No mechanical changes will fix the problems with ELU because those problems are cultural. The site is inhabited by two tribes, each bearing a curse that keeps them locked in a deadly embrace of mutual incomprehension. The first group, which I have been known to call the CPVPV1 has a proprietary interest in the site, regarding it as a worthy research institution, part of the academy, if you will, and (as I also have been known to say) High Table at the Hall or the Fellows' Common Room at the College. For a glimpse of this attitude, you may go here where you'll find worries about the "drain on our site quality", the influx of "low quality contributions" that drive away the"experts we seek to attract", and a reminder that this is "a site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English-language experts." Now this last claim may be debatable2, but to be fair it's almost a verbatim description of the site from its Welcome page3, as those who enjoy the irony of that label may see by navigating there.
The group labors under the curse of knowledge. I take this phrase from Steven Pinker, who uses it in his book The Sense of Style to explain why experts often write so badly about what they know the best. Pinker means that experts know what they know and can no longer imagine not knowing it. They thus cannot tell when they've left out explication crucial to the understanding of non-experts. I adopt the term to mean people fluent in a language and unable to imagine what it's like not to be. This leads to the explanation that questions are "lazy" (see above), and by implication, so are the questioners. "Do the research!" is the j'accuse, and if the lazy would vanish, in the words of the post I cited, it would be "good riddance with bad rubbish!"4.
Those thus contemned are subject to a complementary curse, the curse of ignorance, and by this, I don't mean not knowing something. That is, after all, the human condition. I mean not knowing a critical organizing principle. This is hard to define for language, but it's the language processing that allows fluent speakers to automatically process syntax, idiom, collocations, irony, humor, etc. It's like breathing -- under conscious control when we focus; autonomic, when we don't.
Perhaps this is the organ that processes Chomsky's universal grammar,
but since no one has ever seen such a thing, perhaps an example from
another venue will serve as an analogy. The organizing principle of
biology is evolution through natural selection, and in a famous
paper, a notable biologist wrote Nothing in Biology Makes Sense
except in the Light of Evolution. Before Darwin, biologists (who
probably called themselves naturalists) proposed other explanations
for the biosphere. Perhaps it's the split between sea and land that's
important. Perhaps every terrestrial species has a thalassal
counterpart. (Which is why we have sea horses and sea cows and sea
oats.) In retrospect and with the advantage (and the curse) of
knowledge, it's easy to laugh at these efforts. Without the organizing
principle, investigators are mere collectors of facts and artifacts
that don't fit together. Examples abound -- dynamics before Newton
explained inertia, particle physics before
electrochromodynamics5, to name just two.
This is not to say that ELU is not visisted by lazy seekers of easy answers for their homework. It is, but it's easy to forget how useless it is for many to hear the exhortations to do the research and consult the general references. The instructions for the research tools are written in idiomatic English, the answers are presented in idiomatic English, the exceptions are noted in idiomatic English, and the examples are given in idiomatic English. And as hard as it is for the fluent to understand, this will defeat people whose knowledge consists of an unorganized collection of facts about the language.
(And let's hope the unwary don't try typing their query in the ELU search box. They'll be directed to what I sometimes feel is Borgesian library, which will likely have their exact question and a correct answer, but also every question close but not quite apt and every possible answer including the misleading and the outright wrong. I'm a native speaker, and I'm afraid to go in there.)
Suppose this site were English Spelling and Orthography, which received questions like
I need to know how to spell a pulmonary disease that sounds like new-MOAN-yah. I checked and it doesn't start with the letter n.
Do the research, the OP is told, and he starts to work backwards from n, soon finding that
mnemonoic starts with a silent m. Does new-MOAN-yah?
Nope, try again, he's told, and off he goes finding silent and doubled letters. It will him take a while to circle back to the p's. His betters, of course, know the organizaing principle of etymology, the Greek part in this case.
I'm not choosing sides here. It's not a question of who's right and who's wrong about what ELU is or should be. There have been many proposals for "fixing" ELU -- requiring a test for posters, banning SWRs, instituting tag privileges, and now merging with ELL. These are what I call mechanical fixes, and I think these are doomed without a community consensus on the nature of the site.
- Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice
- Not debatable. What's that other word? Oh, yeah -- risible.
- The official version uses enthusiasts instead of experts, but close enough.
- I prefer good riddance to, but with works for me.
- That's quarks.