I want to answer questions and I know English pretty well. However I don't have experience learning, or teaching, English. Most of my thought process is "that sounds wrong". People say words like infinitive. perfect tense, auxiliary verb, etc. and I have no idea what the hell they're talking about.

It just sounds wrong to me. Those are my only thoughts.

There have been times where I wanted to say something wasn't right, but someone has a very formal explanation of why the phrase is grammatical. I feel like if I would have answered I would have been very downvoted and led the student astray. Even if it sounds wrong, it might still be grammatical.

Can I contribute in a positive way? How can I make sure I don't say anything is wrong, that is technically grammatical? How can I explain why things are wrong? Do I just have to learn all the fancy linguistic words?

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    Commenting politely is how I started. I saw I was right in some cases, so I started writing answers . . . Happy Ending – M.A.R. Oct 27 '15 at 9:49
  • Related meta.ell.stackexchange.com/q/2655/9161 – ColleenV Oct 27 '15 at 11:50
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    Explain why you feel it's wrong and it'll be ok. So, it sounds wrong to my native speaker ear is fine. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 27 '15 at 16:56
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    @Araucuria "It sounds wrong" with no elaboration is a comment, not an answer. An answer might include alternatives that sound OK, or a discussion of meaning nuances, or anything that might make the answer more informative than "nope that's wrong". It doesn't have to be a grammatical analysis, because a fluent speaker's input on register and nuance is valuable, but an answer should be more than essentially yes/no in my opinion. – ColleenV Oct 27 '15 at 17:22
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    @ColleenV It's not really appropriate as a comment, though. We're constantly getting wrong answers posted in comments, and as long as we continue to encourage people to post short answers as comments, we'll keep getting wrong answers permanently featured in the comments section above all the actual answer posts. – snailplane Oct 27 '15 at 20:38
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    @snailboat If "it sounds wrong to me as a native speaker" is all that can be said, it's not a good question for this format and should be closed. That statement alone doesn't constitute an answer at all in my opinion. If someone wants to chime in with a comment that an example sounds wrong or awkward, I don't see a problem with that. The same sort of comment could be made on an answer as well as a question. If something wrong or misleading is posted in the comments, we can and should discuss it in further comments, or post an answer that addresses it. – ColleenV Oct 27 '15 at 20:47
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    There are far too many wrong answer-comments to address them all, and often the only way to address them is to write another answer-comment. Everyone demands an explanation, and the explanation may be very long and may not fit in a comment. Comments just aren't designed for this sort of thing. More importantly, it's pedagogically unsound to expose learners first to what is wrong and then to an argument about whether or not it's wrong. On a site for learners, keeping wrong answers permanently featured above every actual answer, no matter how many upvotes it has, is actively harmful. – snailplane Oct 27 '15 at 20:51
  • I don't think answer comments that are correct do much harm, but since we have such a large quantity of answer comments that are wrong, I don't see any way around the problem other than to encourage people not to post them at all. – snailplane Oct 27 '15 at 20:53
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    @snailboat But it's not an answer. "It sounds wrong to me" is a statement of fact. – ColleenV Oct 27 '15 at 20:59
  • If it's "not an answer" by your standards, then perhaps it shouldn't be posted as an answer. But it's worse to post it as a comment. – snailplane Oct 27 '15 at 20:59
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    @snailboat I think we're talking at 2 different levels of abstraction. I'm talking very specifically about commenting that something sounds odd, and not having much more to contribute beyond that. And as I'm typing, I think I finally get what you're saying. It's not particularly useful as a comment either. It doesn't clarify the question or really offer any insight. So, it shouldn't be encouraged. I think we agree. I was caught up in the not-an-answer part. – ColleenV Oct 27 '15 at 21:06
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    @Colleen, snailboat: I absolutely agree that "It sounds wrong to me" without further qualification is almost never going to be a useful comment (and will always be a worthless answer). But I think there's often merit in [native speakers] commenting that some particular usage "sounds okay to me". Particularly if the exact usage appearing in the comment is a slight variation on some construction posted by the OP, and where many other native speakers might agree that the variant is significantly more acceptable than the original. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Nov 9 '15 at 23:09

The way that I approach this as someone who enjoys language, but probably has a better technical understanding of the construction of software languages than natural languages, is to

  • be very aware that my dialect may not be standard English in all cases and to mention that when I'm talking about something sounding awkward or being more common.

  • try to find supprting evidence for what I'm saying. Fluent speakers have an advantage when searching, because we have a good idea what the right answer is before we start searching.

  • be open to comments on my answer from the rest of the community. If I don't have to edit my answer at least once to add more information or to clarify something, I don't feel like I've completely answered the question.

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In general, if you think that something sounds wrong, but you don't want to say much more than that, I'd recommend leaving a comment.

If you want to expound on that some more, however, and leave an answer instead, I recommend supporting your assertion somehow. Fortunately, there are several ways to do that, even if you are a little uncomfortable trying to explain something like “how the progressive participle works in the second person singular.” For example, you can:

One other word of advice: Be careful when using such tools. Learn their limitations. Just because you can find something on the web doesn't mean that it's good English (which is why I focus more on published works). Because so many words have multiple meanings, an ngram doesn't always tell the full story.

It's fun to do a little detective work and find ways support your initial idea. And every once in a while – as inconceivable as this may sound – you might learn through your research: “I don't think that word means what you think it means.”

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I think the most important thing we can do as native speakers is provide something a grammar book can't, namely to tell what sounds natural and what sounds stilted, contrived, or just "off."

My technique is to try substituting in different words of the same part of speech. E.g. the other day on a question about the definite article , conversation in the comments turned to the following construct:

Variable X is an important part of the function.

in contrast to "The variable x...", which is also valid.

So I asked myself, what about "Variable foo is an important part..." or "Variable numberOfTimesExecuted is an important part..."? The latter sounds very weird to me, the former less so; thus I can infer an informal rule that this construct only "works" with short names. What about "Brand X" or "Person x goes to city y"? Actually they feel like proper nouns to me, but that's not my point here. My point is by changing the sentences around I get a feel for what does and doesn't sound right.

Note that none of this concerns formal grammatical terms, except for very mainstream ones like definite article or proper noun.

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I've been there!. First, read this post of mine which I had posted in March 2014. Take some time thinking on it.

Do you see the frustration I had in my mind then? I completely understand your concern when you are sincere in learning English but then native speakers downvote your answer or simply say 'that sounds wrong/down'.

Yes, we have to accept that the way native speakers explain, it is a bit difficult for us to convey our message. Trust me, most of the answers from StoneyB's still make my head spin. But then, it is not always that you need to explain your answer the way linguists do. What all you need is a clear way to express yourself without getting into ambiguity.

But then, you certainly require jargon. Why? Because if you want to convey your message without what you call a fancy name, it'd be restricted to that example and you won't be able to explain it in general.

If there's a jargon, there's a reason behind it'

How you do? - is it a question? NO! Because you need an 'extra 'do'' there. How do you explain it without using the jargon?

How you do? - it's not a question because to form a question, you need an auxiliary verb. 'do' is an auxiliary verb there.

For instance, how would you answer this if someone asks whether this question is correct?

Would you mind to help me?

Now, this question is incorrect. But without jargon or using a fancy name you simply cannot answer it. The asker wants to know why it is incorrect. Even if you know the answer you may simply say...

I think 'Would you mind helping me?' sounds correct to me.

How would you justify this? Is there any rule or the users just have to believe you because you know English? So, you need to explain it using jargon or what you call 'fancy names!'

Check this answer now:

The question in concern is incorrect. The verbs in English grammar follow certain format called 'verb patterns'. The verb mind is one of the verbs that follow '-ing pattern. So, it should be 'Would you mind help helping me?'

You can learn different verb patterns here.

What made the difference in your 'vague' answer? The jargon - verb pattern! You decide, which one sounds better and more convincing? Of course, the latter one.

Now, as I said, if you don't have any technical explanation, you don't address the question generally. You'll have to stick to your answer without giving a solid reason. But, by stating 'verb pattern' you cover many such questions. And, the asker would then appreciate learning it. Even visitors will learn many things with that answer 'with jargon', won't they?

Now, how to come out of this? You should be all eyes and ears on each answer answered by native speakers here. And yes, why just native speakers? Users like Damkerng, MAR, oerkelens, and a few more are no less than native speakers. Check their answers and you'll know that.

It has been over a year for me. Slowly but steadily I understood that how ELL works. Yes, at times, downvotes with no comments or simply natives telling you 'it sounds off' may frustrate you but you need to take it positively. It is their way to 'express themselves' and I don't think they do it with any ill intentions.

There have been times where I wanted to say something wasn't right, but someone has a very formal explanation of why the phrase is grammatical.

Exactly, learn from that answer and try to find other questions similar to it or having the same tags. Try to explain in your words only after learning the 'real' English. Did you do that in the example I wrote about '...would you mind?'

So, to answer this, keep only one thin in your mind - whatever happens here is positive and you need to learn from it. If they say 'sounds off to us', ask them further - why? and the answer they (or even others) give would be no less than an English lesson for you!

What I do? I read English grammar books and prepare notes. Such books explain nicely with jargon. And, not all jargon are difficult to learn! Say -'verb patterns'? huh?

+1 from me as you wrote exactly what I felt once! I know what you are going through as a keen learner.

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Two things I recommend against that native speakers sometimes do in these answers:

  1. Don't answer pronunciation questions with "eye-spellings:"

    laughter is pronounced laff-tur.

  2. Don't use meaningless words when describing pronunciation:

    the "th" in thought is hard but the "th" in either is soft.

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    I tend to avoid pronunciation questions because I don't have a good command of the IPA. Also, I may have an accent, so even if I could express my pronunciation in a phonetic alphabet, it wouldn't be the most neutral way to say it. – ColleenV Nov 2 '15 at 20:03
  • @ColleenV But I hope our visitors get lessons about a lot of different accents! I wish we had an option between IPA and eye-spelling. One option would be to put an eye-spelling and request an edit to IPA? – hunter Nov 2 '15 at 20:43
  • I appreciate that diversity is a good thing, but my interests are more aligned with written English than spoken. I may look for software to transcribe a spoken word into IPA, and expose y'all to my mixed up accent. I've tended to pick up the pronunciation of some words from each of the different regions I've lived in, and sometimes I make up my own, so phonetically the way I speak is a bit of a nightmare for learners :) – ColleenV Nov 2 '15 at 21:28

The ear of the native speaker IS the gold standard, so if you think it sounds wrong you are right. Of course, there are different dialects, so it is good to mention your dialect.

Grammar is intended to codify the rules we use in language, but because language is so flexible, and we can use shortcuts both at word level and phoneme level, it is hard to get it right - of the thousands of grammars of English none actually works well enough for a computer to parse English (and the automatically parsed corpora like the British National Corpus are full of incorrect parses of the good text, as well as having samples of speech and colloquial text).

Generally errors come about (human and computer) because of sentences getting complex so that resolving the intention is difficult, ambiguity is compounded, and inconsistencies in the expectations arise. So generally the way to explain why something is wrong is to simplify it (get rid of 'and' and 'who' and 'that').


* me and my brother went ...
√ I went ...
√ We went ...
√ My brother and I went ...

* ... gave my wife and I a free ...
√ ... gave me a free ...
√ ... gave us a free ...
√ ... gave my wife and me a free ...

One of the big problems with/for teachers of English (to first or second language learners) is that it is easy to give simplistic rules (like always say "my brother and I" or "my wife and I"). It is better to give contrastive examples showing like I did above when "and I" is better and when "and me" is better. The "me and" convention is not so much a matter of grammar as politeness - put yourself last.

Of course, you can go too far - there is a lot of complexity in extending the above examples to "my wife and my experience", "both my wife['s] and my jobs", "on behalf of my wife and myself" etc. to take into account the possessive (and complexities of individual jobs vs joint experience). In fact, the same principle of getting rid of "and" complexity allows you bypass this awkwardness in writing, while in speech a repair is often used "my wife and I... our experience".

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  • Native speaker of which dialect is the gold standard? I guarantee there are things that sound perfectly correct in one that sound very wrong in another. I can't remember how many times an answer has stated that they've never heard some phrasing I use all the time. – ColleenV Nov 8 '15 at 16:39
  • Native speaker of any dialect is the gold standard. But the problem with standards is there are so many to choose from. But if you are from an Australian, British or Candadian/US background with English as your native language, you will be able to hear when something is wrong and can refine your intuitions to understand why. I did say to mention your dialect... In the case of the relatively few grammatical differences between the major dialects, these are forms of elision and the full version still sounds correct. "I will write my mother" is wrong in Aus/Brit but "write to" still ok in Am. – David M W Powers Nov 15 '15 at 23:13
  • We have a different understanding of gold standard. Unless the question is about a particular dialect, how does saying it sounds wrong in my dialect help a learner? It should be a stepping stone to a more definitive answer, but often folks stop at "I will write my mother" is wrong and should be "write to". Trying to simplify and deduce an answer by logic can lead you astray, particularly if you're extrapolating something that sounds right to a more general rule. It's far too easy to mislead learners if you don't check your grammatical footing. – ColleenV Nov 16 '15 at 1:26

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