It's been less than ten minutes since I've been on this page and already I have a dire need:

A checklist on: how do I determine whether a question fits on English Language & Usage or on English Language Learners?

  • 2
    Here’s an interesting thought experiment. Randomly select 10 each of open and closed questions on ELU. Exclude duplicates and migrants. Now do the same for ELL. On each of your 4 lists of 10 questions, ask yourself, “Would (or should) this question have the same open–close status if it were on the other site?” Possible answers are yes, no, and dunno/maybe. Are the answers obvious, suggesting a clear/clean separation of missions, or are they not?
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 9, 2013 at 13:55

6 Answers 6


I think I'll post this as an answer, because some of the opinions expressed in the comments seem so WRONG to me, not just in and of themselves, but also as a basis for a site.

First of all, we CANNOT define this site as "questions that can be answered by a native speaker with no particular expertise", because another way to describe those questions is bikeshedding: questions that everyone has an opinion on, and that people are capable of debating to death even though it's a very minor point. If all you can say about a question is "I'm a native speaker and it sounds better this way", without being able to explain why, then who's to say whether you're correct, or whether that other answer that says "I'm a native speaker and it sounds better that way" is more correct?1

The heart of Stackexchange is expert answers. If this site isn't about expert answers, then we might as well close our doors and go home.

1 Also, people tend to learn a rule better if they understand the reasoning behind it. I know that if I can explain the "why" behind a particular facet of language to my boss (who is not a native speaker), he is much more likely to remember it the next time. Otherwise, I end up correcting the same error over and over again. In a sense, if we leave out the "why", every question becomes "too localized".


Instead, we have to define ourselves in terms of the questions that can be asked. Waiwai's answer is on the right track, with the distinction between native and non-native speakers. But that's a bit too, well, ad hominem. Instead, I'd phrase it as:

If your question is about the English language, but is unlikely to ever occur to a native speaker (except in the context of teaching English as a foreign language), you should ask it here.

So, "I need a word for [concept] because I want to construct a sentence a particular way" belongs on ELU, but "My native language has a word for [concept], is there an equivalent word in English" belongs on ELL. "Is there a dialect where 'on yesterday' is idiomatic" goes on ELU, but "Why do we use 'on' with Monday but not with yesterday" goes on ELL. "In dialects that don't pronounce word-initial 'h', how do they distinguish 'ate' and 'hate'" goes on ELU, but "My native language doesn't have 'h', how do I remember the difference between 'ate' and 'hate'" goes on ELL. And so forth.

  • 11
    This. A million times this. Defining a site as "EL&U's dumpster" is the single worst possible thing you can do to yourselves and the SE network. Closing "expert questions" on an "expert Q&A" site because they are "too expert" is absolutely insane. SE is supposed to be by experts, for the same group of experts; how is this site going to do that? Defining scope correctly the way you propose it is critical.
    – badp
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 11:57
  • 3
    I like what you said about experts. Having participated on both sites for about a month now, I think ELL does require expertise. Answering an ELL question often offers unique challenges: first, deciphering the heart of the question, and then composing an answer that will be useful to both the O.P. and other visitors to the site. Maybe that's not the same kind of linguistic, grammatical expertise often wielded on ELU, but it still requires a measure of aptitude and know-how. I believe this beta has been successful, and ELL is growing as a place where expertise can thrive and be valued.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Feb 25, 2013 at 11:35
  • 2
    It's been a while since this answer was posted, but I just saw it via a link from ELU; apologies for posting a comment on an old answer. Just wondering: in practice, how does a non-native speaker know whether a question would occur to a native speaker? This may also have relevance to recent discussions on ELUmeta regarding the quality of 1-rep posts on ELU.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 1:42
  • @Lawrence: I don't know, since I'm a native speaker. However, I think it's immaterial: non-native speakers who are trying to learn English should probably ask their questions here on ELL 95% of the time, and even if a question falls in the 5%, it's probably fine to ask it here, too. Another way to decide might be to figure out why you're asking: if it's because you're trying to learn English, go with ELL, and if it's because you're trying to use English, consider asking on ELU.
    – Martha
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 3:24
  • @Martha Yes, that's a good suggestion. I wasn't asking for myself; there are several discussions at ELUmeta about what to do with low-quality questions at ELU. Someone quoted your post, which caught my eye. The main issue is how to encourage higher quality questions, which is not a trivial task on a public Q&A site.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Jan 14, 2016 at 8:24
  • Hello, Martha. I'm here trying to ascertain where native speakers should ask questions considered too basic for ELU. You say 'If your question is about the English language, but is 'unlikely to ever occur' to a native speaker (I'd say this must be hyperbole: 'would rarely occur') ..., you should ask it here.' In my experience, the occasional native speaker suddenly realises that they use 'should' and 'would' rather like words that they know to be verbs, but that there are large differences in behaviour / 'thrust' they can't pin down. I'd say your condition licenses them to ask on ELL. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 15:50

This is something that will very likely take a few weeks at the very least to figure out, as ELL and EL&U figure out their boundaries, so to speak. Thus, very rough guidance follows:

  • If you natively speak English or are fluent in it, it is more than likely your question belongs on EL&U.

  • If you are not yet fluent in English, or your question is one most fluent speakers wouldn't have, ELL is more likely to be the appropriate place.

Please go ahead and ask your questions. If you post on ELL and don't get answers, drop in the EL&U chat room and see if it is maybe a bit more advanced than you think. If you post on EL&U, and it's not right for us, we'll probably close it but point you back here to ELL, and you're more than welcome to repost it here on ELL.

  • 1
    See also Flagging a Question as off-topic and waiwai933 answer for migrations between ELL and EL&U.
    – knut
    Commented Jan 24, 2013 at 20:41
  • 4
    We should not be defining topicality based on EL&U. EL&U shouldn't feature in our decisions.
    – Matt Ellen
    Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 13:26
  • I'd certainly consider it wrong if some reasonable questions were unanswerable as 'unsuitable for ELU: too basic' but 'unsuitable for ELL: OP a native speaker'. I do realise that some questions need editing (or even closing) rather than migrating. Commented Jul 11, 2021 at 15:58

We brought this up in a proposal discussion. I'll copy my suggestions here.

ELL is intended to be geared toward the needs of both people learning English and people teaching English. I feel these general topics encompass many of those aspects:

  • article usage (a, an, the, no article)
  • preposition usage
  • verb tense
  • basic, common syntactical structures
  • meanings of slang terms and common idioms
  • single word requests in the vicinity of "how is this concept/idiom expressed in English?"
  • standard writing etiquette
  • methods for learning how to pronounce English sounds clearly

EL&U is geared toward expert and advanced level question about the English language and how it is used. I feel that these general topics represent the level of questions that are desired on that site:

  • complex syntax
  • unusual or academic structures
  • origin/history of words and idioms
  • meanings/usages of obscure or archaic words
  • interpretation of jokes/puns
  • analysis of dialects, pidgins, creoles
  • analysis of grammatical structures
  • evolution of spelling, pronunciation, etc.
  • 1
    I'm in 99% agreement with this. The only place where we might differ is that I think some joke/pun interpretations might fit better at ELL (e.g., "What does 'Make like a bakery truck and haul buns' mean?"). But you've done a nice job capturing the essence of it.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Feb 9, 2013 at 0:46

How about this:

If you have something to ask about a certain linguistic element for your own practical use, ask on ELL;

If you are not mainly concerned with using the element yourself, but instead you would like to know more about it, such as how it came to be, whether there is a pattern behind what you observe, etc., ask on EL&U.

This means that practical stylistic advice should also go on ELL, even though it will often be native speakers who ask such things. Of course the difference is only gradual, but questions should be filed according to their main focus.

  • 4
    Yes; the real difference isn't the subject of the question, it's the character of the answer sought. During Commitment I offered this formula: "If OP wants a rule, the question goes to ELL; if she wants analysis, research, theory, the question goes to ELU." Commented Feb 7, 2013 at 22:47
  • @StoneyB: Yeah, that sounds good. The only thing I disagreed with you about was that I didn't think rule-based answer should be simple at all. They should certainly at least include a clear rule/recommendation, but additional nuance is good, not bad.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 0:14
  • Absolutely, as much nuance as you can fit in. That's part of the 'rules'. English 'rules' are more like EPA regulations than the Ten Commandments! Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 0:20

I've mulled this one over for a long time now, and I've realized that the right place to ask not only depends on the nature of the question, but sometimes it depends on the nature of the answer sought.

If you'd like someone with a strong background in linguistics to give an explanation that goes something like this:

These two accusatory words come from two separate protolanguage roots. If the first is a preposition, then it must have a homophonous derived plural noun. Predicate count nouns with an indefinite subject are normally singular, with an indefinite article, unless the speaker wishes to emphasize the non-singularity of the subject.

then ELU would be the place to get an answer like that.

If instead, you're wanting someone to explain:

This expression basically means that two or more people are in strong disagreement with each other.

or confirm:

No, that's not the way a native speaker would normally say it. The order of the last two words are usually reversed.

then you should probably ask on ELL.

This litmus test may not be applicable in all cases, but I think it can be useful at times.


I like waiwai933's answer, but I feel it isn't refined enough. It focuses on the person asking the question. I feel the criteria should be based on the question itself.

I propose the following

  • If the question is one that could be reasonably expected to be answered by a typical fluent English speaker, and not requiring a 'grammar geek' or specialized expert, then it is not too advanced for ELL.se.
  • If the question is not one that could be reasonably expected to be answered by a typical fluent English speaker, it is too advanced for ELL.se and should be directed (migrated, harsh scolding, cat-o-nine-tails, etc) to ELU.se.
  • If the question does not relate to something that would be required to be fluent in the English language, it is too advanced for ELL.se and should be directed to ELU.se.

For example: the etymology of words can be a useful tool in understanding their definition. But you don't need to know the etymology of English words to be fluent in English. Therefore, etymology questions should be directed to ELU.

  • 9
    The underlying assumption of this appears to be that ELL is for the easy questions and ELU is for the hard questions. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Both sites frown on very easy questions, especially ones that would be easily answered by a dictionary or thesaurus. The difference is that ELL is for questions that wouldn't occur to a native speaker, not because they're easy, but because it's something that a native speaker Just Knows(TM).
    – Martha
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 19:34
  • 2
    You entirely misunderstand the premise of the post. It has absolutely nothing to do with difficulty. It is merely directly tied to the relevancy of fluency. If the question is related to becoming a fluent speaker, then you would expect any given fluent speaker to know it. But the criteria should be based on the question itself, independent of a speaker. Myself, as a fluent English speaker, may ask an identical question to a non-fluent speaker. It's no less on topic as a result of my fluency.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jan 25, 2013 at 20:15
  • 1
    @corsiKa: So far as I can see, I agree with your points here. I do somewhat agree with Martha that it's rather difficult to read (a bit verbose/technical), but we can't all be outstanding in that respect. The main thing is you're saying is the criteria should be question-based, which seems sensible to me. People become relevant with your secondary point - if the question could be answered by any competent native speaker, it belongs on ELL, not ELU. That's what I'm upvoting for, anyway. Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 0:50
  • @Martha Can you provide of an example of a question that is on topic for ELL that someone not fluent in English might ask that someone fluent in English would not be able to answer?
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jan 26, 2013 at 5:35
  • @corsiKa: This one is a good example. It's far from the only one: as native speakers, about all we can say with authority is "that sounds wrong" or "that sounds right"; without more in-depth expertise, we can't answer the why questions. Why do you use "on" with "Monday", but not with "yesterday"?
    – Martha
    Commented Jan 28, 2013 at 20:22
  • @corsiKa, here's another example of what I'm talking about: here's an admitted native speaker who gets asked certain things all the time, but he can't answer because he doesn't actually know the rules behind the facts.
    – Martha
    Commented Jan 30, 2013 at 1:11
  • @Martha - Here's another example, fresh off the presses. There was nothing "basic" about that.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 10:02
  • @Martha it would appear I missed this counter point of yours (once upon a time). Quite simply, all three of these examples (your Jan 28, Jan 30 and JR's most recent) are all questions I would expect your average fluent speaker to be able to answer. All of them. Now these might all be from fluent speakers, but we all get confused once in a while. A very high percentage of random fluent speakers will be able answer those questions.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 14:59
  • 1
    @corsiKa: the average native speaker can easily answer the "what". Most of them (including me) have a very, very hard time explaining the "why". "Why is 'on yesterday' wrong?" "Because you don't use 'on' with 'yesterday'." "But why not?" "Uh, because it sounds wrong?"
    – Martha
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 15:56
  • @Martha that's my entire point. The "what" belongs here. The "why" is far beyond what you would expect someone just learning the language to ever need to know. That should be on ELU, not ELL.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 17:49
  • 1
    @corsiKa: I couldn't disagree more vehemently if I tried. The "why" emphatically DOES belong here. Granted, we have lots of answers that don't go into the "why", but the really good answers do answer it, and thereby make it much easier for the asker to really learn the point at hand.
    – Martha
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 20:26

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