13

I guess one of the best ways to get your message across is putting a TL;DR in the beginning. If you agree with the sentiments of the TL;DR the rest might not be necessary to read but if has saved your life somewhere, bear with me so I'll tell you why it's not a good tag. So here goes:

TL;DR

We believe that isn't a good tag on ELL; it's too broad and being misapplied to so many questions, hence has greatly lost its value as a tag. So what should we do about it?

Grammar is a bad, bad tag

Experts on tagging can tell from afar when a tag isn't useful. I wasn't one, thus I boiled all that meta experience to a small test to determine whether if a tag is a good one or not. Here are 's answers:

The MATT test for "grammar"

Let's review my answers:

  1. "Partially" since there are not many people who are experts in every aspect of the English grammar.
  2. "Yes"; and that's what many learners claim, which is sometimes not true.
  3. "No" for God's sake, no! Almost any other grammar-related tag is naturally a subset of grammar, which means tagging something with only means something like tagging as . We don't have many editors and that's another issue but if you are going to edit carefully you won't leave that tag alone in there.
  4. "No", a bunch of ELLers tag their question as to just circumvent the error you need to add at least add one tag.
  5. "Partially". There's no consensus on what should be tagged with , though there's a crude interpretation of what "grammar" is.
  6. "No". This, IMO, is the weakest point of . ELLers interpret to mean almost anything; from to and and sometimes even , etc.
  7. "No". There are way too many questions on ELL with . >20%, 1,700 of which are questions only tagged with .
  8. "No", at least not any decent answerers I know of. There's not much difference between including and not including [grammar] in searches now is there?
  9. "Partially", since all I can think of is 'ignoring' not to see some uninteresting questions. Favoriting will turn half of the questions on the current main page yellow, so I'm not sure if there's use in doing that either.
  10. "Yes". This question was designed to tackle with the off-topic-ness of some tags on the site. is an ELL tag, for sure, but it's sick in another way.

If you take a look at my meta post, you'll see that each "yes" wins 2 scores, "partially" wins 1 and "no" loses 1. Thus, 's score is a measly 2. That's way lower than the threshold for a possibly acceptable tag, which should be >11.

Where the problem lies

Now this is obviously a problem: The most popular tag on a site as big as ELL clearly fails some known tests designed to diagnose a tag's health.

Jimsug made a very good point back in chat: On SO, the origin of Stack Exchange communities, people know how to tag their questions; e.g. if you have a question about R, then you're going to tag it as such.

On ELL, however, people do not usually know what they're asking about. The terminology behind the nomenclature of tags follows the standards of linguistics (as it should), which many learners aren't familiar with at all.

So?

I hope it's clear enough for you; in fact, if this were the beginning of ELL I would've proposed a blacklisting of . There should certainly be some course of actions against this tumor.

What should we do about it? Run a version of TRE here? Blacklist ? Or sit and watch painfully as the tagging system on ELL continues to lag? Sorry for being frank, but the truth currently bites

Regarding where the main problem lies, I believe the best choice we have is to edit more. What do you think?

  • 2
    Deprecating the tag would be nice if we had that ability. – Nathan Tuggy Oct 9 '15 at 20:51
  • 4
    I'm for full burnination. – StoneyB Oct 9 '15 at 22:39
  • 1
    The grammar tag is good for at least one thing - identifying questions that need some editing attention. I don't hold it against new askers that choose it, because they have to choose something and it's not easy to tell how tagging your question too specifically or too generally will affect the responses you get. – ColleenV Oct 12 '15 at 2:27
  • Also, I'm convinced there are a lot of good questions that simply won't be asked if the process is too arduous, and that presenting people with a bunch of tags they don't understand is a big step toward "too arduous." If there aren't presently easy to use alternatives (I don't know), then blowing away grammar before fixing that problem could be a remedy worse than the original malady. – CynicallyNaive Oct 23 '15 at 21:31
  • @Cynically I'm inclined to say no, since "grammar" currently doesn't serve any purpose as a tag on ELL and its removal won't affect anything special. And I don't get why you people insist so much on "if grammar goes, we'll drown in linguistic jargon". I haven't seen any nonclosed questions that could benefit from a new tag other than the ones we have as a subset of grammar. – M.A.R. Oct 24 '15 at 21:28
  • I'm not sure if I'm being included in "you people", since that wasn't my position at all. But I really shouldn't wade into a heated debate where I don't have a strong opinion. – CynicallyNaive Oct 25 '15 at 21:54
  • +1 just for your test :) – Cullub Oct 27 '15 at 23:55
  • @cullub thanks! Actually I got reminded of updating the image. – M.A.R. Oct 28 '15 at 10:12
  • English language query here. Q.6 Will grammar not be misinterpreted... Are you asking whether the tag will be misinterpreted because of its name? If something is not misinterpreted, then its interpretation is correct. By replying "No" aren't you saying that the misinterpretation will not occur? Negative interrogative are sometimes confusing for me. – Mari-Lou A Nov 21 '16 at 11:07
  • When I answer ''no'', I mean that [grammar]'s name will be misinterpreted by learners who use it. Although [grammar] is more or less defined by the scholars, non-scholars, native or non-native, tend to call every language related rule or guideline and ''grammar''. Therefore, as I said in chat, they treat it like an ELL tag; applying it to questions about prepositions, verb inflections, meaning of a sentence in a context etc etc. – M.A.R. Nov 21 '16 at 12:24
2

Let's review the purpose of tags.

From the help center:

A tag is a word or phrase that describes the topic of the question. Tags are a means of connecting experts with questions they will be able to answer by sorting questions into specific, well-defined categories.

There is nothing specific or well-defined about grammar in its usage here. Nothing at all.

Let's look at the top five questions:

  1. IS or ARE? "The only thing that I want you to hit right now IS/ARE the books"
    Isn't this really a question that should at least have been tagged ?
  2. Is it "I" or "me" in "Keep Tom and I/me updated"?
    The asker actually tagged it . What does add to this?
  3. Why there are two 'were's in one sentence?
    Again, the asker tagged it . Why is it tagged as well?
  4. Is it proper to use "broke" in "Broke his feelings"?
    Same thing, more specific and useful tags. doesn't really add anything here.
  5. a joyous and restful three days -- a three days?
    The asker mentions nouns, plurals, indefinite articles. Why are none of these tags on the question?

What do these questions in common with each other?


Yes, is ill-defined as it is. How could we possibly define it well for learners?

This tag is for grammar questions, including those about word forms, verb phrases, and such.

This is such a ridiculous tag excerpt because it includes so many questions that generally have little to do with each other except that someone wanted to ask a question about English.

Here's a list of questions tagged gramar.

Looking through a few of them at random, they fall into a few (non-mutually exclusive) categories:

  1. They want to know whether something is grammatical, i.e. proofreading
  2. They want to know whether something is idiomatic, i.e. word-usage
  3. They explicitly mention something in the question body that suggests that they are familiar with more specific concepts which could have been tagged instead

Let's look at some specific examples that could have been tagged with other tags, based on what appears in the body:

I very strongly support the blacklisting and/or burnination of this tag.


To address some of the points that Fantasier raised:

Grammar is ambiguous, but so are other terms.

Yeah, but that's not a reason to keep it. If we have other tags that are ambiguous, we should get rid of them. Except for .

Yes there are other terms that are vague, but they are still a hell of a lot more specific than grammar.

Most, if not all, EFL learners are familiar with grammar.

This isn't a reason to keep it either. Again, I don't dispute that this is true, but people being familiar with it is not a reason for a tag.

veteran members who can edit will know when to tag

Yeah, they'll know, but I highly doubt that they will. Look at how many people have the explainer badge and the refiner badge - 222 and 8, respectively.

These are low numbers for the number of questions and answers we have. Technically, there could be anywhere between 310 and 10,878 question and answer edits, but I highly doubt that the numbers are anywhere near that. To suggest that answerers, therefore, will expend the effort on this is laudable but ultimately misguided.

  • 2
    It's a learner's site. If familiarity is not at least one good reason to keep it, what is? What can an intermediate learner tag with when they know their question is about grammar, but they don't know it is about Subject-Verb Agreement? – user1513 Oct 10 '15 at 12:49
  • 2
    @Fantasier How does using the grammar tag help learners? Does it help answerers find questions? Does it help learners find similar questions that might have already been answered? There are tags for subjects and verbs, and nouns. Any of these are better than grammar. – jimsug Oct 10 '15 at 12:57
  • 1
    They can select grammar when they know it is about grammar, but don't know which part(s) of grammar. I've repeated this several times. I just don't want us to lose a whole body of learners who are going to have difficulty finding a relevant tag. – user1513 Oct 10 '15 at 12:59
  • 1
    4 of the top 5 questions you have listed are actually all about grammar (or at least that's what I think.) The 4th question should be tagged with something like usage or collocation instead, even though the sentence inside comes from a syntax book. The problem here is, as you said, that the tag is ill-defined, but that is not a reason for us to get rid of it either; instead we should try to define it more clearly, but if that really is beyond our ability as a community, then I guess burnination is a good idea. – user1513 Oct 10 '15 at 13:19
  • I think that this question really should have encouraged people to propose more specific definitions for it. You're welcome to try. – jimsug Oct 10 '15 at 13:20
  • @Fantasier I've added more notes on why the grammar tag is not necessary, or in my opinion appropriate, for those questions. You're seeing the relation to grammar, but are they related to each other? Because they should be, and they're not really related in any way other than "they've been tagged grammar". – jimsug Oct 10 '15 at 13:30
  • 1
    @Fanta that "just because people don't know other tags let a bad tag remain" is flawed. It's like saying "let them have rotten apples since they can't find good ones". Good is better than nothing, and nothing is better than bad. – M.A.R. Oct 10 '15 at 19:21
4

The tag is indeed useful. There are many questions that ask for 'grammar' and not anything else. It's true that we have many sub-tags that further classify 'grammar' but that is fine. That is fine probably for those who know which specific problem it is called in their questions.

It is something like removing 'verbs' tag because we have further classification of it in tags - transitive verb and intransitive verb. Non native speakers like me would at least tag it 'verb' if those terms are unknown to me. Even further, users with very little knowledge would at least tag it with 'grammar' if not 'verb'. If they don't find the tag grammar on the grammar site, it is like a barber without a razor blade!

Nevertheless, you are right on educating the new users here. And seniors here are good at it. It's better to guide users than uprooting the tag itself.

So, you asked 'what do you think', I think, grammar tag is a good friend of mine and so of many coming here! Let it be! :)

  • 1
    Actually, I'm thinking of removing the "verbs" tag also, but that is another discussion. – M.A.R. Oct 12 '15 at 11:45
  • Honestly, I can't see any other points you make. Fantasier himself did say that "learners can't know how to choose tags". I also did point it out in my question. But, it never justifies letting "grammar" be because tags aren't meant to mean "default". – M.A.R. Oct 12 '15 at 11:47
  • 1
    If you are thinking to remove the verb tag, there are many. In fact all that are 'umbrella terms' then! – Maulik V Oct 12 '15 at 12:16
  • 2
    How does another tag being bad justify leaving "grammar" alone? – M.A.R. Oct 12 '15 at 12:17
  • -1 anyway, since "leaving it be" is going to aggravate the problem and sadly you haven't seen many questions tagged with "grammar", which were clearly not about English grammar. – M.A.R. Oct 12 '15 at 12:39
  • 2
    You missed a part in my answer. I never said grammar 'tag' is precisely marked. But then is it with just 'grammar' tag? For the new users, it could be just 'any' tag. I said better guide or correct the tags. That's what our responsibility is. And -1 is welcome! – Maulik V Oct 12 '15 at 12:47
  • Someone who doesn't (care to) read a simple tour page isn't going to read a thousand meta posts or tag wikis we write as "guidance". Proof: The tag "word" was dealt with at least twice on meta. And I'm still yet to see a good argument against removing "grammar" in your answer. Sure, all tags get misapplied, but "grammar" is the only tag that is being the tag on 1700 questions. – M.A.R. Oct 12 '15 at 12:49
3

What exactly has ELL decided to do with the grammar tag? Part 2

I'm not at all clear what has been decided on the grammar tag. Is it to be abolished? Is it just to be tolerated, like an embarrassing uncle at a family gathering?

Recently, user Jasper (I might as well name him, his username cannot have escaped anyone's attention) has undertaken the Herculean task of deleting tags single-handedly, sometimes editing 20 posts or more at a time. But, there are over 2,950 posts tagged grammar!

This is especially disheartening when you consider back in October 2015, an excess of 1,700 questions had only the grammar tag,

UPDATE

December 24, 2018 (Merry Xmas by the way)

Today that number has soared to a staggering 5,781 questions. Yikes!

  1. "No". There are way too many questions on ELL with . >20%, 1,700 of which are questions only tagged with .

And every day new "grammar" tagged questions are added to the list, which makes burnination an impossible goal.

The reason we don't blacklist a tag until it's all but gone is the UI basically says "You can't add that tag", which confuses the heck out of people when they see it applied in lots of places.
Tim Post♦

Leave the grammar tag alone

  • When 20+ posts are edited, they all get bumped on the active page, any old or new question which has been answered in the meantime inevitably gets lost in the sea of bumped posts.

Side note: Visiting the newest page is not fun, the number and the quality of many new questions are depressingly low. On the other hand, the active page offers more interest because there are some very good answers. I've also noticed that the majority of these bumped questions have attracted very few visits, and even fewer answers, and for one good reason, the questions are boring!

  • The only way (in my view) to effectively get rid of the tag would be to ask ten ELL volunteers to spend an entire day replacing or deleting the tag altogether. And only then could the mods can blacklist it. Going out alone seems a lot of unnecessary work if the burnination isn't in the pipeline.

  • The majority of mods (with the exception of Maulik V♦) have kept shtum about the issue, which suggest they believe the tag should stick around.

  • Newcomers will use a new ubiquitous tag. It's inevitable. For many learners, the English language lives in symbiosis with grammar.

  • Ta-da! I hereby present (990 posts) as ELL's designated placeholder. As soon as you type gram... the tag grammaticality will automatically appear.

In the end, is it worth burninating /deleting / abolishing, etc. ?
Isn't it a losing battle?

  • Yes, editing a lot of questions floods the active page and is harmful, but that's no excuse for leaving [grammar] there. And yes, there will be other tag place-holders, but if anything, that's an excuse to stop worrying about tags in the first place, rather than leaving [grammar] there. I guess the meta eventually agreed that the tag should go, but I can't get a couple of people around me to do some retagging, and Jasper is the hero ELL deserves, but doesn't need right now. I'm actually bit busy in real life too, but if you can gather some people that care to start retagging, I'm with ya. – M.A.R. Nov 17 '16 at 9:04
  • And finally, the number has decreased. There were forty three hundred something questions tagged with [grammar], and it's less than three thousand now. – M.A.R. Nov 17 '16 at 9:11
  • @M.A.R. OK, thanks for the heads up, I've now modified that figure. – Mari-Lou A Nov 17 '16 at 11:03
  • 1
    I actually see old questions getting another look on the active page as a good thing. You can always switch the view to "newest" instead of "active" or filter by tag or other factors if you're looking for a different set of questions. I think that most questions that have the grammar tag stuck on them could use more attention, however using the "questions tagged with grammar and 'correct' in the title" or some other search might be a good idea if we're currently just taking a shotgun approach to it. – ColleenV Nov 17 '16 at 17:14
  • 1
    Also, I'm not in favor of abolishing the tag. It's useful as a "I don't know what to tag this" tag and there are some rare questions where grammar is appropriate. I think questions that are only tagged with grammar should be edited, but if the tag is just stuck in there among other relevant tags, I don't care that much. If someone else cares enough to try to edit out the tag, and they aren't causing trouble, I won't try to stop them. We're all volunteers and are free to "waste" our time on what is important to us individually as long as we aren't working at cross purposes. – ColleenV Nov 17 '16 at 17:36
  • Just so you know, you can put "views:#" in the search box and switch to the 'active' tab to filter for interesting questions. That will only show questions with more views than # and organize them by last activity. Because the search is incorporated into the URL, you can bookmark it and have your own custom view:ell.stackexchange.com/search?tab=active&q=views%3a100 – ColleenV Nov 18 '16 at 12:14
  • @M.A.R. it's a losing battle wanting to eliminate the grammar tag, the tag is added daily to new posts, and if the mods do not want to blacklist it, why go to the bother of editing a question with no answers, with a low view count, that keeps getting bumped by community in anycase? It's a thankless task. Yes, posts that have a single tag should be fixed but that's about it. – Mari-Lou A Nov 19 '16 at 21:54
  • @Colleen a lot of people use the home page, and the home page is set to active questions by default. Standard SE etiquette is not to touch old questions (actually, all forums are like this too). On a relatively small site like ELL it doesn't hurt much to do so, but flooding the page would be frowned upon by users who do use the tab. – M.A.R. Nov 20 '16 at 10:31
  • Mari well, I think I will organize a chat event in a week or so, so we get rid of most of [grammar]s applied to questions. You could argue that trying to save the tagging system is thankless and cumbersome. You're free not to help us if you think it's a losing battle. I have sometimes wanted to let go of it as well. Here I am, still caring. – M.A.R. Nov 20 '16 at 10:35
  • @M.A.R. No. You do not brush aside my points as not caring. Take note that I have edited questions, and I have improved tags, and I have cared about saving users posts. Unless the mods are willing to blacklist the tag, why should anyone retag hundreds of posts? It doesn't make any sense. I care, that's why I asked: What exactly has ELL decided to do with the grammar tag?. If only a tiny bunch of users (but I only see one user actually being active) wants to eliminate the tag, but the vast majority of users are "meh" or "lets keep it" then it should stay. – Mari-Lou A Nov 20 '16 at 11:57
  • Indeed, but the consensus is that [grammar] should not be on 99 percent of the questions it's on. Most of meta users have always been meh about things. The reason @Colleen doesn't want the tag to go is the very few questions it's applicable to. There is no controversy here, but still no one is taking action because of a disorganized and/or apathetic meta. – M.A.R. Nov 20 '16 at 12:05
  • @M.A.R. but the consensus is that [grammar] should not be on 99 percent of the questions it's on Where can I read that figure? 99%? Where?! – Mari-Lou A Nov 20 '16 at 12:11
  • OK this is starting to tire me, really. You think that I'm the sole voice on the meta that wants something done about [grammar]. That's unfortunate. We discussed this over and over for months, and the two posts written don't give you the whole story. You have to dig up chat transcripts even I can't find. But I can't keep trying to prove that I'm not alone when this conversation does not have any other participants. Please ask other people in English Language Learners Chat if I'm alone in thinking this. For now, I'm digressing from this, and if you want to discuss it further, there's chat. – M.A.R. Nov 20 '16 at 12:14
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat ;) You can chat there. – M.A.R. Nov 20 '16 at 12:22
  • data.stackexchange.com/ell/query/580996/… This query showing questions that aren’t closed and have only the grammar tag has 2127 rows returned which isn’t quite as bad. – ColleenV Dec 27 '18 at 20:39
2

Short answer

We should define clearly what we mean by grammar, try our best to make sure ELLers understand when to use the tag, and tag the more specific tags along with the existing when editing a question.

Long answer

Grammar is ambiguous, but so are other terms.

As you have pointed out, grammar is an ambiguous term. Linguists' grammar, prescriptivists' grammar, and EFL's grammar, among others, are all different. However, that's not exclusive to grammar: a good bunch of terms in EFL, not just grammar, usually differ from those in linguistics anyway. For example, many very good EFL coursebooks I have studied with do not include the concept of aspects at all; they instead teach them together with tenses. For many learners, Present Progressive is a tense, as opposed to Tense:Present + Aspect:Progressive. When they want to talk about the Progressive aspect, they simply say "Progressive tenses are usually used when A, B, C ..."

Most, if not all, EFL learners are familiar with grammar.

As an EFL learner, I can tell that grammar is one of the few terms that low-level learners of English are going to encounter. At a very early stage, they may not know what is concerned in grammar (as you have said), but as their study progresses, they will at least be able to tell that, for example, tense is part of grammar, and that spelling and pronunciation are not.

Removing/blacklisting the tag would make it very difficult for many learners at the beginner to intermediate level to select a tag. Not just those who don't know what to tag, also affected would be those actually aware of their questions being about grammar, but not which part(s) of grammar, because they have not been taught those, and chances are they will never be, as they don't need to be.

No, we shouldn't blacklist the tag.

Therefore, we should not remove/blacklist a tag just because it is ambiguous. The very fact that it is unclear proves that it is a simple term--and simple is good for learners, low-level at least; big, vague concepts are generally (and should be) taught before detailed, complicated ones. We do not want to transform ELL into Advanced English Learners.SE or even English Linguistics.SE, which I already have fear for.

We also should not blacklist the tag because it is ubiquitous. Often, is tagged because it is about grammar. Questions incorrectly tagged with should gradually decrease after our promotion on how to use the tag (See below.)

What do we do?

I propose we first get together to define what we want to mean on ELL, then start writing a tag wiki for it. With the wiki, veteran members who can edit will know when to tag , and can edit questions' tags accordingly (also add more specific tags like tense, aspect, etc.)

We may also place an ad that links to the wiki, or a meta post specifically written for learners telling in simple language how the tag should be used. The post can even contain guidelines for other confusable tags as well.

  • 6
    I agree with your thoughts that EFL learners might not know the exact word to describe what they're going to ask (like in your example, before I joined ELL, I'd never heard of the word "aspect"). So I would suggest considering the tag "grammar" a temporary tag. If a learner doesn't know the special term for their question, they could use the "grammar" tag until a person who does know comes and edits it. This method has some shortcomings: 1) There should be volunteers to edit problematic questions; 2) Some learners might abuse editors' help by using the "grammar" tag without much thinking. – athlonusm Oct 10 '15 at 18:17
  • 2
    @athlonusm And unfortunately, 1) bad tags have a history of getting applied more and more to questions on ELL (e.g. "word") and 2) A lot of learners only apply the closest tag they can find. I've seen numerous questions tagged with grammar in which the OP clearly stated they were looking for usage, meaning etc. So the thing that learners can't use other tags isn't a thing. Enough is enough, and if we want to clean up our tagging system we have to start by this tag. – M.A.R. Oct 10 '15 at 19:25
  • Agreed +1 anyway! – Maulik V Oct 12 '15 at 12:15
0

Answering The Mar Tag Test

  1. Yes.
    Learners visit ELL because they want experts to answer their basic grammar questions. If native speakers aren't experts on what sounds grammatical, I don't know who is. There are also NNS who are very confident and do an excellent job in answering basic grammar questions.

  2. Yes
    Learners study English grammar all the time.

  3. No
    But I wouldn't leave any question with a single tag. A question that is tagged only or is just as vague. Do we therefore blacklist meaning and word-usage?

  4. Yes
    Many learners will correctly tag their English question as grammar. Eliminating the grammar tag will not stop future users from misusing other tags.

  5. No
    But that is a loaded question. There are native speakers who argue that punctuation is grammar, and will ask if a comma is grammatical or not. There are prescriptive and descriptive grammarians who disagree what an adverb is, but that tag exists on ELL.

  6. Will grammar be misinterpreted? Yes
    Will grammar not be misinterpreted? No
    Some learners, not every single one, will misinterpret the grammar tag. They're human, and some people are more confused about the English language than others. Very few learners will have heard about semantics, and fewer still morphology. But they both belong to grammar.

  • What if I tell you that [meaning] and [word-usage] are indeed bad tags? Unfortunately tags don't work well with language sites, or people don't know how to use them around here. 5 is not a loaded question, since a tag's name should be unambiguous. If I named a tag [great-sentences], would people agree on what that phrase means? And your answer to six doesn't make any sense. The prevalent use of [grammar] is from learners who don't know how to use it, so if I and you can use it correctly, it doesn't at all help it being a passable tag. – M.A.R. Nov 20 '16 at 10:27
  • @M.A.R. the prevalent number of posts tagged grammar are in error? You need statistics to back up that claim. I get that the tag is too broad, I get that meaning and word-usage are too broad and too vague but as long as there is another more "relevant" tag alongside, then leave "grammar" alone. Discourage it, yes, but not ban it altogether. Anyway if it is blacklisted, it will only be replaced by "grammaticality". – Mari-Lou A Nov 20 '16 at 12:07
  • Here are my statistics, now that you insist: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/grammar And BTW, this post is a precursor to what we decided to do with [grammar] back then. meta.ell.stackexchange.com/questions/2706 (So no one wants to blacklist it now, just merely retag a few, say, 3k questions . . . ) – M.A.R. Nov 20 '16 at 12:10

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