked the mentioned question without thinking of what kind of answers it might attract. I don't think the question is subjective or argumentative, or rather as far as word choice goes they can always be subjective and argumentative.

Word meaning (and word choice) is vague and subjective; dictionaries are just not comprehensive enough, and much of our common word knowledge is functional, we can have specific thoughts about them but they've never been expressed in words before, and questions like this help do that expression.

Words have stigmas and auras attached to them that are hard to ignore by quoting them. Talking about profanity elicits reactions near to reactions of the real use the profanity.

I was happy with the most of the main responses. People didn't start talking about feminism itself; but (for the most part) they talked about how outside real world forces modify how people choose the particular words (staying on topic, informed by these outside influences).

In my back-and-forth with those who seemed to be carrying things away from the central topic..well..I don't think the topic was always coherent and when it was obvious it was off topic, I stopped replying

As to discussion board...I'd prefer a little better allowance for discussion. Answering a question is not always a yes/no situation, or here is the answer.

Here's another question that could easily go quite astray (into flame wars) on a general newsgroup: Meaning of Western world and alternatives. It requires thinking about subjective feelings of the meanings of words without judging the appropriateness of those meanings (It's hard to talk about a word when it may be taken to be used towards the hearer). But the participants seem to be controlled enough to realize they're all talking about what the words mean rather than whther it is right or good that such a word meaning exists.


I'm a relative newcomer to the site, and arguably not really qualified to contribute to this debate, but...

I've just been through this question, and it seems to me that many answers and comments (in particular the later comments to Caleb's answer) did indeed drift hopelessly off-topic. What you gonna do?

(btw - the bottom line is I'm in total agreement with everything PPL says)

That particular question was always likely to generate a certain amount of peripheral comments and discussion, but clearly it would be at least theoretically possible for the thread to have remained strictly on-topic. There are many useful things that can be said about language & usage in this area without descending into a general discussion about discrimination in language (or worse, in society at large). It seems a high price to pay if the question can't be addressed at all simply because of what should be peripheral issues.

Might it not be possible to simply adopt a convention whereby users are encouraged to add a 'boilerplate' post at the comment level saying This thread may be drifting off-topic where appropriate?

This would be somewhat less draconian than flagging or closing, wouldn't require moderators with limited resources to take on extra responsibilities, and might well help to concentrate minds.

  • Yes, any kind of 'drifting off topic' should be sufficient, not to stop the drift, but to mark to other readers when you think things aren't relevant anymore.
    – Mitch
    Apr 5, 2011 at 12:51

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