Why do we have ? Should we delete it?

I can’t think of a constructive use of it. I vote for removal.

  • 2
    I can think of one use for it - causing a someone to ask the question "What is considered pretentious writing and what is the word to describe writing that isn't pretentious?" Should be an interesting discussion that will probably end in "I know it when I see it!" :)
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 10, 2015 at 22:36
  • 3
    "Why do we have this tag? Should we delete it? / We have because we do, delete we should. / We treat the trees and mustn’t judge the wood / And when a tag is bad, we must admit it." (I couldn't help writing a pretentious quatrain comment :-) Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 11:26
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    Before one lambastes this mechanism of categorization, ponder the juxtaposing scenario of diminishing standards (of which ours have attained a lofty level!) objectionable by any means, and again without which this site is fraught to devolve into the unnamed plethora of the common and the inconsequential. Ergo, we should endeavor to maintain the tag ipso facto the broader context of the tag itself. Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 17:30

5 Answers 5


It probably wouldn't have occurred to me to create such a tag, but I do think it could be useful.

Maybe it's not the best name - purple prose comes to mind as a possible alternative, for example. But we do get asked questions about "obscure" constructions used in such contexts.

Often it's precisely because flowery/pretentious writing includes features unfamiliar to non-native speakers that we get questions about them. But in many cases it turns out that from the average learner's point of view, the most appropriate answer is something along the lines of...

The grammatical feature/vocabulary being queried is a feature of atypical "pretentious writing", which should in general be avoided.

I can see there might be problems if people start throwing the tag around indiscriminately (and one must always distinguish archaic, formal from pretentious), but that's no reason to preclude using it at all.

  • Yes, it may not be that useless. :) But don't you think there should be a more general tag for it? Maybe something that covers speaking, as well as writing?
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Feb 10, 2015 at 17:27
  • @MARamezani: Like I said, it may not be the best name. But if people agree the idea of a tag covering such usages is useful, there's nothing to stop us "synonymising" it with other names (such as purple prose, pretentious speech/language) that could reasonably be used for the same characteristic. Commented Feb 10, 2015 at 18:02
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    One reader's "pretentious" is another reader's "ornate" and yet another's "poetic". How about bare "literary"? That marks a distinct 'dialect' without prejudging the author's motivations, which can be left to individual answerers. Commented Feb 10, 2015 at 22:28
  • Surely that's a good bung this onto ELU indication? Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 0:26
  • @StoneyB: I actually thought about including creative [writing] along with archaic, formal as "distinct categories". I didn't include it in the end because I foresaw something along the lines of what you say (and I hoped if I kept away from it, so would everyone else! :). You're right, of course - value-laden "opinion" tags aren't really appropriate. I'll leave my answer "as is" for now, but I can see literary has more going for it than purple prose. Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 0:45
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    @Araucaria On the contrary, I think it is precisely learners who, even if they are fairly advanced in their studies, lack the broad familiarity with the language which would tell them which uses are 'standard' and which exclusively 'literary'. Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 1:26
  • I'm glad you decided not to propose creative [anything]; it's a term which I detest, both as a professional writer and as an erstwhile literary scholar. :) Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 1:28

The tag should go.

  1. It's a meta tag. Any question that only has this tag is mistagged.
  2. It's subjective beyond the point of being useful.
  3. No one will ever watch this tag or search for more questions about pretentious English.
  4. If people really need to call something pretentious, they can do so without a tag.
  5. It's not very Nice.

Let's axe it.

  • If the tag had a different name, would it be less objectionable? (Have you read the description?) I don't understand it as a meta tag, but a tag for questions about passages with misused big words and unnecessary complexity, which a learner can easily mistake for models of clarity and erudition.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 14:24
  • About whether anyone would search for the questions: I've put a thought about that in another answer.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 14:53
  • 1
    BTW, for me, "It's not very Nice" is the strongest argument against the tag. The name pretentious-writing seems to invite mean-spirited use, even with the definition given, so I certainly favor renaming it. And if a name can't be found to fix this problem, then I favor just giving up and axing it completely, whatever benefits it has.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:08
  • 1
    The problem is not just the tag name, but what its described purpose is.
    – apaderno
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 18:20

I think we should axe it, but if I had realized it was there, I can think of several questions I might have been tempted to apply it to, questions that involved untangling the grammar of graduate-level academic writing, or archaism in poetry. Pretentious is not the right word, though. What I want is a tag meaning something like "not normal English", "triple black diamond language slope", "even native speakers struggle with this". Such a tag might be then useful for advanced ELLs, who wanted some challenging examples on which to sharpen their skills.

  • 1
    Yes! I don't like the word "pretentious", either. Just something to indicate that the usage in question is actually misusage or unnecessarily complex—not typical, clear, straightforward English.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 7:08
  • @BenKovitz, I'm not looking for a tag that encodes value judgments such as "unnecessarily complex". That doesn't seem useful or appropriate. And I don't think having a tag for misusage is useful either. I'm proposing a tag that indicates Extreme English. For instance, we had someone in China asking questions that were clearly drawn from financial/investment documents, perhaps prospectuses, that were legally technical. The complexity of that language was not unnecessary or wrong. It was functional. But it was effectively in a dialect, "corporate legalese". Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 17:45
  • Working alongside a patent lawyer once, I was told explicitly that the complex grammar and confusing vocabulary is indeed chosen deliberately to obscure the meaning. It's a form of intimidation. It happens in many fields, and I think fluent speakers can usually spot it easily. I do think that cluing readers in on this kind of thing is worthwhile. But I agree with what you're saying, too, and I think a tag that enables searching for questions about this kind of difficult language (even if not intentionally obscure) would be worthwhile. Maybe difficult-language?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 17:57
  • @BenKovitz Heh, I believe it. I'm actually kind of liking extreme-english but I'm not sure it is transparent enough. Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:04
  • Maybe obscure-passage, obscure-language?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:09
  • @BenKovitz Not bad, but not great. I still like extreme-english better. Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:15
  • @BenKovitz I'm thinking from your suggestions that you're thinking of tags as a way of commenting on questions. Is that right? Like, a way of posting a warning. I'm thinking of them as categories, as a way of finding things that are similar. Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:16
  • Say, this user asks a lot of questions about very hard passages. I don't think that most of them are deliberately obscure or misuse big words. They're just naturally hard. How'd you like to take a look through this user's questions and see how many would use the tag you're imagining, or how hard it would be to draw a clear line between the ones that qualify and the ones that don't (so people don't argue about it)?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:16
  • I'm thinking of tags primarily as labels for whatever is most salient. That amounts to categories of similar things, with the restriction that whatever that makes them similar be salient. Searching is one of the main uses, but not the only use. See my answer to ColleenV's comment here for more about the many uses of tags on SE sites.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:22
  • Having scanned a few, I'd suggest that any question which requires understanding an unusual register or style qualifies. So questions about archaic writing, yes; questions about legalese, yes; questions about poetry, yes; questions about dialect, yes. But just because a passage is in legalese doesn't mean that you need to know legalese to answer the question: that user has a question that hinges on the simple definition of the word "circumscribe" and though the passage is legalese, the question isn't particularly obscure or difficult. Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:24
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    @BenKovitz Read your reply to ColleenV; that's all well and good, but I think we're optimizing for different usages. Your suggestions here all seem very valenced in a way that is intended to communicate something pejorative, either that something is bad style or deliberately occult or similar, as part of that "accumulated wisdom" you note in tags. I'm looking for something more neutral to better serve discovery and subscription. Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:29
  • 1
    I agree. While writing guides do mention "pretentious language" a lot, so the concept is clearly part of the accumulated wisdom, for ELL's purposes it would be better to eliminate the pejorative meaning and distinguish only the fact that the passage is in some way unusually difficult, so learners should not take it as a model of ordinary, straightforward English. (BTW, I tried to word the pretentious-writing tag wiki bluntly but without scolding readers against it. That sort of language does have its uses; I'm sure it's a part of life in all cultures. But anyway…)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 22, 2015 at 18:45
  • Actually, I think having some sort of tag for "Advanced" questions would be useful. I know @LawArea51Proposal-Commit has been looking for advanced examples and I'm sure there are other learners that would like to filter out the more basic questions. I can definitely see the collection of questions for that tag being useful, where I can't see it for "pretentious" or a less polarizing synonym. Yes, there's still some gray area in deciding where to draw the line between advanced or not, but it's much smaller.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 18:35

Some reasons in favor of the tag

The tag's constructive use is to clearly identify questions about passages that are unclear or misuse jargon in order to feign respectability, which an EFL learner can naïvely think are normal, clear, or respectable English.

It's similar to the tag, which identifies questions about vocabulary and grammar that are no longer in common use and consequently are poetic or obscure. A fluent speaker usually recognizes pretentious language and archaic language for what they are, but an EFL learner can't yet tell the difference from ordinary modern English. A learner can easily think that the reason they don't understand the passage is because of their own lack of knowledge of basic English grammar or vocabulary. Or they can treat the passage as a model that they should imitate, because they found it in a respectable-looking source.

I think it helps to have a name for this kind of writing. The term “pretentious writing” is a little clumsy, and it unfortunately excludes speech, but it also has a lot of established usage. I assume that the same phenomenon—people speaking obscurely in order to sound wiser than they are—occurs in all languages. Tagging it helps an EFL learner see the similarity with pretentious writing in their own language.

Pretentious writing often backfires: it makes the writer appear stupid or dishonest in the eyes of people who know the topic, though it can also make the writer appear wise in the eyes of the ignorant. EFL learners should know what they're getting into if they use this kind of language.

The tag wiki provides a helpful explanation that a question-answerer can link to just by adding the tag.

An answer to a reason against the tag

Some comments objected that pretentious writing can’t be defined: “I’ll know it when I see it.” “One reader’s ‘pretentious’ is another reader’s ‘ornate‘ and yet another’s ‘poetic’.”

Actually, incorrect use of big words is pretty clear-cut in many cases. For example:

Wolfgang von Heisenberg, the penultimate quantum mechanician, proved resolutely by rigorous tangential methods the volutional structural consciousness which is indisputable (as Noam Chomsky facetiously observed in his own pioneering studies) by all the most educated scientists and physicists.

gets Heisenberg’s name wrong, misuses “penultimate”, misuses “resolutely” for “absolutely”, uses the malapropism “volutional” for “volitional”, uses “structural” with no apparent meaning, misuses “facetiously”, etc. Overall, it doesn’t really mean anything despite the big words and name-dropping. The sentence tries to sound very formal and credible, and unwittingly invites snickers. It could have been written by a native speaker unwittingly demonstrating their ignorance, or by a non-fluent speaker struggling to get respect for an idea, but either way, it comes across as phony and inflated and it doesn’t convey any clear meaning. Part of learning English is learning to recognize that.

Overcomplicated syntax is less clear-cut, but take a look at the example in the tag wiki and see if you don’t think that’s unmistakably obscure. A simple test is if rewriting the passage in plain English reduces the meaning to almost nothing. I was inspired to create the tag when I saw this question, which contained an extraordinarily dense paragraph that turned out to mean only a triviality.

(By the way, if I quoted you above, it doesn't mean I think you've decided against the tag. It means I think this objection deserves a serious answer.)

Another reason against the tag

A possible problem with this tag is that people might start using it to tag pet peeves about individual words. For example, some people don’t like saying “ascertain” instead of “find out”. I’d prefer that the tag be limited to questions about passages that are hopelessly obscure, and which an EFL learner should not even bother trying to unscramble or imitate.

My overall feeling right now, though, is to let the tag stay, see if problems develop, and figure out how to address them when and if that happens. I've tried to word the tag wiki to keep the tag limited to its use for EFL learners.

  • 4
    I'm not objecting to anything in your answer, but it made me wonder "What is the purpose of a tag on ELL?" Is it merely to categorize questions, or is its purpose to help folks looking for an answer to narrow their search? If learners are unable to easily identify "pretentious writing", does the tag help them find answers to their question? Will a learner ever initially tag their question with it, or will it only be reviewers that tag it after the fact to categorize the question?
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 19:17
  • @ColleenV I wondered the same thing myself for a long time. At first, I thought tags were just to help questioners search for answers. Then I discovered (on stackoverflow.com) that people subscribe to a tag because they like answering questions about a specific topic, or to learn about it. On ELL, I found myself using tags just to see what people had asked about a topic. If you want to see how EFL learners struggle with the present-perfect, looking over questions with that tag is great way to do it. Eventually, it dawned on me that the tags themselves are a kind of accumulated wisdom.…
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:55
  • @ColleenV …Just by looking at the list of tags, you learn something important about the overall topic (not something you can put into words, though). And then I saw that answerers often tag a question with some insight that the questioner couldn't possibly have before asking: "Your question is actually about subject-verb agreement." My current thinking is that tags serve a function like words or file folders: they embody a conceptualization of the topic. There's no way to exhaustively list all the uses of that. A rough way to say the purpose would be: to mark important question categories.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:57
  • I agree that looking over the tags is a great way to generate a catalog of information for the topic, and I think that tagging things appropriately is a very important activity for reviewers. I just wonder when I click on the "pretentious writing" tag whether that accumulation of questions will be particularly useful. I often use tags to run down potentially related questions, so even if you don't put them in the search box, they're still essentially a search tool. It's difficult to imagine wanting to search for or follow "pretentious writing".
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 22:03
  • This answer is so long that I think it qualifies for the tag.
    – levininja
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 4:05

About whether anyone would search for the questions: I've encountered a number of EFL learners who unwittingly sound pretentious (and unknowingly suffer for it). I can't say for sure that it would be useful to tell them "look over some of these questions", but I understand pretentiousness to be something like register and grammaticality: obvious to a fluent speaker who knows the topic but hard for a naīve reader to perceive. It's an important aspect of language, which many basic writing guides explain (examples).

  • How many questions are there that are about pretentiousness rather than something that can have different, more meaningful tags applied, like register or meaning-in-context? Is a question that is only about how pretentious the writing is on-topic if there isn't a more specific concern? I think this is categorizing the source of the question rather than the question itself. I feel the same way about the "lyrics" tag. A question that was inspired by a song lyric can be about grammaticality, for example.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 17:26
  • @ColleenV The tag might not be a good idea, but I'd hate to see it rejected because it refers to the source of the question. Part of the glory of multiple tags is that they let you categorize simultaneously in different ways. Currently, there are no questions about pretentiousness; however, the tag might encourage someone to ask, since tags themselves teach concepts.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:13
  • 1
    In your opinion, is the question "Is this paragraph I read considered pretentious writing?" on topic? I would close that as primarily opinion based. In fact I think in many instances the application of the pretentious writing tag is opinion based, which isn't really good for categorizing things. One man's pretense is another man's poetry.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:23
  • 2
    Also, I think that trying to categorize questions by the source they came from is a huge can of worms we don't want to open. If the question is about verb agreement, it shouldn't matter whether it came from pretentious writing, lyrics, a fiction novel, or a wikipedia article. The only sources that matter in terms of categorization are the ones that have their own rules, like legal or headlinese.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 18:33

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