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So, you found a sentence or phrase that confuses you, and now you want to know what it means.

If your confusion stems from the fact that you are an English novice, then ELL is a good place to ask.

However, we'd ask that you'd do us one small favor:

When you ask your question, tell us where you found your sentence. Don't be mysterious about it. When possible, include a link as well. Don't just copy a sentence as though it appeared out of thin air.

Why do we ask for this? Several reasons:

  1. It's a courtesy to the community. Perhaps your quote interests us, and, before we answer, we want to learn more about its origin, and read more from where it was taken.

  2. It's a courtesy to the original author. (Remember what we learned in middle school? Don't plagiarize.)

  3. The meaning of a sentence often depends on where it came from. Words and phrases mean different things in different contexts. Poets, journalists, satirists, critics, science-fiction writers, advertisers, researchers, and English teachers may all use the same phrases to mean different things.

  4. Words change in meaning over time. We can easily be led astray when deciphering a single sentence if we make erroneous assumptions about when it was written. Is this contemporary, or did it come from the classics?

  5. Locations matter, too. Besides variations in British versus American English, some words and phrases might mean something different in New Zealand or Canada or India.

  6. Not all sources will be treated as equals. We may be a bit more skeptical when an amateur blogger misuses a certain word than when a respected author bends a word. We deserve to know when we're being asked to interpret Shakespeare or Dickens, versus when we're being asked to decipher some undergraduate student who wrote a column for an obscure university newspaper.

  7. Often, the key to unlocking the mystery of a confusing sentence lies in the sentence that comes before it, or the paragraph the comes before it. Context matters, and it's rare to provide too much of it. Make it easy for the community to find all the context they may need to solve your poser.

In short, please tell us: Where did this come from? A newspaper article? An advice column? A children's book? An English lesson? A practice exam? A fortune cookie? Often we will want to know, out of sheer curiosity, and sometimes we will need to know, because your question might be unanswerable without this critical information.

Please be as precise as possible. "My textbook said" is not good enough. Neither is "I heard on a news cast". Give us the title or author (preferably both) of the text, and the name and date of the enws program. Then someone else might be able to find the source.

It's not that hard. Watch:

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT:

Blank canvas to work with - what does it mean?

I found this sentence and I am having trouble understanding it.

When Mrs. Hlavac moved into her current home seven years ago, she essentially had a blank canvas to work with.

I don't understand what "blank canvas" means.


MUCH BETTER:

Blank canvas to work with - what does it mean?

I found this sentence in a 2014 column by Josh McAuliffe in the Times-Tribune (source). I am having trouble understanding it.

When Mrs. Hlavac moved into her current home seven years ago, she essentially had a blank canvas to work with.

I don't understand what "blank canvas" means.


I realize I have already touched on some of these same issues here and here, but I wanted to have a place where we could explain this one specific issue to newer users, who seem to fall into this recurring problem rather often.

See also "Marking and Attributing Examples, Sources, and Other Quotes" in the Contributor's Guide

If I've left off any other reasons why O.P.s should follow this "best practice," feel free to chime in.

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  • 2
    Thanks for doing this! Not sure if it's too small a point to make here, but specially for questions about the usage of the perfect aspect, it is important to quote the previous sentence too.
    – Nico
    Commented Jun 24, 2014 at 11:02
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    I submit that this (or a similar meta post) should be added as a link to the custom "add more context" close option. Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 0:37
  • You don't mention in this otherwise fine post that the author of the sentence is at least ethically, and in some cases legally, entitled to, credit, and that proper attribution provides credit as well as context. Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 17:15
  • As @DavidSiegel did, I wonder about the legal ramifications, especially if the quoted text is under copyright. I expect that there will be no such problems the vast majority of the time, but I wouldn't be surprised if Stack Exchange occasionally has legal issues crop up due to unauthorized copying of others' works. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 3:49
  • 3
    @MarcInManhattan In most cases quotes will be fair use under US law, fair dealing under UK law, and fit one or another exception to copyright under the laws of othe countries. And when that is not so, under US law SE, although not the poster, will be protected by Section 230, as the content was not created or posted by SE. Legal action against then poster is possible, but not likely. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 13:08

1 Answer 1

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I think I've shifted my position quite a bit on this issue in recent weeks. Previously, if someone posted a "What does [some text] mean?" question without sufficient context, I'd be inclined to answer/comment on the basis of whatever I thought was the most likely context.

I now think this isn't really helpful to the site as a whole, because the situation often degenerates into extended comments involving competent speakers arguing about the relative likelihood of different contexts being applicable. Which in many cases is utterly pointless/confusing for the OP. If we knew the exact context, we probably wouldn't be discussing alternatives - but as a learner, the OP may not easily be able to see what's relevant and what's not. And it's probably not very helpful to most other learners.

I now think ELL should be much stricter about summarily closevoting these type of questions (as Unclear what you're asking, with associated comment) if the actual source of the queried usage isn't specified.


Having said that, if the queried text is something I can easily and unambiguously locate myself (using my finely-honed Google-fu! :), I don't really mind doing that and editing a link into the question. But if I find myself repeatedly doing this for questions from the same user, I'll probably start downvoting them for being lazy and inconsiderate (as a last resort, after posting appropriate "nagging" comments).

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