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The following question was closed. At first glance, the question seemed absurd.

What is the difference between "control" and "inspect"?

Upon further review, I noticed that the issue is related to the common false friend problem:

  • "False friends are pairs of words or phrases in two languages or dialects...that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning." (Wikipedia False Friend

In this case, "control" and "inspect" can have similar meanings in other languages. Funnily enough, this particular issue between control and inspect almost caused the failure of a treaty between Russia and Japan in 1905. (English for Writing Research Papers, Adrian Wallwork, p 102)

Should we allow such questions to remain open (or more likely, to be reopened once it's established to be a false friend issue) in order to point out the false friend issue?

On the one hand, we don't want to be a dictionary, and it seems that a simple Internet search could resolve this. On the other hand, even someone reading a dictionary could continue to be confused due to the cognitive dissonance created by the false friend problem.

And if we don't allow questions related to false friends between English and other languages, should we also close out any questions related to false friends between dialects of English?

How should we handle this issue?

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A very nice point.

I agree that this question should be reopened, and that questions of this sort should not be closed as dictionary lookups, because the error comes up preciesely because learners do employ dictionaries: a learner looks up (for example), contrôler in her pocket French-English dictionary and is offered inspect, check, control as the corresponding English terms.

Learners may not employ the dictionaries we prefer, or employ them with sufficient sophistication; but that only means that the question is an occasion to point them to better dictionaries and teach them how to use them.

  • And they should be fairly easy to spot; if the question seems absurd about definitions, think "maybe false friend". But this gets me thinking... how many definition questions may we have closed that were not so obviously due to false friend issues? – CoolHandLouis Jun 20 '14 at 21:34
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    @CoolHandLouis We currently have 693 closed questions - you wanta check em? – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 20 '14 at 22:13
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    I wonder how we could know this ahead of time, though. "If the question seems absurd" is not an accurate enough measure, I think, because even then how are we do go forward and find out if this might be a case of "false friends" (esp. if we don't have a language to start comparison with?) How can we tell the difference before we close? – WendiKidd Jun 21 '14 at 16:02
  • @WendiKidd We can't; it's built in to the site: just as English is full of traps for unwary learners, learners' questions are full of traps for unwary answerers! Even pointed questions such as those Nigel Harper asked don't always help, because the learners are just as bewildered by our questions as we are by theirs. We just have to hope we have enough people with devious suspicious minds (like Nigel and CoolHandLouis - and you and me!) to ferret these things out eventually. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 21 '14 at 16:26
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    I'm open to being persuaded otherwise, but given the OP for the inspect/control question failed to meaningfully respond to two requests for clarification from Nigel Harper, my feeling at the moment is it was properly closed. And improperly reopened, since the question itself still hasn't been edited to indicate why it was asked in the first place. It seems obvious to me that if a learner can't see the difference between two words because they both appear in "translation dictionaries" for the same word in another language, he should compare two definitions written in English. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jun 21 '14 at 19:01
  • @FumbleFingers This assumes that learners understand what dictionaries are available and how to use them. That many do not is suggested by this branch of the English Language Centre of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 21 '14 at 19:58
  • I think it may be difficult for Ice Girl to clarify, unfortunately. She may not have the vocabulary to explain her confusion in more detail. – snailcar Jun 21 '14 at 20:03
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    @snailplane, StoneyB: People who are unable/unwilling to consult English dictionaries, or who can't even attempt to provide clarification, probably shouldn't be asking on ELL in the first place. I'm not likely to be convinced that questions from such people would be particularly useful for future visitors to the site (and it's not supposed to be "one-off" enquiries). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jun 22 '14 at 11:05
  • ...also note that Ice Girl posted an answer with currently 10 upvotes, so I doubt "paucity of vocabulary" applies in the specific case in point. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jun 22 '14 at 11:11
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    @FumbleFingers Her answer is plagiarized. I'm afraid Ice Girl isn't up to writing answers like that yet. – snailcar Jun 22 '14 at 14:13
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I very much appreciate your idea of this discussion.

False friends itself wouldn’t be such a big deal if dictionaries had been more explicit. At least two times here and here I was advised to ignore definition X or definition Y from the dictionary.

The case in question, control vs. inspection, also has no clear explanation in dictionary and leaves room for duplicitous interpretation since definition #5 a and b say control = verify. I don’t know, are these definitions to be ignored too? 200_success’ comment regarding “quality control” which didn’t get any answer from English natives also leaves room for interpretation.

I think that since this site was specifically designed for learners, natives should be a little bit more indulgent to learners. Before the question was closed I felt it is natives action, but I can understand it, for natives it is not only easy but also they may find absurd a question like this.

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Unfortunately, it is impossible for us to know whether they are false friends unless the OP provides an original translation.

My ideas

"Fixing" false friend questions.

  1. If you know of languages where this is a false friend issue, comment stating that this is the case
    I believe we have a wide range of native speakers who are bilingual, or have some degree of fluency in other languages. I noticed the control/inspect issue, and my French isn't that bad.

  2. If you don't know of any languages where this is a false friend issue (and no-one else has pointed this out), comment with the definition(s) and link.
    I think this is the only reasonable course of action - we can't expect and allow for false friends in languages all the time.

If we do the above, then firstly: only the first option may be a change to our habitual and usual activities. Secondly, if we encourage option one, then these questions should be addressed faster.

As for closure, there are a couple of considerations to be taken into account:

  1. Is the source language spoken by few people?
    This is a crude measure, but I think it's a reasonable assumption that more widely-spoken languages that have false friends are more likely to cause repeat questions than languages with fewer speakers; a false friend in French is probably more likely to be a repeat issue than a false friend in Walpiri.
    A language that is widely-spoken is probably more useful left open than a language with few speakers.
    A question about a false friend in Walpiri is a good candidate for closure under this test.

  2. Is it obvious that the meanings are unrelated?
    Yes, this is subjective, but most things are. If the language the meanings are absurdly, incredibly unrelated, then closure is appropriate.
    magasin(fr)/magazine(en) is a good candidate for closure under this test, but not under the previous one.

    • If the answers to both of these questions is yes, then the question is a good candidate for closure.
    • If the answer to both questions is no, then the question should probably be retained, because if the meanings are similar, and should be retained because it is a widely-spoken language and may attract repeat questions in the future.
    • If the only the answer to the first question is no, then it depends on how obviously different the meanings are: something that means sky in the source language and earth in English, for example, is probably fine for deletion. Something that means soil in the source and earth in English is probably not.
    • If only the answer to the second question is no, then it depends on how few people speak the language. This is largely a judgement call, but if you can recall from memory more than one other question about, or from a speaker of, that language, then that's probably enough to leave the question open.

Comments? I think this set of criteria is fine, and their subjectivity isn't inherently a problem, since so many matters in language are subjective.


Also: native speakers can be too quick to judge, I agree. And dictionaries aren't much help - native speakers know which definitions to ignore, since, well, they know which sense of a word applies. Telling people to ignore certain senses is probably bad advice, and too localised - they'll come back next time. But as a native speaker, it's difficult, if not impossible, to explain how we know certain senses apply and others don't.

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