This is a potential problem I've observed longer than a year. I asked about this during the recent election, but it was a late post and it didn't get enough votes to be included in the questionnaire. So, it has never been answered, and many may not even have seen it.

The problem is anyone can post an answer. It doesn't matter who we are--a native speaker, a teacher, a learner, a non-native speaker, anyone. This is the spirit of SE, and I don't ask us to change that. But as a result, we get a not very good (sometimes blatantly wrong) answer written by a learner or a non-native speaker every now and then.

This should be fine if voting on ELL works perfectly.

But as everyone seems to agree, our voting is not perfect, so it's not that rare that an incorrect or weak answer gets lots of upvotes, which may give the false impression that the answer is correct.

I'm not saying that only native speakers can write good answers, but if we don't want to fool ourselves, I think we'd all agree that many of our answers written by learners or non-native speakers (yes, I'm one of them) are just plain wrong or, in the milder cases, weak. (It's one of the reasons I've been trying not to post answers too often, and I try to be as careful as I reasonably can when I post comments.) Here is what I wrote in a comment earlier today:

Posting an incorrect answer in an authoritative voice, and continuing to fix it until it gets right according to comments from others shouldn't be encouraged, in my humble opinion. It can give false illusion. It can decrease the chance that the OP can get a good answer in the first place (because people tend to skip answered questions in small communities). And it can affect the quality of our site as a whole.

(A user kindly commented on my comment Sir, isn't it better to come up with the precise answer then criticising someone? [sic] -- Let me be clear. I didn't aim it at someone specifically. I don't even like to write anything like that, but when it keeps happening all the time on a site that I care, and I think we all care, I think I have to say something. If it was criticizing, which I don't think it was, it was for everyone of us, not just someone specific.)

So, here is my open question:

How can we help our learners and non-native speakers avoid posting weak or incorrect answers?

If there is no good answer to that, I'd like to make a plea:

To all ELL fellows, please refrain from posting answers based on your thoughts when you know you don't know the answer, or know only part of it, or it's just an idea or an opinion. Please keep in mind that reputation points are fun, but quality of the site as a whole is more important. (Isn't that why we're all here in the first place?)

However, if you've done some research on the topic and found what you think is a good answer and want to share, please do! Just make it clear that you didn't come up with it on your own; that it's not just your intuition. (And don't forget to cite your sources appropriately!)

But what if all you have is your own intuition, which you think is right!? Maybe you've heard someone use it that way, so you sort of "know". And you want to help? -- It's your choice: you can leave a comment, or you can post it as an answer, but please make it clear that it's your opinion.

Also, please be more careful in comments, because we can't upvote or downvote comments. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't help each other out by leaving our opinions entirely, but when we're not sure, it's better to make it clear that we are not sure. In other words, please try not to sound authoritative when we know that we do not deserve it yet.

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    Recently, I noticed that a user who used to ask questionable questions has started answering questions -- and their answers are very good!
    – Jasper
    Dec 16 '15 at 17:35
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    What about the folks (learners and fluent speakers alike) who are convinced they're correct when they are in fact completely wrong? Wouldn't we be more likely to get the desired result of high quality answers by addressing the problems that allow low quality answers to have the negative impact they do rather than try to prevent them entirely (which may be impossible)? What if more folks looked at questions with answers already? What if voting worked better so that one weird vote didn’t matter as much?
    – ColleenV
    Dec 16 '15 at 19:30
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    Also, I disagree that there's a problem with an initially wrong answer getting corrected from community discussion. I believe that in some circumstances it is more educational than if the answer were completely correct to begin with.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 16 '15 at 19:32
  • @ColleenV Thanks for the feedback! It's interesting and useful, especially the last two (What if more folks looked at questions with answers already? What if voting worked better so that one weird vote didn’t matter as much?), which I always hope to see. I think we may need a critical size of the user-base before the votes can work better. I noticed that we have more users, but still not enough, imho. It may be better as we grow larger. (Though I'm not very sure. HNQ seems to be another source of problem.) Dec 16 '15 at 19:36
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    @ColleenV About the disagreement, I once thought it was okay until I saw that the more rep points a user gets the more confident the user can appear to be, and the authoritative sounding usually follows. (I still think it's good for the poster, but I'm not sure if..., no, not that, I think I don't think it's good for the site.) Dec 16 '15 at 19:39
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    I understand your concern about reputation, but I think as long as the answer ends up correct, there's not much harm done. I think the interaction helps the answerer as well, because they get a better feel for community standards. If everyone supported their answers with a credible source, this wouldn't be so large an issue.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 16 '15 at 19:58
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    @Colleen (and others) I'm starting to think it's not useful to just go around and say "it's what folks do. You can't do anything to stop them." We're a community and we have to see what we can enforce, encourage, prohibit etc. in order to incentivize certain positive behaviors in the community members. Your argument would've worked if all of the VLQ answer posters are deliberately posting a low quality answer, while most of them are unsure and just want to see how it plays out.
    – M.A.R.
    Dec 16 '15 at 20:26
  • Good luck trying to figure out how to enforce quality standards on folks you have no leverage on while not making life too hard on the folks that actually care. Could you do something? Probably. Would it be effective enough to be worth the effort you put into it? Probably not. Maybe I'm just old and bitter over having tilted fruitlessly at this windmill many times before, but there are easier ways to accomplish the goal than trying to change behavior that is incentivized by things outside our control. I'd tag MAR but my mobile can't handle the characters.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 16 '15 at 21:34
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    +1 There are two kinds of people here. Those with the Higher reputation and those with the lower reputation. Reputation is just for fun, but I have seen that some users with high reputation points forms authority over users with low points. Sorry, not going to name them! I am in agreement with this post 50-50. I find this post a bit rude but useful at the same time too. Users who are not sure if their answer or what they think is correct, must not post an answer that can ultimately confuse the OP. Further, they can mark it as "favourite" and later learn from the learned users.
    – Usernew
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:24
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    @Usernew Got it! I think I need to fix my plea a little. Thanks for useful feedback! My intention wasn't "must not" but rather, "should not". In fact, I've seen many good answers started out as such (i.e., vaguely correct, but not entirely correct), and it gets improved as time goes by. I think those "not quite correct in the first place, but good" answers in my idea share the same merit: they don't try to sound authoritative on their own; in other words, they back the answers up with authoritative reference sources. Dec 17 '15 at 7:30
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    @Usernew I don't find this post particularly harsh or rude, but it may seem too directed at one user as an otherwise "general" post would be. And yeah, few users with higher rep might look down on some lower rep users, but I dunno how that relates to this discussion. O_O
    – M.A.R.
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:38
  • But, more importantly, it is the task of learned users to correct NNS or speakers with not much knowledge of English to correct them if they post an incorrect or somewhat confusing or contradicting answer/comment. Many times we are in a hurry and sometimes we forget to edit our answer and not completely understand something, again we can get rid of this confusion by merely stating in the answer that this answer will be edited sometime after, or the answer is under construction.
    – Usernew
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:40
  • Take a recent example: >>> I posted an answer that was contradictory, I failed to see it. You notified me via comment and corrected it. I again failed to see it. <<< This can happen sometimes with even learned users (happens with me many times, I am not a learned person :D) But next day, CopperKettle corrected me and then I corrected it. This is because many times we just simply fail to see things clearly. We even opt to not to listen to others. It's just human nature :D
    – Usernew
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:40
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    Many users with higher reputed forms an attitude that whatever they post, is correct, and if a user with less reputation corrects them, they don't listen unless some user with more reputation points or NS corrects them. This is wrong and this is what I am trying to say @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. :)
    – Usernew
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:41
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    IMO, this is a broader problem with StackExchange. If everyone has an equal voice, it's only to be expected that accuracy falls by the wayside. I've seen many answers with outright false claims on Worldbuilding become the top-rated answer, to the point I stopped participating in it. I think this voting system only really works in places like StackOverflow where answers can be empirically judged on if they work or not, or sites with very narrow topics like Chemistry where anyone involved can smell fishiness in the discipline.
    – user15474
    Dec 25 '15 at 4:19

Stack Exchange is not a forum. I see posting guesses, even as comments, such as this one by Subjunctive and this one by Maulik to be out of place, because they are not helpful to the person who asked the question. Obviously I would extend this to answers. Posting answers when you are not sure might be 'good' for you, but it's not great for the OP. I guess it depends who you think is more important on any given question. SE is not a forum, and thus to turn it into one by posting various guesses as either comments serves little purpose. One could save that for the chat room. Otherwise, everyone, natives or not, could do better by keeping speculations to themselves, rather than posting them as comments or as 'answers'.

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    I agree that guesses shouldn't be posted as answers, but comments are for discussion, and I think speculation is just fine there. Comments are temporary, and if they are egregiously wrong, they are easy to remove. I think the entire comment chain can be moved to chat as well if it's not helpful in refining the answer or clarifying the question.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 23 '15 at 19:12
  • I think that's why comments are for. Sometimes they look like guesses but they (at least for me) are not trying to confuse or not to help the OP. If a chain of comments are in the wrong way of course they'll be moved away.
    – Schwale
    Dec 24 '15 at 14:05
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    @ColleenV "Comments are for discussion"? I think that is exactly what they are not for. SE even has some kind of built in mechanism to dissuade discussion in comments and moderators often remind people that comments are not for discussion. As for removing comments, are they going to be removed if someone does not flag them?
    – GoDucks
    Dec 24 '15 at 14:08
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    Also, although they are easy to remove in theory, that requires cooperation on the part of the moderators, and the ELL moderator team is reluctant to remove comments, even when they're egregiously wrong. As a result, we often get wrong answers permanently featured in the comments section above every actual answer, no matter how many votes they might get.
    – user230
    Dec 25 '15 at 18:53
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    OK so discussion was a poor choice of words, but comments are for communicating about a question or answer, which is particularly important for this SE and shouldn't not be held to the same standard as answers. If the moderators aren't removing flagged comments or migrating them to chat, then that is its own meta discussion. I think our moderators are more than willing to listen to the community. If being more aggressive about cleaning up comments is what we need to do, I don't see that as an insurmountable obstacle.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 25 '15 at 20:16

We can't prevent folks from posting low quality answers. We do have all of the tools we need to deal with them once they are posted, although I think we might need better use of those tools by more of our community.

One thing I get from your post is that we need to encourage more folks to review existing answers and vote on them or flag them instead of just looking for questions that need answers.

Another thing that might help is to continue to encourage askers to not accept an answer too soon. I admit I've been slacking on this lately.

The reason why the SE system works so well is because a community of experts curates the site. If we're having a problem with the quality of our answers, the issue is that our community of experts is either not large enough or not active enough.

Personally I lean toward our community of experts not being large enough to handle the interest we have from learners, with a dollop of "too nice". If we're going to be the kinder, gentler SE, we need more folks reviewing, voting, and editing.


Maulik made an excellent point in his post:

Learners make mistakes and that is how they learn.

I hadn't really thought much about it that way before. Initially, I assumed that ELL would be a place where learners would ask the questions, and native speakers would clarify matters in their answers. However, I can appreciate how learners might get even more out of this site if they do they do some research and attempt to answer a question. Therefore, I wouldn't want to censure them for answering. All I would ask is that a learner be teachable after offering an answer, rather than presciptivist and dogmatic if someone offers a nudge in a different direction.

Let me give an example that springs to mind. Let's say someone was looking for a synonym for discussion. A learner might start leafing through some thesauri and some reverse dictionaries, and stumble across the word intercourse, which, according to Collins means:

intercourse (n.) communication or exchange between individuals; mutual dealings

Well, that word certainly fits! However, a native speaker might see that answer, and say something along the lines of:

Yes, intercourse is a synonym, but most native speakers would avoid using that as a synonym for discussion, because it's generally associated with sexual intercourse, not conversational intercourse.

At this point, I would hope the learner would be thankful for yet another learning experience on ELL, and edit their answer, rather than get argumentative and stand behind the authority of a dictionary.

ELL needs to be a place where learners and native speakers help each other out. That means that learners should have the liberty to take a stab at answering a question, and natives should be patient, helpful, and constructive when such answers are off the mark. Moreover, learners should welcome such feedback on their answers, and be ready to amend them if necessary.

Native speakers should not be dismissive of answers offered by learners, even when these answers have problems. I've seen quite a few answers written by learners that I felt were incorrect, but they were still instructive because they showed me how difficult it can be to master the nuances of English. Most of the time, the matter can get resolved in comments, particularly if the learners exercise care in the tone of their corrective remarks. A comment such as:

That may be technically correct, but most native speakers wouldn't word it that way, because that word has certain undertones.

Is much more constructive than something like:

You obviously don't know what you're talking about.

So, I agree with the essence of most of the O.P.'s question here. Downvoting can be a good thing, when an answer is erroneous or weak. Learners have the right to see which answers are on the mark, and which are misleading, and the voting mechanisms can help with that.

But I wouldn't go so for as to say:

The problem is anyone can post an answer.

I don't view that as a "problem" anymore. I think that's one of the things that makes our community so interesting and exciting. We have learners who are getting brave enough to try to answer questions, along with native speakers who are willing to look over those answers and offer more helpful instruction when needed.

So long as the conversations remain civil in both directions, this can be a very helpful place for learners and for those who enjoy helping them learn.

  • I don't avoid 'intercourse'. Ok - I'm sorry for that already!
    – user15474
    Dec 25 '15 at 5:15

Okay, my answers on this site have triggered you to post this though you made it general to sound neutral! Being straightforward is really good and appreciated. Never mind, here I am with my answer.

If you or for that sake anyone want perfect answers, I'm afraid, this might not be the right place. There's a good sister site of ELL and you know that.

ELL has a word Learner and it carries a lot of meanings. Learners make mistakes and that is how they/I learn.

The answer has option of editing; why? Because when the mistakes are pointed out by learned users like you, the answerers learn, edit and make answers better.

Colleen's suggestion is very well known. Accepting an answer too soon is not good and we keep on telling this to the OPs. I don't think any grayed answer has been accepted ever. And even if there has been some, the OP must not be active on the site. They must have accepted in hurry and then gone. Do you think blunders work here? That too when we have people like you who are quick to point them out? There are many native speakers who recommend editing the answers.

There was a proposal on META about coming up with one more site -a level down to ELL for people like me who have below average (as you point out) knowledge about English. I fully agree. But while searching a good English forum site, I came across ELU where I put a question that was made more fun out of than being answered. Someone recommended that for learners we have ELL and that's how I landed here.

Trust me, I then searched for a site even below this level (considering my shallow knowledge as compared to learned users here), but I could not find any. I then continued and here I am today.

About commenting or answering, you are still not sure when should we comment.

Here is your reply to my comment on this post:

IMHO, it could be even better if you consider refraining from posting your comments when you are not sure.

This means, if a learner is not sure, he cannot post an answer. He cannot comment as well! Aw, I'm not sure whether chatting and asking you or any active user here with better knowledge is practical. We don't want observers, do we? Do you have any plea for that? How to make learners contributing to this site without answering and commenting? Well, there's one way - they should ask only questions. But I'm not sure whether it's advisable.

By the way I had replied to your comment...

No @DamkerngT. It's exactly opposite, we do recommend commenting instead of answering especially when someone is not sure.

If the answer is horrendous, you have a great tool to express your views and do justice. Comments and downvoting.

If I could have been a learned + super active user like you, I would have been all time busy teaching people here with no bitter note anywhere in my brain! Because knowledge is nothing if it does not carry respect with it.

[And by the way, they are the natives who repeatedly said that there are many natives who speak nonstandard English. The recent comment is here. And this is not the first time. I can come up with more examples stated by native speakers but it's not relevant here.]

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    I think you missed several points of my post. Let's clear things up a little. a) it's not about that answer alone (i.e., it's not about you, or me, it's about our site; as I said, I've observed the pattern on our site for a long time, from several users; what really urged me to post this was a comment rather than your answer; it's clear to me that our users may be misled by these answers); b) I think all of us ideally want "perfect answers", but at the same time, we know we're not perfect; we're content with "good enough answers", but "good" is not incorrect, "good" shouldn't be misleading. Dec 17 '15 at 6:26
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    c) "I don't think any grayed answer has been accepted ever" -- I doubt if that's true; isn't it true that we have to tell our OPs so many times not to accept first answers too soon (which many times, turn out to be incorrect)?; d) "we have people like you who are quick to point them out" -- I think this is a false premise; we all are not here all the time, and we appear to not be able to cope with all the new questions, imho, so not very good questions and more often not very good answers slipping through, misacceptions, misvotes, misclosing, and so on, happen all the time. Dec 17 '15 at 6:33
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    e) Please do not bring an irrelevant issue in. I know that you think it's a good idea, but I believe that our site accommodates questions from learners of all levels just fine; and this is not about simple vs. difficult questions, it's about good vs. not very good answers; f) "... if a learner is not sure, he cannot post an answer. He cannot comment as well" -- Not so. Please read my plea again. I wrote "In other words, please try not to sound authoritative when we know that we do not deserve it yet." In fact, this is fine in answers too, imho. Dec 17 '15 at 6:48
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    g) I've never said "horrendous" myself in your question, and I don't think I've received the comment you say you had replied. Was it in another question, perhaps? Dec 17 '15 at 6:53
  • The heart of your post is -whether non-native speakers are allowed to post comments or answers. The quality of being weak/incorrect/rotten/worst comes later. My link to the concerned meta question is absolutely appropriate as it talks about non-native speakers with less knowledge or in straight words, those (including me!) having English as third language. Long answer cut short, posting anything is an exclusive right of any user here. It's fine; provided it should not contain any abusive language.
    – Maulik V
    Dec 17 '15 at 6:55
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    No, the heart of my post is "learners and non-native speakers should not post any answer that is incorrect when they know that it's probably incorrect; and we all should try not to overestimate our knowledge, which would result in an authoritative sounding answer when it doesn't deserve it." The plea begs for more better quality. It doesn't try to disallow anything. In fact, I think most learners know their limits quite well. -- I believe that if we want to stay a good site, we need this. Dec 17 '15 at 6:59
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    Maulik unfortunately you missed @Dam's point. Why should you post an answer when you're in the same position as the OP i.e. unsure whether the answer is correct?
    – M.A.R.
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:20
  • If I'm in the same position, I know a little phrase 'Good question, +1'. @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. that might go as a comment. We know each other quite well. I surely understood Damkerng's point or better say I could read between the lines? :)
    – Maulik V
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:24
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    Well, the point is, don't post an answer when you'll need other people to nudge whether it's correct or not. I've been chatting with Dam since some time and I know his reasoning behind posting this isn't pointing at you. I'm an NNS, you're an NNS, and so is he. Reading his answer to meta.ell.stackexchange.com/questions/904, I know that he's not against non-native learners to answer questions. We all make mistakes, and what happens after that is important.
    – M.A.R.
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:31
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    BTW, in these cases where I realize my answer is off, I personally prefer to delete it, revise it, and then undelete it.
    – M.A.R.
    Dec 17 '15 at 7:32

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