I am a native AmE speaker, and have been wondering if my answers are on-topic here.

This thread brought up a good point, but didn't quite address my question. I am wondering if it is appropriate to answer from experience rather than grammatical knowledge.

I have been, and my answers are getting accepted, but is this what's intended in ELL? Occasionally, a commenter will point out that there is no dictionary definition for the usage I'm describing, even though it is used colloquially. I feel like this is part of "learning English," learning the usage as well as the definitions. But is it dangerous to answer questions with unofficial English? Could this be irresponsibly teaching to bend/break rules?

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    Correctness vs. practicality I don't see how they're conflicting each other. I reckon you'd be fine as long as your answers are correct. And most of the times, the intuition of a native speaker is appreciated in "meaning and company" tags.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 17:22
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    Are you really suggesting that any significant proportion of learners seeking answers here would rather be not told what an actual native speaker does say (because they want to know what some grammarian thinks he should say)? Even if that were the case (which seems unlikely to me), I think any such divergence would probably be pointed out in comments (assuming you weren't aware of it yopurself, and/or didn't bother to mention it in the answer text). Your answers so far have been well received, so I suggest If it ain't broke, don't fix it! Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 17:37
  • That was my feeling on it, but a few comments have pointed out things I can't explain. I kinda felt like ELL is specifically for helping turn textbook English into the English we speak, but couldn't find anything that said so.
    – Will
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 17:47
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    Personally, I think that some users give exceedingly long "textbook" answers that I, as a native, am hard pressed to actually understand. I know learners tend to know a lot more of the grammatical terminology but I think that these answers can be a bit off-putting. I think that good, sensible answers from a native (try to note what your specific version of English is) are very helpful unless a learner is specifically asking for parts-of speech information. Simple answers can be much more helpful, provided they still manage to explain the concept.
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 18:08
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    @Catija As a conscious (indeed, conscientious) provider of those detailed "textbook" answers, I agree. The beauty of the SE format is that you get a variety of answers, each pitched to different needs. A simple answer is at least as useful as a complex one, as long as you take care (as you, in particular, always do) to point out the limits of your answer--especially when it comes to the boundary between formal and informal use. Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 18:50
  • It's dangerous to only answer questions with "unofficial" English. But value is added where an answer illustrates the "proper" use in addition to one or more "improper" but common uses that could be encountered "in real life."
    – LawrenceC
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 18:48

4 Answers 4


It is best practice to find a dictionary definition that supports your use of the word regardless of your native language. This helps support your answer and helps the asker feel confident in it.

As a fellow native speaker, I've found this can be difficult but not impossible. You may not find a usage that has a perfect example sentence but that does not mean that the dictionary definition isn't the correct one.

If you don't think you can find the right definition (it does happen) after checking a couple of good dictionaries, the next option is to explain the usage by showing examples of it used the way the sample is used.

The trap you want to avoid falling into is not trying to find a dictionary definition. Native speakers of English have an amazing capacity to mis-use words. It's why "literally" has come to mean "figuratively", despite the two being antonyms.

By taking the two minutes to find a dictionary definition, you may find yourself learning something about your native language that you weren't aware of.

  • Sometimes "unofficial" sources like the Urban Dictionary can be used, too.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 0:46

I am new here, so correct me if I'm wrong, but my assumption is that most knowledge seekers here have some other means by which they are learning the basics of English, and are seeking nuance. I think back to when I was studying Spanish; I got fantastic grades, but native speakers laughed at me.

So I generally feel that most questioners have a dictionary and at least a basic level of education, and what they really want is vernacular usage and the kind of subtle nuances of meaning that are not well conveyed by a dictionary definition. It would be very difficult to find citations for that sort of thing, especially on the internet where a lot of content is created by non-native speakers in the first place. I'm much more likely to draw on personal experience (I have a history degree, which has a lot in common with a literature degree, my father is a published author, I have a library of literally a couple of thousand books that I've read, and I proofread for a living) and literary references.

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    I don't think that anyone is suggesting that you have to be a Linguistics professor to answer questions. Nuances are definitely a topic of interest, but they're only one aspect of the things learners ask about. Dictionary definitions can be unclear. Grammar books may not explain a concept in a way that makes sense to a learner, or may not cover some usage they've come across. We need all sorts of experts with different backgrounds and familiarity with different dialects. Diversity is good and one type of expertise isn't inherently more valuable than another IMO.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 1, 2015 at 15:08

Experience as a source of good answers is the rule of thumb on every SE site* I have, well, experience in … including Stack Overflow. Answers should be supported by references where possible, certainly, but the actual skeleton of the best answers is usually going to come from experience at a high level, refined and fleshed out by references and other research done for that answer.

ELL is, if anything, a better place to use this rule of thumb than many, given how crucial it is for language to reflect actual native usage. That's not to say that references are out of place, certainly: a good corpus/ngram search can shed a great deal of statistical light on usage patterns you might be only dimly aware of. But reflective personal experience counts for a great deal.

*Barring pure-research sites like Theoretical Computer Science, maybe, but I'm not active on those.

  • It is good to show some sort of supporting evidence that you aren't just making stuff up even if it's just examples of usage somewhere on the Internet. I'm thinking of the now deleted answer that tried to convince folks that Americans call people of English ancestry fog-breathers. You can't always find a definition or authoritative source, but that doesn't mean answers should be limited to "I say it this way".
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 22:59
  • @ColleenV: Yeah, a good answer will usually go beyond "because I say it this way", but it will very often start there. Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 23:05
  • @ColleenV I have a sneaking suspicion that wasn't a sincere answer. :P
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 0:39
  • @Catija: Let's put it this way: see my edit. Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 0:46
  • Why quote John Skeet, who only got five upvotes, rather than the person with 24 upvotes that says "yes but support with evidence"... Just because JS is a big name in SE doesn't mean his answers are more valid... if he can't get the top-rated answer, despite posting it 3 minutes earlier, clearly people don't necessarily agree with him... plus, his answer isn't really very clear, whereas the top answer is crystal clear.
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 0:51
  • Sorry, that sounded sort of combative, which isn't my goal, just pointing out the better answer above JS's answer.
    – Catija
    Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 0:52
  • @Catija: The whole question is good; I just felt like throwing some name recognition in. Commented Jul 30, 2015 at 0:53

I think there needs to be a balance.

On one hand, a supplemental dictionary definition is a good way to show that your answer has some authoritive backing, and isn't merely an opinion.

On the other hand, I think our target audience appreciates knowing the way English words are commonly used (perhaps misused?) in everyday conversation, informal speech, and colloquialisms.

I feel like this is part of "learning English," learning the usage as well as the definitions. But is it dangerous to answer questions with unofficial English? Could this be irresponsibly teaching to bend/break rules?

So long as answers remain thorough and deliberate, I think such answers are fine. We just need to take the time to fully explain the situation within the answer. If we're dealing with a usage that is hard to find in dictionaries but commonly spoken on the streets, just take the time to explain that, and let the learner know when such usages are acceptable, and where they are not.

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