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This question — "Do PC screens in Australia scan from bottom to top?" -- explain the humour please — raises what I think is an interesting meta point. I've seen a few questions like this where someone asks what he thinks is a question about the English language, but in fact the correct answer is that it's not really about language but about geography or history or whatever. People often vote to close such questions as "not about the English language".

I think this is incorrect. Yes, if someone asked a question that was clearly and obviously about geography — What is the largest river in France? or some such — that should be closed as irrelevant. But in cases like this, the OP thought, in my opinion quite reasonably, that this was an idiom or some other quirk of the language that he didn't understand.

If we say that questions that sound like they might be about English but ultimately really aren't are disallowed, then we are, in effect, requiring the OP to know the answer to his question before he asks it.

It's often said on here that we're trying to build a repository of questions and answers that are available for reference. Is it possible that others in the future might have a similar confusion about whether something is an idiom or a geographical reference? Surely so. If such questions are disallowed, then we're ruling out useful answers.

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    But the problem is that it's not expertise in language that will answer the question, and I strongly object to the notion that "closed" = "disallowed". – M.A.R. Jan 12 '16 at 18:27
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    Well, "closed" = "no one is allowed to post answers", which by definition precludes anyone from answering the person's question. I suppose someone could post an answer as a comment, but what's the point of saying that you have to do that? As to "expertise in language", my point is that saying that is a useful answer to the question. – Jay Jan 12 '16 at 18:37
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    @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. 1) It takes expertise in the language to discern what is not a linguistic question; and we by and large welcome questions which turn on familiarity with Anglo culture. 2) "closed" certainly does mean "discouraged" to any questioner. 3) What good (Good) does closing effect in these cases? – StoneyB on hiatus Jan 12 '16 at 18:40
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    @Stoney Closing allows other questions that are about language get the attention they deserve. Sure, we might not be big enough for someone not to be able to surf through all the questions ELL got today, but that's highly temporary. Why should we proceed by answering when it always becomes evident in the comments that the question isn't about language? We're already covering too many topics (English language, that is) and with the current quality of the answers I'm not seeing a bright future in allowing answering questions about culture etc. – M.A.R. Jan 12 '16 at 18:46
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    @StoneyB RE point 1: Yes. Suppose you want to know whether a certain object is a real diamond or a fake. Would you say that you should NOT ask an expert in diamonds, because if it is a fake, than it is outside his area of expertise? Or that he should refuse to look at it on such grounds? Surely a diamond expert would be exactly the person to go to, because he is most qualified to say whether it is or is not a real diamond. – Jay Jan 12 '16 at 18:46
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    The reason I voted to leave this closed is because while it is a joke, it's not a joke that is dependent upon language to understand. The OP understood the "right to left" reading reference earlier in the paragraph and given that, there's no reason to assume this is an English problem that other learners are likely to run into. If the joke had made reference to "down-under" I might think differently, but it's a geography joke. – ColleenV Jan 12 '16 at 19:43
  • @ColleenV - I think the joke is only partly related to geography. The quip immediately reminded me of the myth about which way toilets flush in the southern hemisphere. I think there may be other cultural allusions at work here besides geography. – J.R. Jan 12 '16 at 22:46
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    @J.R. It's still not a question about language. There's no pun here or double entendre. Is it only English speaking folks that think of the Southern hemisphere as the bottom of the globe? I'm honestly asking - do the Japanese or the Russians view it so differently that they would have a hard time understanding "bottom to top" if they can understand "right to left" being associated with the Middle East? – ColleenV Jan 13 '16 at 3:23
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    An odd quirk of SE close reasons is that a fair number of them rely on hindsight. For example, on SO, there's a close reason for "turned out to be some trivial glitch that no one would be able to search for". There are also cases on most sites where someone is asking "what is such-and-such called?" and their question can be closed as a duplicate of one that explains such-and-such by name. Finally, there's an entire feature (migration) built around good questions asked in the wrong place. All this is, perhaps, unfortunate, but we're kind of stuck with such semantic hackery. – Nathan Tuggy Jan 13 '16 at 7:54
  • @ColleenV - I still think there's a shade more here relating to language than what you're seeing – although perhaps it's mostly in my head. Still, there's probably a reason that the author didn't use Chile, or South Africa, or Zimbabwe, or Madagascar, even those all those locations are also in the southern hemisphere. For some reason, the line reads a little funnier and more natural with Australia, no? – J.R. Jan 13 '16 at 9:58
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    @Jay - I agree! However, if that's the case, then there's something about language in the question after all, and it's not strictly about geography. – J.R. Jan 13 '16 at 15:30
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    I'm very sympathetic to non-natives since here are so many things native speakers take for granted (the more enlightened ones actually figure out what that is, and the patient ones help you get through it) but what chance does a non-native speaker really have sometimes? If the OP doesn't even know what question to ask let alone how to ask it, should they be shutdown (closed) for trying? @JR Aussies are funnier, and it is about the language – Peter Jan 14 '16 at 13:39
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    @Peter: It is very often the case, all over SE, that a beginner's questions are closed, because they don't know enough about the subject to ask a good question, so they ask for three books' worth of answers, or the individualized counsel of a professional at $180/hr, or whatever else. SE is not here to handle all aspects of learning; it can't be. If you don't know enough English to be able to formulate a question about English, you won't be able to ask a good question here... and sometimes this shows itself in odd ways. – Nathan Tuggy Jan 14 '16 at 23:11
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    @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. The point is that this is a site for English Language Learners. Part of learning about English is about culture. That's why all EFL course books address cultural aspects of English, and all good language instructors do the same. If it is what English Language Learners need as part of their English Language education, then cultural aspects are on topic. And one area where this is of course the case, is when they don't understand some piece of writing because of an exophoric reference. All IELTS instructors have to help their students with exophoric references if their cultural ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 15 '16 at 11:36
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    @Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. ... background means that a particular issue will repeatedly cause them problems with their reading or listening. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jan 15 '16 at 11:40
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I've always had reservations about requiring learners to know the answer to their question before they ask it, but the problem with language is that it impinges on so much of life that, even for native speakers, it's sometimes difficult to discern or agree on whether a problem requires linguistic competence, or domain/cultural knowledge, or both (or whether the two are mutually exclusive or can even exist apart from each other).

However, Stack Exchange does not exist to answer every question that a person may have - that's why sites have scopes, so that those who can answer questions within the scope of the site can answer people who ask those questions. And that's also why questions get closed, and people get turned away.

Stack Exchange sites don't define themselves by what isn't on topic - they are defined by what is. To that end, I don't believe a catalogue of questions that demonstrate where this boundary lies is suitable. We don't need every question that traces out the exact (if it's even possible) delineation between a "language" question and a "domain knowledge" question.


As an aside, someone posted a link to a news article that received some press late last year, based on an opinion article written by a public speaking lecturer. This is a response written to that article, essentially discrediting its various flawed arguments.

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  • Thank you for the link - this made my day "Dean Frenkel, a lecturer and tutor in public speaking and communications – not linguistics, the first warning sign of a poorly constructed assessment of language change and sociolinguistics..." – ColleenV Jan 15 '16 at 5:49
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Saying that the question isn't in scope, and explaining what scope it is in is itself an answer--albeit an incomplete one. The user can then go get the answer in an approrpriate location.

The only problem is if the question disappears so that other can't also know that the questions. While I've used the SE sites for a while, I personally haven't paid much attention to what happens to closed questions--can they still come up during the search that is part of the asking process? If so, then I believe that is sufficient.

If not, then they need to, or else you'll just get the same questions again. Because one thing is correct--we can't expect everyone to know the answer before they post. It's just that saying "this is off topic" is an answer. It means it is not an idiom.

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    We shouldn't be closing questions that we would want folks to be able to find on the site. If a question is likely to be useful to many other learners, I don't vote to close if it's even close to being on-topic. This specific example is a very context specific joke from a programming text that isn't language related. I don't see it as being something that's going to come up a lot. – ColleenV Jan 18 '16 at 19:01
  • Closed questions show up in searches just fine. They are, however, more likely to be deleted (automatically or manually), which does remove them from search; this particular question is in no danger of automatic deletion, as it has an accepted, upvoted answer, and the question itself is upvoted. – Nathan Tuggy Jan 18 '16 at 20:26
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I really resent having a good "on topic" "in scope" answer to a question and not being able to post it because the topic has been closed.

The problem is not just that the "author" may not see that a topic strictly lies out of scope, but that a "moderator" or "editor" may not see that a topic properly lies within scope.

Language is intrinsically connected to cultural and social conventions and understanding, including especially the differences in what is familiar or unfamiliar, and the way these difference influence or prevent the understanding of idioms, proverbs, aphorisms, jokes and the like - all of which are intrinsically linguistic phenomena.

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    None of what you're mentioning here is a new problem; closing questions is a judgement call. If you disagree, use meta (if it's important enough), comments, or reopen votes (once you get 350 rep). All SE sites are willing to close questions that at least some members would be willing to contribute answers to. In fact, that's the entire point of closing. – Nathan Tuggy Jan 16 '16 at 21:48
  • @NathanTuggy Hmm, so "the entire point of closing" a question is so that, in cases where some people may think it's relevant and in scope and others not, those who think it's not can prevent those who think it is from posting an answer? Because ... why? Why is that a desirable goal? – Jay Jan 18 '16 at 5:19
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    @jay: To prevent poor-quality question/answer pairs from being enshrined forever in the library. Closing by multiple privileged users (or a single mod, or a gold badger in the case of dupes) is considered a good signal that an individual answerer (especially one without much rep) is not at all likely to actually have a good answer to the question being asked, even if they think they do. If they really do have a good answer, that's what reopening is for. – Nathan Tuggy Jan 18 '16 at 5:34
  • @Jay: In general, SE design philosophy is explicitly to prevent certain common classes of easy, popular, tempting, fluffy, useless postings, by allowing highly-privileged users to close questions, delete posts, and so on. The fact that close-voter consensus may not reflect that of lower-rep users is therefore very much a feature, not a bug, and a crucial one at that. (Whether a proposed answer like the one mentioned here would in fact be useless is of course another matter; it's really more likely that the up-/down-voting would be less than helpful.) – Nathan Tuggy Jan 18 '16 at 5:38

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