Questions about English should be allowed on ELL. We don't need to restrict our topicality to an arbitrary subset of questions, like those about morphosyntax ("grammar").

In particular, questions about semantics and pragmatics ("meaning") should obviously be on-topic, given that they're major branches of language study. See any standard reference such as Frawley's Linguistic Semantics for an introduction.

Unfortunately, we seem to have some disagreement on the subject! This question has just been closed because it is about meaning. The following close reason comment has—to me, mysteriously—four upvotes:

This question appears to be off-topic because it is about basic semantics and logic, not English as such.

I've voted to reopen the question.

Of course, if semantics is off-topic, we should rename the site to English Morphosyntax Learners.

  • 1
    tempted to ask about the meaning of "morphosyntax"...
    – Shog9
    Jul 2, 2014 at 5:18
  • @Shog9 Did she ninja-edit on you? I hadn't heard the word before either, but from context I'm going to guess it means "grammar". :)
    – WendiKidd
    Jul 2, 2014 at 17:57
  • 4
    @Shog9 When I was a kid we used to call the morpho- part "grammar" and studied it along with syntax. But in 1957 Noam Chomsky defined grammmatical as anything acceptable to a native speaker. Chomsky became Famous (especially among people who confused him with Dr. Spock), he had a Theory, and most importantly he gave the Ed School people a lever to pry 'language studies' away from people who had the temerity to actually know something about it. So "grammar" is now something high school teachers talk about (mostly snidely), and linguists have made up another term for what they know about. Jul 3, 2014 at 3:00
  • 1
    That was a ridiculously difficult sentence to parse, logically. Seems like my closevote was hasty, and I'll need to pay more attention in future.
    – jimsug
    Jul 4, 2014 at 4:42

3 Answers 3


I'm going to reiterate my stance on this issue, which I recently left in a comment on a question that was similarly debated:

If a English learner is reading a contemporary book or news story, and that learner comes across a word, phrase, or usage they find confusing, and that learner makes a good faith effort to figure out the meaning by consulting a dictionary or other available resources, yet still can't quite put the pieces together, then that question would be an on-topic question, almost by default.

In my opinion, one of the key differentiators between ELL and ELU is that what seems "obvious" to the native speaker cannot be presumed to be "obvious" on ELL. When words have more than one meaning (and, let's face it, most words in English have more than one meaning), we must accept that there may be some built-in ambiguities and confusion that may be hard for the native to understand and grasp. Such missing pieces of the puzzle are what make a question on-topic on ELL, not off-topic.

Before I vote to close as General Reference, I always look in one or two dictionaries first. More than once, I've changed my mind, and opted to answer a question instead of voting to close it, after I've realized a word is being used in way where a dictionary wouldn't be of much help to a confused learner, even if that individual was making an earnest effort to answer their own question through their research.

I've noticed a few questions getting closed recently that I don't think should have been closed. Just because an answer is obvious to you doesn't mean it's obvious to the O.P. Think twice before you vote to close, and even conduct some research of your own, to ensure the dictionary helps make the pictures as clear as you might assume. If a word has six definitions, for example, and Meaning #4 is the one that unlocks the puzzle, are you sure that the novice speaker should or would have enough expertise to focus on that one particular meaning, and eliminate all five of the other alternatives? If not, the question isn't "General Reference."

  • ... are you sure that the novice speaker should or would have enough expertise to focus on that one particular meaning... this is one of the great pains about semantics, right? It's very difficult to put your mind in a tabula rasa state, so I don't know if this is a great measure. I think I'm going to have to try apply a "number of similar senses" judgement.
    – jimsug
    Jul 4, 2014 at 4:23
  • @jimsug - When I do my sanity check on Hasty Generalreferencing, I always ask myself, "Is there anything on this dictionary's page that might have led me down the wrong track, particularly if my English skills were rudimentary at best?" If so, I tend to give the O.P. the benefit of the doubt on ELL. (On ELU, though, I'm a bit more strict, particularly with established users who already know about both communities. My rationale is, "If you want to play with the big boys, you should have a really good question – not something a native speaker could easily solve with one glance in a dictionary.")
    – J.R. Mod
    Jul 4, 2014 at 9:47
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    One example off the top of my head was the recent "Out of curiosity" question, essentially asking, "Shouldn't out of curiosity mean that you have NO curiosity?" On ELU, my initial thought would be, "Of course not, what a silly question!" because we all know what "Out of curiosity" generally means. On ELL, though, I think, "I'd never thought about it that way before; what an interesting question!" and then explained how "Out of gas" and "Out of curiosity" don't usually mean the same thing. But I can see how a beginner might get thrown as the phrase was mentally parsed.
    – J.R. Mod
    Jul 4, 2014 at 10:35
  • 2
    @J agreed; and in the past, I may have been hasty with closevoting... I think that it may be prudent to keep in mind that, not only should it be answerable with a dictionary, it should be easily answerable with a dictionary.
    – jimsug
    Jul 4, 2014 at 13:54

I'd have reopened the question myself, considering your post has 5 upvotes and I agree with you, but it seems those upvotes translated into reopen votes; the community had taken care of the reopening already! Excellent.

I absolutely agree with you, I thought that was a good question. (And you'll note that your comment now has quite a few upvotes itself! :)) If a learner is attempting to understand an aspect of English, puts in fair effort, and still has confusion, I see no reason to close the question. I'd also love to start a tag overhaul, if I thought people actually used them... Because your point about "grammar" also leads me to consider once more our problem of just about every question getting that tag. (Probably because at least one tag is required and no one knows what other tag they ought to use, so they pick the easy one. I know I've been guilty of this on other sites.)


Since I was the first one to closevote the stop/start question, I suppose I'd better defend that position here. Though it seems a bit pointless, since the question has been reopened anyway. That reopening was a decision made by five users, but let's not forget that four other users voted alongside me to close it in the first place.

I also know that I specifically said my closevote was because it was basic semantics (the difference between stop and start). The OP gave no indication he had any problem with the obfuscatory phrasing anything but temporary. In fact, the question itself just looked like a peeve against a sentence which seemed (and indeed, was) contrary to common sense.

If the purpose of keeping the question open is to showcase the fact that even ordinarily competent native speakers can make stupid mistakes, then fine. But apart from that I can't see what possible use it is.

I've had regular disagreements with at least one of the ELL mods because I often say that really obscure aspects of English (archaic/literay forms, non-standard dialectal usages, etc.) shouldn't be promoted on this site "unnecessarily". By which I mean unless the OP specifically raises them we probably shouldn't either, and we shouldn't defend rare usages because it's reasonable to assume most learners want to become familiar with normal and/or standard English, and could do without the confusing distraction of being told about usages they'll rarely encounter, and don't want to inadvertently use themselves.

I mention that not because I have a problem with the disagreements (I see them as part of healthy debate). It's just by way of a reminder that on average I stand for ELL addressing simple things.

As things stand, I think ELU is already in the process of crashing and burning because it can't make up its mind about the scope of the site (these days, half of what appears there looks to me like it should be on ELL). The same is likely to happen to ELL if everything has to be accepted simply because some people want it - other people will want something else, so there will never be a proper concept of "scope".

  • If it makes you feel better re: scope, the ELL and ELU mod teams have recently opened much broader lines of communication re: what should be migrated and what shouldn't. We're trying to base this off what seems right for both sites and what our collective userbases want, and I'm certain the discussion will continue further on meta as the process evolves.
    – WendiKidd
    Jul 4, 2014 at 2:57
  • (Also note that the sites will naturally have some overlap, and that's okay. But we agree that there are some things that need sorting out at the moment.)
    – WendiKidd
    Jul 4, 2014 at 3:17

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