28

Lately I've noticed quite a few answers that provide an answer to the O.P.'s question, but provide no supporting information.

Sometimes, comments are left, asking for more information; other times, these answers have been flagged by users, and the mod team has converted some of these answers into comments.

In at least one case, a user reacted quite negatively toward this, essentially saying, "I answered the O.P.'s question, didn't I? Why would I need to add something from a dictionary?"

Let me answer that here: Why? Because it's important that answers be accurate. Before you submit your answer, look at it with a critical eye, and ask yourself, "How would an O.P. (or anyone else visiting the site) know that my answer is correct? Are they just supposed to take my word for it?"

Note: I'm a native speaker; therefore, I know what I am talking about does not qualify as proof of correctness.

For example, suppose an O.P. asks:

The other day, a coworked asked if I had a Kleenex. I thought this was a strange question, because Kleenex is a specific brand of facial tissue. I keep a box of Puffs at my desk, and I assumed she didn't care what brand I gave her, but that got me wondering about brand names that have become so popular that we use those names to refer to the name of a product. (More examples I thought of include Band-Aids, Q-Tips, and Jello.) Is there a name for this phenomenon, when a brand name become synonymous with the product itself?

And I answer:

This is called a companym (a portmanteau word, from company and synonym).

Well, companym is indeed a nifty word, and I've answered the O.P.'s question. I might even get a few upvotes from people who think they've learned something new. Fact is, though, I'm full of baloney! There's no such word – at least, not outside my vocabulary of personally made-up portmanteaus.

Let's say someone else adds this answer:

These are called genericized trademarks.

What do you think? Codswallop again? As the old adage goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!"

This is why answers are expected to have some sort of supporting information, which could be a link to a dictionary or Wikipedia article, or a few example usages, or even personal testimony of some sort.

When you do some research while composing an answer like this, not only will you strengthen the reliability of your answer, but you may improve its completeness as well:

These are called genericized trademarks. Wikipedia says that they are also referred to as proprietary eponyms, defining them as:

a trademark or brand name that has become the generic name for, or synonymous with, a general class of product or service

A separate Wikipedia entry has a list of examples, all the way from Astroturf to Zamboni. It includes two of those you mention in your question (Band-Aids and Q-Tips).

There are a few reasons someone might raise an eyebrow of doubt on a valid answer:

  • You've given an answer that's valid in American English, but not British English (or vice-versa). Without any supporting information, a whole continent of people might ask themselves, "Where did that come from?"

  • You've given a factual answer, but it's a lesser-used meaning of a word, and people who cross-check your answer in a dictionary may not find any listed definitions that support your assertion. It's a lot harder to question the accuracy of an answer when you've provided examples from authoritative sources that back you up!

If you think substantiating an answer in this manner is too much trouble, then I would recommend just leaving a comment instead. As a community, we're not just trying to answer questions, but we are striving to supply reliable answers.

  • I'd also point out that it's rather like leaving a link-only answer, but without the benefit of a link which someone can follow to check it for further details. And I think we're probably in agreement on the value of link-only answers... – ClickRick Jul 20 '14 at 11:51
  • 1
    I agree with your substantive point (answers should normally include corroborating evidence of some kind). But I also think this question+answer represents another kind of "minimal, sub-optimal" response (OP asks "Which do you prefer?", Answer effectively does exactly that and no more). I assume most querents on ELL are more interested in learning general principles about how English works, rather than the specific preferences of individuals. That question is potentially fertile ground, but the only current answer is a bit "weedy". – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '14 at 20:23
  • @FumbleFingers "Which do you prefer" questions should be closed as off topic. – Mr Lister Jul 21 '14 at 17:15
  • @Mr Lister: In fact, we (or at least, the majority of us) closevoted as "Unclear". But I'd be interested in the implications of this related NGram – FumbleFingers Jul 21 '14 at 17:25
  • Another correct answer to "Is there a name for this phenomenon, when a brand name become synonymous with the product itself?" would be, e.g., "Yes." I would advise using such short answers only if the OP doesn't show the effort he/she undertook him/herself, however. – user37810 Feb 27 '17 at 19:42
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I think that evidence is desirable, but not required. And I certainly wouldn't want to discourage users from providing answers for non-controversial points simply because they cannot easily find support--nor push more answers into comments, which is annoying for many reasons.

J.R.'s basic point is a good one--don't just make stuff up. But he's looking at too simple an example for a full consideration of the issue. If anything, the question he uses as an example should probably be closed as answerable by a dictionary!

I would argue that the most interesting or useful questions on ELL are exactly the ones for which finding good accepted academic sources will be most difficult. For example, this question asked about an interesting point of grammar. However, it's not asking about the frequency of one phrasing vs. another, or about a specific element of vocabulary; it's asking about whether there are shades of meaning or distinctions between two close equivalents. That's a question about which reasonable native speakers might well disagree! And in those events, I think discussions among different site members themselves will make a great contribution to the asker's learning process.

Same with this question, which takes the kind of source that we might actually cite as a jumping-off point and then expands beyond that. What can an answerer do there? I stand by every word I wrote in my response (and I don't think I said anything really controversial) but I have no idea whatsoever where I might go to find evidence that would speak specifically to those examples. Yet, without directly engaging with the user's examples, I would not have been able to illustrate the point--but the chance of finding a "source" that directly dealt with those examples is quite small. Moreover, I would imagine the majority of answers on the site (not all, obviously; there's a lot of crap too--which should be downvoted!) are coming from people whose command of English exceeds their command of grammar texts and corpus materials. Raising the burden of answering so high as to rule out those people's contributions would greatly reduce the effectiveness of this site as a resource for ELLs, or even as a place where questions are likely to get answered. That's not to say those answers shouldn't be improved by other users; but I wouldn't discourage them from answering in the first place.

The problem with "short answers" has to do with questions, and answers, that don't have much broad applicability--those likely to elicit answers that don't provide productive (in the linguistic sense) information that will be helpful to future learners. But even the dreaded proofreading questions like this one (which was probably rightly closed) can be good resources if the answers address more general questions or teach rules/patterns, rather than providing nothing but information on the points narrowly asked about. Answer quality, and answers' (& the site's) usefulness as a resource, depends less on citing authority than on teaching the user something more broadly applicable.

Finally, in the case of more basic questions for which relevant evidence is pretty easy to find, a good answer should both cite and explicitly recommend the resource used. I would much rather cite a Google NGram (or dictionary etc) and make the asker aware of that tool for future questions than simply give a definition of a word. But "easy-question" answers are often ones that can be improved upon, not just commented (or downvoted--personally I'd reserve downvotes for actual wrong information, rather than just poor cites, unless it's truly egregious). Explicit source recommendations turn an unproductive question into one that will help lots of future users, by hammering home the resources available to ELLs.

Obviously, when comparing two answers, one that's complete and has good source citations is better than one which is solely argument from personal authority. Upvote the one, not the other! But I am entirely with Snailplane in that we should never take an action that will result in more answers in comments than in actual answers. And I think bad answers may be a symptom of bad questions.

  • I agree that my one simple example can not fully capture the all the different ways this can play out. As you say, some very basic questions can lead to some very basic answers; perhaps an extreme example would be if an O.P. asked Is this correct? and someone answered, "Yes, that is correct" without any elaboration whatsoever. There seems to be a tipping point between too little substantiation/explanation and enough. I would encourage some kind of elaboration in an answer, though it need not always come from a dictionary. – J.R. Jul 30 '14 at 8:50
  • ...as happened here just recently. – J.R. Jul 31 '14 at 20:25
  • You wrote, "But I am entirely with Snailplane in that we should never take an action that will result in more answers in comments than in actual answers." Yet that is exactly what down-voting useful, correct but uncorroborated answers does. Most questions on ELL do not require a good, documented, well-researched answer. The non-native learner is asking a quick (frequently first-time) question and wants a quick answer so they can get on with their learning. I'm told by at least one moderator that such answers should be made as comments. You can't have it both ways! – Mark Hubbard Feb 17 '17 at 15:54
  • @MarkHubbard I'm not sure where you think we disagree; I did say "Personally I'd reserve downvotes for actual wrong information" & laid out several arguments for why uncorroborated answers might be necessary. What I stand by is that easily comment-answerable questions should be closed, or at least expanded to be more general/interesting. If you can answer it in 600 characters, it probably wasn't worth asking. This is orthogonal to citation issues, save that short answers are more valuable if they point to good self-answering resources for future simple questions. – Tiercelet Feb 21 '17 at 5:53
  • We are mostly in agreement. I learned a great deal from this question-and-answer thread. It seems the vast majority of our visitors have very little idea what is expected of them when asking a question on ELL. Going forward, I will link to this page more frequently in my comments. I recommend that you re-read the "Tour" page for ELL, which utilizes simple example questions and answers that you would apparently deem "not worth asking." In other words, we are telling newcomers one thing in the "Tour" and something very different here. That is what I meant by "You can't have it both ways!" – Mark Hubbard Feb 23 '17 at 4:47
25

No, answers should be answers.

Right now, we have a culture of answering questions in comments. Many of those answers are flatly wrong, and we have no way to remove them from the site because Not Constructive flags are regularly declined on incorrect answer-comments.

You're encouraging this behavior:

If you think substantiating an answer in this manner is too much trouble, then I would recommend just leaving a comment instead.

Sometimes I leave comment-answers myself because there's social pressure here not to leave answers as answers unless you're willing to take the time to elaborate significantly, often unnecessarily. But it's a problem because comments here are so often incorrect. Certain users are wrong most of the time, and we can downvote their answers when we see problems, but we can't downvote their comments.

Sure, we can add additional noise suggesting that their comments are wrong, but this isn't a particularly good experience for users coming in from Google, who first see incorrect un-downvote-able answers stated confidently, then may choose to read the responses, all of which are above the actual answers the site is designed around.

I brought up some of these points in my earlier meta post, Short answers shouldn't be converted to comments.

We should change our culture of comment-answers and shift to a culture of answer-answers.

But what if a short answer is a bad answer? Does that mean it's a good comment? No, I'm afraid not. There's no reason to privilege a bad answer by removing the ability to downvote it and placing it above all the real answers. And it's worse yet to encourage people to leave answers directly as comments when they can't substantiate them.

Of course, as many of you probably know, I'm guilty of leaving this sort of comment myself. I know short answers are looked down on around here, even if they're entirely sufficient. More than once I've written an answer, then been afraid to hit submit because I imagined my answer would be converted to a comment, something which has happened to me in the past.

But we can fix our culture. We should let short answers be answers. People can always post longer answers as alternatives, and those more substantial answers can be upvoted. If an answer is bad, it can be downvoted.

Let's use the site the way it was designed to be used.

  • I would think that substantiating an answer would lead to fewer inaccurate answers, rather than more of them – at least in theory. Plus, with corroborating facts, at least you can figure out where the answerer is coming from. (More than once I've seen what I thought was a bad answer only to discover it was me who wasn't in the know.) That all said, I'm glad you've responded with an alternative point of view; you've given me a lot to think about. I wonder if how much an "ideal" answer ought to be supported might vary from question type to question type. – J.R. Jul 21 '14 at 9:17
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    +1: there have been a number of occasions where I've declined to answer a question because I see the crux of the answer in comments. Yes, a proper answer post would include extra supporting information, but posting an answer (even if marked CW) which is essentially a repost of someone else's comment just feels dirty. And of course there's also all the points made in this answer. @J.R. I absolutely agree that answers should be explained, and for the reasons you state. Encouraging answers to be made in posts and not comments seems like it would further this goal. – Esoteric Screen Name Jul 22 '14 at 15:10
  • snailplane: Not trying to be a smart-alek here, but I'd like your opinion on this answer. I saw it because it was flagged. In the past, I may have handled the flag by converting it to a comment. However, in light of our dialog, I've opted to leave it be for now, and hear what you think. It answers the question, but provides no support or explanation. – J.R. Jul 27 '14 at 10:13
  • I think that if it's not good enough to stand on its own as an answer, it should just be deleted rather than converted to a comment. – snailboat Jul 27 '14 at 15:04
  • And is that particular answer good enough to stand on its own as an answer? (One person may have flagged it, but that's not proof of a substandard answer.) – J.R. Jul 27 '14 at 16:31
  • @snailboat - Not a challenge, but a genuine question and request for your opinion: See this answer, which got flagged. Leave it alone, delete it, or convert it to a comment? I think it answers the question, but some bolstering might improve it. – J.R. Sep 30 '14 at 17:51
6

After reading through the question and other answers, this is my take on answers that merely answer the question.

I see StackExchange sites as collections of knowledge indexed by questions. They are not merely an "answer key" where you search for your question and have that specific question answered directly. An answer, in my opinion, should give you some sort of explanation of why it is correct, or how it could be deduced, or how that knowledge could be applied to other situations, or how it might be misused, or any little extra tidbit to make it just a little more useful or widely applicable. The question "Is this grammatically correct?" can be answered with a yes or no; Is that really all that can be said about it though?

I don't think every answer must be supported by "evidence" - anecdotal knowledge doesn't bother me because every answer is peer reviewed. If my personal experience can't be applied outside of my dialect or isn't as common as I think it is, someone will point it out. I think for language in particular, personal impressions of different terms or phrases can be important. I assume that most learners are trying to learn English to communicate and not merely to know the "correct" meaning of English words and phrases. Whether something is informal, awkward sounding or has a negative connotation is important to know, but is difficult to find supporting "evidence" for. I agree "I'm a native speaker" isn't a reason to assume an answer is correct in most situations, but I also think that for some questions, personal experience is just as relevant as an authoritative treatise.

I don't think short answers are problematic if they include some sort of information in addition to the literal answer, like a dictionary definition or some elaboration. In one of jimsug's examples, the question could have been answered with "I'd call it a wrapper." That's merely answering the question and isn't, in my opinion, a good answer. Adding the meaning of the word and linking to a dictionary definition elevates a mere answer to a good quality answer. Now I know that I can also refer to the packaging of my gum as a wrapper as well as my snickers bar.

This discussion made me think of a related question that came up Are answers which consist only of block quotes acceptable. I think this is also a form of "merely answering", even though the block quote may include evidence and elaboration. I try to explain my personal understanding of the "correct" answer because often different ways of stating the same information will resonate with different learners. There are many questions that are completely answered elsewhere, and instead of copying and pasting I think that it is worthwhile to point to the other reference, but restate what is relevant there in my own words. I like seeing questions with multiple highly rated answers, because even if some of those answers are saying essentially the same thing, they are saying it in different ways.

I think the underlying problem that causes "mere" answers is the quest for reputation. It seems to me that posting a lot of quick correct answers is a more efficient way to earn reputation than posting a few well crafted answers. A well crafted answer might get 2-4 upvotes in the same time that ten quick answers get one upvote each. Also, as humans we like to demonstrate that we know stuff. Stating the correct answer is easy and it feels nice. Teaching someone what you know intuitively is much harder and can be more frustrating (and yet also more rewarding as the more difficult path usually is!).

I think more than 5 paragraphs on a topic would mean I'm starting to ramble, so I'll leave it at this ;)

5

Note that good answers don't necessarily need to be long

My two most highly-voted answers (What is a candy or chocolate bar packaging informally called?, An army of hackers put America's power grid in its sights - meaning of in its sights) are some of the shortest I think I've written. All I needed to do was put a link to some kind of authoritative source. And OTOH, I've written some long answers that have barely gotten any attention.

... But they should always be supported by some kind of reference

That wrapper question, I wrote from my phone, so I definitely agree that if you don't have time to add supporting evidence to your answer, you don't have time to answer.

If it's something that you have an intuition about, as a native speaker, you should at least try to confirm that it's correct - try COCA, BNC or GloWbE to make sure that it's not just something in your idiolect. And if it is something that you have an intuition about, it's probably best to hedge your assertions with "as a native speaker, ..."

That being said, native speakers, particularly those teaching grammar, can have intuitions that are either incorrect or outdated, and you can often find evidence to support these, so we probably should be lending as much credence to native speakers' claims (simply because they're from native speakers) - unless it's a question that's specifically about idiomaticity, rather than grammaticality.


Short version: always provide evidence.

  • 1
    I agree that evidence is preferable to no evidence. However, ELL is a tricky field for this, because the entire point of descriptive linguistics is that a native speaker's grasp of language justifies itself: native use of language is all the expertise anyone can have, and if a book disagrees, the book may well be wrong (/overly prescriptive). Lately I've been trying to identify not "correct" usages but whether something would seem unusual within the dialectical regions native to me--I think that helps some of these issues; definitive cites aren't always easy to find... – Tiercelet Jul 29 '14 at 19:53
  • @Tiercelet Not so. Descriptive linguistics is thankfully not limited to the intuition of a single native speaker. Although judgments are useful data, native speakers can and do vary widely in usage, and no one speaker is likely to be fully aware of the range of usage and how it varies. Every idiolect has its own idiosyncrasies. Fortunately, we have a wealth of corpus evidence available to help us figure out what is standard and what is not, what is grammatical and what is not, and so on. – snailboat Jul 29 '14 at 20:02
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    @snailplane oh sure--sorry, overstated things; hard to fully nuance positions in short comments--but corpus data has plenty of limitations as well, particularly around spoken language usage. More importantly, a lot of answerers on this site are likely to have expertise that exceeds their access to/knowledge of corpus resources. I think it'd be a disservice to the site to restrict answerer participation to that small subset, particularly as great expertise often encourages answers that may be too technical to be easily understood by the asker. Will take this to an answer shortly. – Tiercelet Jul 29 '14 at 20:12
  • @Tiercelet I agree with you that not everything needs to be cited here. We're not writing academic papers. If I had to cite everything I said, I'd probably write a lot fewer answers. (That said, I do provide references or citations fairly often.) – snailboat Jul 29 '14 at 20:14
  • @Tiercelet I can definitely agree that corpora have their limits. I'd like to point out, though, that there are corpora of spontaneous spoken language, including the 95-million-word COCA "Spoken" sub-corpus, which is freely available. If you'd like to research spoken English, particularly American spoken English, it's a decent place to start. – snailboat Jul 29 '14 at 23:09
  • @snailplane: Is there anything in that corpus which would indicate pronunciation? For example, I suspect that "mischievious" was probably coined as a portmanteau of "mischievous" and "devious"; evidence of where it entered the language could provide evidence of that. – supercat Sep 10 '14 at 23:01
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    Wow, I left this alone for too long! I think evidence is a tricky notion; personally, I'd think that a post that says "People in <my region of the world> say this, that and the other" is better than a post that just asserts their claims as being universally applicable. Just recognising that your dialect exists, and is limited, is more than most people do. Certainly, corpus data, and real-world examples of languages usage, are probably preferable (and in that order), spoken language is extremely underrepresented in corpus data, which is a shame. – jimsug Sep 14 '14 at 13:38
  • @supercat if you have corpus data for rhyming texts - poems or plays, for instance - it can give you a clue as to how words are pronounced. – jimsug Sep 14 '14 at 13:39
  • For the uninitiated, what are "COCA, BNC and GloWbE"? Your answer failed to provide links. ;-) – Mark Hubbard Feb 17 '17 at 15:50
1

Oh, Lord.

I agree that independent citations are a good idea, in general. And making stuff up is normally a bad idea. But given the range of questions that get asked, I'm not sure how to formulate a hard and fast rule. As an example, I was asked to contribute to this thread as a result of my answer on How can I ask "What's up" in aristocratic style?

And yes, I made it up. But there are at least two levels of justification.

The first is that, for citations I'd need to quote from one or more novels from "the beginning of the 19th century". And to be honest, that's going to be hard.

The second is that the OP started with "I need to write a letter in an old manner". Note that it's unlikely he needs real period authenticity. Rather, he needs only to suggest it in a form which is in keeping with modern stereotypes of how people spoke at the time.

So, I generated a response which seemed likely to agree with folks' stereotypes, as I figured that would more directly fulfill his needs than a possibly more accurate but less satisfactory response would.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that there is a continuum of citation needs, with questions like that one, or those dealing with shades of meaning, getting a more lenient treatment. (Hmm. Should I post a question in ELU asking for a one-word term for "citation needs?) And I'm not certain what the policy should be. I'm inclined to be somewhat liberal, with corrections from other members if responders start getting too lazy.

  • 1
    Also, just because an answer is not up to the highest standards of scholarly justification, or if it's seriously flawed, or even if an answer is flat-out wrong, that's not a reason against posting it. You do your best, maybe someone sees a flaw—and that should lead them to make a constructive comment or post another answer. Errors beget improvements. Stopping error before it can get started also stops one of the main mechanisms of improvement. (Take it from me, this is one of the main engines of Wikipedia's success.) – Ben Kovitz Feb 27 '15 at 2:29
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    I don't think your answer needs a citation, just more explanation on how you made it up. What made you think of "pray tell"? Removing the contraction from "what's" was an important step too. I think discussing little things like that would be helpful so that if someone else came along with a similar question about a different phrase they might come away with some ideas. – ColleenV Feb 27 '15 at 3:21
-3

For the same reason we ask the OP to look up a GR text anyway, a GR link to back up an answer should not be necessary.

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