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I've just begun using this site and ELU. As far as ELU is concerned, I think I know that at least some prescribed conventions aren't going to be the most favored answers. As in this case. So far, so good.

But is ELL at all different from ELU in this respect? If an ELL questioner asks about "the rule," or what is "correct," or why s/he has been corrected by a teacher for ending a sentence with a preposition, does one answer as she would on ELU? Is the answer different depending on which formulation of the question is used? Or does one acknowledge the "rule" but suggest it's not quite so firm? Or something else?

(Both prescriptive and descriptive answers to this question would be appreciated.)

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I do not use the terms prescriptive/descriptive in this context; over the past fifty years they have become mere party labels employed for advertising one's linguistic righteousness and sneering at those who disagree with one's own usage.

On ELL I think it's important to state clearly what rules should be observed when. When the question of competing rules and usages comes into play I try to distinguish carefully between:

  • Rules which are observed by practically every user, whose violation practically every user will regard as a mistake
  • Rules observed by some users but not others, whose violation may be variously received:
    • as an acceptable variant
    • as a reflection of evolving standards
    • as proper to distinct discourse communities, such as regional, social or professional dialects, or to distinct discourse situations, such as song lyrics or academic essays
    • as an occasion for invidious snark
  • Rules contrived as pedagogical expedients, whose violation is deprecated until the user understands what she is doing
  • Rules improperly derived from established linguistic practice and theory, whose violation may in many cases be shown to be beyond the actual scope of the rule and hence innocuous

I think these distinctions are drawn by almost all of our answerers in one way or another. It probably makes our answers less immediately useful to those learners who come here for shortcuts to understanding; but it at least draws their attention to the complexity of all languages, and may in the long run help them master our language and their own more thoroughly.

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  • Really precise (lovely!) and helpful; thanks. I wonder a bit (not really) whether you mean users of the site or users of the language, because I'm not sure that the former is a representative sample of the latter. But I shall try to keep both in mind as I follow your very gracious advice. Oh, and I don't really believe in those terms much, either, but I couldn't think of a better way to put it.
    – vstrong
    Sep 18 '15 at 0:29
  • @vstrong Thank you. I mean users of the language. Sep 18 '15 at 2:34
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I think on ELL it is very important to read between the lines of the question. It's difficult to fully express yourself in a language you aren't fluent in, so often questions aren't as straight-forward as they might appear. Often I can see that there is some underlying confusion that caused the question, and just answering the question as asked isn't going to be that helpful.

I like to include both the rules and some discussion about everyday usage. The rules help learners apply the answer to different situations, and the discussion might help them write or speak in a more nuanced way.

I think most learners are more interested in speaking and writing English in a way that would be difficult to discern from a native speaker than being thoroughly grammatical and that they appreciate some discussion of regional and situational differences.

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I think both sites try to clarify misconceptions about so-called rules. Sometimes these rules are simply being misapplied, and sometimes the "rules" would more accurately be called "myths."

If there's any difference between the two sites, you might find more rules that confuse native speakers on ELU, where ELL might focus more on rules that don't vex native speakers very much but do often challenge the learner. Here's one example on ELL where I talked about a "rule" that seems to confuse a lot of English learners.

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