This has come up before, but I think it's worth making the point again.

What we need here on ELL is for people to write good answers. It doesn't matter whether they're written by native speakers.

It's September 2015, and we're still getting comments like this:

Is English your native language? I need an opinion of someone, who is a native speaker.

It's true that sometimes non-native speakers write incorrect answers, and sometimes native speakers write correct answers.

But the reverse is also true. Sometimes non-native speakers write correct answers, and sometimes native speakers write incorrect answers.

Let's try to judge answers by their content, not by who the author is.

  • 10
    I like ELL a lot and browse the site almost daily. But one thing that holds me back from answering questions myself is, though I am a native speaker, and I know "the right answer" in almost all cases, I have no idea why it's the right answer, or how to explain the general case so users may apply the rule in a larger variety of circumstances. In fact, one of he main reasons I browse the site is to learn these rules (which I implicitly employ every day!) from your resident linguists (StoneyB, Colleen, et al).
    – Dan Bron
    Sep 17, 2015 at 12:11
  • 3
    @DanBron I'm terribly flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as StoneyB, but I'm in the same boat as you are - I intuit what is correct more often than I know the rules, and I learn more on ELL than I teach. If I have time, I'll do some research to try to figure out the "why" behind what I know is correct, which sometimes has the side-effect of making me seem more knowledgeable about language than I actually am :) There are many answers that I researched and never ended up posting because I couldn't figure out how to generalize or explain the right way to write something.
    – ColleenV
    Sep 17, 2015 at 17:36
  • @DanBron, I'm in the same boat, except for not having the wisdom to refrain quite enough from answering. But it seems related to the "native speaker" issue . . . .when an ELL question is expressly "does this sound natural," must you be able to cite sources showing its naturalness before answering? (I don't mean to suggest that one needs to be a native speaker to judge "naturalness," by the way.)
    – vstrong
    Sep 17, 2015 at 17:52
  • @DanBron My first participation on ELL was in the form of comments, basically saying "as a native speaker, I have seen X and don't remember seeing Y". Eventually I was asked to turn my comment into an answer and that's when I felt like I was validated in writing an answer, but I researched the answer first. Basically, I feel like I'm in the same boat as you, and I feel like there's something to be said for common usage in answering these questions, but also feel like documented sources are necessary for the best answers. Sep 18, 2015 at 13:54
  • 2
    @ToddWilcox I think fluent speakers have a definite research advantage over learners because we already have a good idea what the right answer is, we just have to figure out why it's right or if how we say it is peculiar to our dialect (and "show our work" so we're credible). We may come across resources that a learner would never have found, and we wouldn't have thought to look for if we hadn't be asked the question. For an information junkie like myself that's a win-win. :)
    – ColleenV
    Sep 24, 2015 at 20:21
  • 3
    Personally, being in the same boat as Dan and Colleen is why I enjoy contributing here - it's good mental exercise to work out why the answer you know is right, is right. Being able to write an answer that avoids the appeal to authority fallacy ("It's right because I'm a native speaker and I say so") is intensely satisfying.
    – Damien H
    Sep 25, 2015 at 6:29

3 Answers 3


I figured I'd emphasize what has come up a bit in comments and clarify just how the last sentence of the question plays out.

Stack Exchange judges posts by their own quality, not the qualifications of the poster

Upvotes and downvotes are for usefulness, not "the person who wrote this had the right sort of upbringing". If a post is correct (and this should be checked, if possible, by each voter), it should get an upvote unless it's quite hard to read or has dangerous misconceptions as well. And the only reason to prevent posting is if the subject is an unusually popular one that's attracting a significant number of very ignorant answers (or complete non-answers). But protection is a 3.5k privilege, not one an asker generally knows how to use. So any time an asker says "native speakers only, please", they almost certainly don't know what they're asking and have a poor basis for asking that. (It's usually an understandable desire to get "the very best", but this is misguided. The asker does not usually have the qualifications to judge that, at all.)

A language rarely cares whether you're a native speaker or merely very fluent

There are many people in the world that learned a second or third language as an adult that are quite fluent in it, enough so that even natives can sometimes have trouble distinguishing any difference in their speech. Sometimes they even take jobs teaching that language, such as my own mother, who learned Spanish in her twenties and has taught it professionally at several schools since then.

If a prospective answerer is one of these, we certainly don't want to turn them away. Or, for that matter, if the question really isn't nearly as difficult as the asker thinks — quite common — it's silly to try to stop a reasonably fluent poster from answering based on what they do know.

ELL has competent non-native speakers that are aware of their own limitations

Finally, the crucial thing is really that ELL has a substantial group of non-native speakers who know what they don't know. If a question actually needs the insight only a native speaker can provide, they have enough experience here and in the language to be able to step aside on their own initiative and wait for a native speaker to answer. They can also instruct other, less-experienced answerers to avoid confusing the issue with ignorant or misleading answers.

So there's no reason for a question to ask for native speakers to answer. If that's truly what's needed, the community can sort that out with votes and comments. If it isn't, it's only so much noise, and potentially insulting noise at that. It's basically saying "I have a question, but I only want those who really know to answer it." Well, of course, but have enough respect for those who could answer it to let them judge for themselves whether they really know!


One way to deal with this is to introduce a small indicator showing whether the answerer is a native speaker or not and what is their dialect. This way, those questioners who consider it of importance will be able to gauge roughly to what degree they should trust the answer and whether they should accept it outright or wait a bit longer.

Such a feature exists, for instance, on the WordReference English language forum:

DonnyB (member name)
Senior Member (status)
Coventry, UK (place of residence)
English UK Southern Standard English (language and dialect)

The possible drawbacks and counter-arguments are:

  1. It might lead to further 'feature clutter'.
  2. There's no way to check on whether the user's self-reported details are true.
  3. Questioners might get into the habit of demanding 'only native answers' in their questions.

The positive thing is that this will at least partly allay the concerns of whose who consider non-native answers suspect.

  • 9
    Honestly, I think the only way to deal with it is to have a community that actively discusses answers so that readers can see if something in an answer is controversial or maybe has some caveats. I've seen some terrible answers from supposed native speakers, and answers from non-native speakers that were more helpful because the answerer understood the features of the learner's native language that probably contributed to the asker's confusion.
    – ColleenV
    Sep 17, 2015 at 17:50
  • 2
    @Colleen in fact, English Language Learners Chat is one of the best mediums for this type of discussions on answers, and we do, very occasionally, do it in the Language Overflow room. The problem is that the ELLers that most need and are looking for chat are the ones that don't use it.
    – M.A.R.
    Sep 19, 2015 at 20:55
  • 1
    Aside from the whole question of native vs non-native, I like the idea of identifying the country of the poster. There are, of course, differences between real English as spoken here in the U.S. and the mangled versions in Canada, the UK, etc :-) that posters don't always know, or if they know, think to point out in their answers.
    – Jay
    Sep 24, 2015 at 13:44
  • 4
    RE: to gauge roughly to what degree they should trust the answer and whether they should accept it outright or wait a bit longer. In my opinion, you should always wait a bit longer, whether the answerer is a native or not. SE has built-in mechanisms for sorting out the good from the bad: the upvote/downvote buttons, and the ability to comment. Let others in the community examine the answers, weigh in, and contribute. Community validation (or refutation) is a key part of the SE process.
    – J.R. Mod
    Sep 25, 2015 at 10:03

Agreed! But...

When the askers (mostly non-native) prefer answers from native English speakers, there could be a reason. For instance, if I'm working with a company that deals with clients in the US or UK, it's important for me how native speakers would address the concern. I then learn and apply it in my practice.

Another reason is the cultural difference which is, by no means, difficult to learn through online sources including mainstream media. My many answers/questions have been left with comments or remarks that 'As a native, I won't prefer this' or 'That's what looks natural to my (native) ears'.

When I was pretty new to this, I reacted to such comments too quickly. But then I understood that it's important for a non-native person like me to understand and learn what's natural. I accept that I still struggle with what's 'Indian/Asian' English and whether it's valid/accepted. For instance "I have done/did my education/degree from XYZ university" is absolutely fine with many Indians, but it's an improper way!

So, if someone has asked something to native speakers, and if I write in an Indian way, I'm afraid that won't serve the purpose.

Moreover, we have a wonderful system of tags. And, I remember that someone created Indian English as a tag after the question was raised by me on this board.

So, to conclude, it's justified that if someone is asking to native speakers, natives take on it.

An extra but interesting note: when non-native write improper answers, the native speakers here correct it. And, when native speakers write it incorrectly, again the native speakers only correct it. So, ultimately, with the native speakers here at the helm, I think we are in good hands.

I don't say answers should be restricted to a specific group of people. No. Certainly not! Because an answerer like me always respond to such questions like -

Though I'm not a native speaker, IMO...

You, being a native speaker, may not have an idea, but it's quite natural for us to seek natives' help. No harm in that!

  • Asking from native speakers is different from asking speakers or learners of a specific dialect. The former is nothing but noise in the question, while the latter is a crucial part of the context.
    – M.A.R.
    Sep 17, 2015 at 7:55
  • For most non-native speakers, native speakers' dialect is what matters when they are specific. Even further, there's no difference between people from specific dialect and native for non-native speakers. And, a non-native is telling this to you! @inɒzɘmɒЯ.A.M
    – Maulik V
    Sep 17, 2015 at 7:58
  • 1
    No it's not. Have you seen examples of such requests Maulik? I have no problems with "answer if you're a native speaker of Indian English please. I'm interested in that dialect." But "what's the meaning of this in the passage? Answer if you're a native speaker" is a no-no.
    – M.A.R.
    Sep 17, 2015 at 8:02
  • @inɒzɘmɒЯ.A.M this post hails from this as stated. While I agree that we need 'good answers' no matter who writes it, my answer to this concern is if we ask for native's opinion, specifically or even mention this in our question, it's absolutely fine.
    – Maulik V
    Sep 17, 2015 at 8:13
  • I never said it's blatantly wrong. Would you please read my previous comment? Requests like "please answer if you're a native speaker" never relate to context, and are noise at best. For the same reason we don't allow taglines in the questions we shouldn't allow them, unless they relate to context. (In which tags again could be a good enough sign)
    – M.A.R.
    Sep 17, 2015 at 8:16
  • In my opinion, instead of asking for a "native speaker" to answer, it would be more helpful to explain that you're more interested in an answer that is common than an answer that is grammatically correct. A native speaker might use "whence" in some circumstances, but it might sound weird if it wasn't used in the right context, which I think is what learners are trying to avoid when they ask for a native speaker to answer.
    – ColleenV
    Sep 17, 2015 at 17:43
  • See there! Before I joined this wonderful site, it was always According to me for me. Non-natives simply cannot see anything wrong in this and here it's very common. They were native speakers who said it's incorrect and you should say 'In my opinion'. Now, for us, it was 'grammatically' correct and common as well. So, when we ask native speakers, not only they address our main concern, but also trivial errors they find around. That's the reason, I find itabsolutely okay when we seek natives' attention, precisely! @ColleenV
    – Maulik V
    Sep 18, 2015 at 10:47
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    "According to me" versus "In my opinion" is just a regional difference then, and I wouldn't say it's incorrect. Language is about communication. If the people you're trying to communicate with understand you perfectly when you use a phrase, it's not incorrect just because some other group says it differently. All "native speakers" don't speak the same English, so asking them isn't going to get you a better answer. It would be better to ask for the opinion of people who have lived in the region for a long time, native speaker or not.
    – ColleenV
    Sep 18, 2015 at 11:57
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    if I'm working with a company that deals with clients in the US or UK, it's important for me how native speakers would address the concern. That's a valid point. However, there's a right way and a wrong way to to address that in the question and get the answer you seek. Acceptable: I'm looking for a wording that would sound natural to a native speaker. Even better: I'm looking for a wording that would sound natural to a native speaker in an informal, conversational setting. Not acceptable: I'm looking for an answer from a native speaker. That last one is too exclusionary.
    – J.R. Mod
    Sep 25, 2015 at 9:55

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