Language Learners are much less likely to understand jokes, word play, and cultural references in Answers and Comments. For their benefit, I've started experimenting with being just a little more keen to explain some of my wordplay/obscure jokes for the benefit of Language Learners.

For the benefit of Language Learners, one can occasionally explain (or simply point out) their ancillary word play and jokes via:

  • A hyperlink to a reliable web page where more information can be gleaned. (This would be the least intrusive method.)
  • A footnote with <sup>1</sup>
  • A parenthetical explanation with the text.
  • An indicator (no explanation) like <joke> somejoke </joke> OR somejoke [wordplay used].

On the other hand, I sometimes include humor in an initial version of an Answer but I almost inevitably edit it out. In practice, I think this post/idea may apply more to comments.

Used judiciously, this would help Language Learners' comprehension and pique their interest in the jokes, wordplays, and cultural references. My intention for this post is just as a reminder/awareness of this possibility and IMO this idea applies more to ell.se than any other stack.

  • 1
    Another option is to avoid wordplay and jokes in Answers and Comments.
    – jimsug
    Jun 18, 2014 at 23:57
  • 2
    "If you have to explain a joke, it's not funny" is something that is usually said of jokes in general. I don't always get all the jokes that are made on this site, and I am a native speaker. That's just how it is. Our goal is to teach English, not explain jokes. If there's such a huge number of these appearing on the site that it's becoming a problem, we're being too lax with comment moderation. I don't think that's the case, but... Basically if this isn't a common occurrence, it isn't a problem. If it is common, we're using the site the wrong way.
    – WendiKidd
    Jun 19, 2014 at 0:41
  • Also, I'm assuming that you're specifically excluding those scenarios where the question is actually about jokes, wordplay and cultural references.
    – jimsug
    Jun 19, 2014 at 2:31
  • 3
    The obvious answer to this question is 42.
    – J.R. Mod
    Jun 19, 2014 at 15:44
  • @WendiKidd, Just FYI: Quickly after I read your comment, I realized I had stated my thoughts much too emphatically. I had said, "I think we should, when possible, explain ancillary word play and jokes in Answers and Comments." I absolutely retract that. I reworded my post to reflect my intention. Jun 20, 2014 at 21:38

3 Answers 3


I think humor is part of language, and being able to appreciate jokes is part of becoming fluent.

If there was a comment about donuts, for example, and someone wanted to quote Homer Simpson:

mmmmm.... glazed donuts... nom nom nom

I don't have a problem with that. After all, there's even precedent for Homer putting words in the OED. Moreover, I'd consider it considerate if the person making the post understood that not every ELL visitor might understand the reference, and therefore append a short explanation. The learner is less confused, and picks up a cultural tidbit at the same time.

Of course, this practice could be overdone. We don't want to create an environment where all the slapstick noise creates the impression that we're just a bunch of juvenile class clowns.

Done in moderation, though, I think this is the kind of thing that could make ELL a more valuable resource for the English learner.

  • Consider it considerate... Nice. [Recognition of J.R.'s clever use of wordplay in constructing a viable sentence while using two consecutive homophones.]
    – Egghead99
    Sep 9, 2014 at 6:55

I find the suggestions in the question appropriate but sometimes sub-optimal. Long in place explanations distract from the topic at hand and can make an answer difficult to read. I think we should keep information in house rather than linking to an external site, especially for explaining the meaning of our own content. If an answer needs several hundred more words to explain what it said, then it's not appropriately written for this site and its jokes should be culled. But the occasional quip is not at all out of line, and asides are the best choice for extremely simple or brief explanations (e.g. this is sarcasm).

This doesn't apply to cultural references, but for wordplay and some kinds of jokes, a learner's failure to understand can be a great reason to open a question, which (assuming it's appropriate) is much better than a tangential comment exchange. Questions are searchable, get more complete answers than comments, and accrue upvotes if they're good. Asking questions and learning about English is the whole point of this site, and humor often relies on linguistic tricks for its effect.

Of course, there's a time and a place for jokes and references. If learners wanted to be bombarded with memes, they'd be somewhere else. And it is important to understand that, especially on this site, many people won't get it, which means an answer which solely relies on jokes is probably not a good one. But humor does keep things interesting, and learners often take real pleasure in discovering how to crack jokes in a new language.


A good goal is probably to minimize tangential humor. There's likely enough potential to point out something funny but actually related to the understanding of the topic of the question.

For a not-actually-funny example off the top of my head to make the point: let's say someone is asking about pickles, and they know it is a food. They write about some other foods and want to know if it could be called a "pickle" as well. You might say "Looks like you're in quite a pickle about pickles!" and share the other meaning. Even though they didn't ask about it, that could raise attention to something "in the space" of the question.

Contrast that to if you happen to have a large inventory of musician jokes you like to tell. Wanting to teach them a new word, and as piccolo sounds kind of like pickle, you work in:

Q: What is the range of a piccolo?

A: Oh, about twenty yards on a good day.

How tangential is tangential? Well, I was going to use a sentence example with a "hedgehog" in it (where I might have put any other noun). I think hedgehogs are cute, and had one for a while. But from that experience and talking to people from Mexico about it, I found that it's a word that people who are pretty reasonable English speakers may not know. Unless they played 'Sonic the Hedgehog'.

The reason I took the word out was because I thought of a more illustrative sentence. Twisting it to keep "hedgehog" in there for no reason made the example more convoluted. Suddenly instead of just being about a surprise birthday present, it's about a surprise bag of cedar chips for your hedgehog.

So I'd say keep the examples clear. If what you're throwing in is not something that can easily be looked up by someone, and it's not related to the question, use something different.

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