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Imagine three scenarios in Q/A:

Q1: How can I say that "foo bars the baz"?
A1: Just say "the foo bars" instead.

Q2: Is "foo bars the baz" grammatically correct?
A2: Just say "the foo bars" instead.

Q3: What is the difference between "foo bars the baz" and "the baz is barred"?
A3: Just say "the foo bars" instead.

I've notice this type of answer being given to many questions on ELL since I joined, and this meta.SO post encouraged me to write something about it. My point being, while the answer to Q1 may be appropriate, I often find the answers to Q2- and Q3-like questions not very useful.

I really appreciate how everyone likes to share their knowledge and help the OP, but in order to be different from forums, which our mission is, we need to be able to make a clear distinction between answers and comments. Both tools are available to most of us, but some of us don't use them as we should.

Let's make one thing clear: On StackExchange, you're here to help the OP, and many other people. To do so, you are here to make a library of detailed answers to questions. Helping the OP is just a part of it, and everyone should be here for something bigger, better, more beautiful. You're also trying to build something people coming from Google will be glad to read. So what if the passer-by isn't interested in the many other variations of a phrase and is interested in only one usage? The answers wouldn't be helpful then. I know it because they tend not to be helpful to me, and I'm here to learn.

So when I see a question about , for instance, I'd like to see, as a future visitor, an analysis, technical or not, of the very sentence/phrase in question. I do not need to see "meh, he phrased it poorly. I'd say X, Y, Z, A, B, . . . " Sure, one could also point at an alternative while explaining the structure of the thing in question, but that shouldn't be the main constituent of the answer.

Enough said. The only thing I hope happens by writing this meta post is that next time you (plural) write an answer, take a look back and see whether your answer is something someone coming from two days of cumbersome failing Google searches desperately looks for. I hope this becomes one of the few steps in trying to improve the answers we write.


I'm not providing specific examples to avoid/minimize the meta effect. If asked to, I'll happily do. I hope the request is straightforward enough, nudging the people it should.

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  • I don't agree that "everyone should be here for something bigger, better, more beautiful." – GoDucks Jan 31 '16 at 21:15
  • @GoDucks: … than helping a single OP? You disagree with that? – Nathan Tuggy Jan 31 '16 at 23:40
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    It doesn't and shouldn't concern me why you're here @GoDucks, but they usually kick out loud people from the libraries and anyone that plays by the rules stays. – M.A.R. Feb 1 '16 at 12:12
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    It is @GoDucks perogative to disagree with your opinion that we should all be here for something more worthwhile than answering a single person's question. I agree that we should be working toward building a English reference and not just helping random people for Internet points, but if someone is contributing value to the "library of detailed answers", it doesn't matter to me what their motivation is. On the other hand, "I disagree" without elaboration isn't particularly constructive or helping the discussion along. – ColleenV Feb 1 '16 at 19:09
  • Usually, better people than me (Stoney, Snailboat and J.R. to name a few) set the goal. I'm never as good a guy as them, so I try to do what I do in a way that doesn't interfere. In a war, only the most honorable and the bravest are solely there to serve their kingdom @Colleen. – M.A.R. Feb 1 '16 at 19:12
  • +1 for realizing the meta effect :P – Insane Feb 2 '16 at 11:32
  • @GoDucks I just had a moderator change my name into something more pingable. I hope we can put this behind us and start new and fresh and I think we started off on the wrong foot. I apologize for my ignorance and hope the apology's accepted. – M.A.R. Feb 2 '16 at 18:39
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    I am on an android phone, using the mobile site, and I don't know if @IND (which is the closest I can get to your username) will ping you. Maybe it's the browser I'm using. I do not get any suggested usernames for anybody when I type the symbol used to ping people. I have to type out all usernames after the symbol, which means those using a non-English letters are unpingable. I only use the dolphin browser, perhaps other android browsers are different. – GoDucks Feb 2 '16 at 18:53
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    When I use the Android's own browser, I do get suggested the names @GoDucks (Android 4, tablet). Note that it would only suggest you the name if you just type "I" after the ping. – M.A.R. Feb 2 '16 at 18:59
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    I thought Dolphin was "the" Android browser, lol. If not it should be. ;) Okay I appreciate your efforts to make your username more pingable. I believe @ColleenV also said your former name was unpingable while on the mobile site. I wonder if that's still true now and which O/S and browser she (I assume) uses. – GoDucks Feb 2 '16 at 19:04
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    I do get suggested words by using whatever keyboard I'm using, so I can easily ping those who my keyboard remembers. SwiftKey I think. – GoDucks Feb 2 '16 at 19:05
  • Happy ending, I guess? :) – M.A.R. Feb 2 '16 at 19:06
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Your Q2 is interesting:

Is "foo bars the baz" grammatically correct?

If we followed your guidance to an extreme, and only answer what the O.P. is directly inquiring about, we'd end up with a lot of answers that are not as useful as they could be, such as:

Yes, it's grammatically correct.

I don't have any problem seeing answers go "above and beyond" what the O.P. asks for, and my gut feeling is that such supplemental guidance would make the site more useful in the long run.

For each future visitor who comes along, wondering if foo bars the baz is grammatically correct, there's likely to be another learner who will want to know: Is there a better way to say it? So long as the passer-by can find the answer among the answers, the additional information is icing on the cake.

At risk of invoking the meta effect, you'd have to site some egregious examples of this practice for me to see it as detrimental to the quality of the site.

Very few of our questions get more than two or three answers, so it's not like the answers to the direct questions are getting lost in the weeds.

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    I can't remember specific examples, but I have seen plenty of answers that reword the example text rather than deal with the awkward but grammatical phrasing. I don't think we should refrain from offering alternatives, but I do think we should first address the example as it is written. – ColleenV Feb 1 '16 at 21:11
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    I think any answer, should at the minimum, attempt to answer the question. You pointed at another problem our answers have: We don't make a distinction between comments and answers very well, so every once in a while someone takes the liberty to answer a "Is this grammatically correct?" with a bare "yes". Next meta post is gonna be comments vs. answers. Also, +1 to @Colleen, and all I meant by this post was addressing those answers. – M.A.R. Feb 2 '16 at 10:27
  • @ColleenV - Agreed, but there is one exception I can think of: When the original wording is awkward-but-grammatical, and, say, two people have already left answers affirming that the sentence is grammatical. In that case, I have no problem with a third person leaving an answer that says, "Yes, it's grammatical, but..." – J.R. Feb 2 '16 at 11:30
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    @J.R. I personally don't like writing an answer with an eye to the other answers available. A user can delete or edit their answer at any time, so assuming that all the other answers will remain in their current state is not a good idea if we're trying to write an answer that can be referenced in the future. – ColleenV Feb 2 '16 at 14:55
  • @ColleenV - True, but I occasionally run across a question where a key point looms large and remains unaddressed. In that situation, I usually think to myself, "Somebody needs to step up and make this key point." If I decide to do that myself, it can usually be accomplished with a comment. However, I wouldn't go so far as to assert that any answer that doesn't directly answer the question as posed by the English learner is always out of place and doesn't merit a spot in our library of detailed answers to questions. Occasionally, that's part of what makes our answers detailed answers. – J.R. Feb 2 '16 at 15:21
  • @J.R I NEVER say never or always ;) I also try not to be too picky about donated value. I would much rather have an answer that ignores part of the question than no answer at all. I'm just taking about what I think is in general preferred in many situations. Context is important when deciding what is or isn't a good answer. – ColleenV Feb 2 '16 at 15:58
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    I think, that generally, the more information that is given, the better the overall answer is... That would include giving better constructs, or varied different wordings, as well as advice on how commonly something is used or heard. I have this bias because of my own struggles with learning Italian, and using the Italian site. The answers that I receive to my questions that include other word choices or constructs, and other information sometimes resolves questions that I did no even knew I had. THAT is helpful, and, I would think, the point of our time and that of the questioner. – Msfolly Feb 6 '16 at 17:50
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I think the best way to answer this question is by way of example - if you see somebody wandering around looking lost, and they ask whether an incredibly convoluted set of directions will get them where they want to go; you can run through the directions, see that they will arrive in about an hour and be entirely correct in saying "Yes"...or you can point them 3 doors down the hall to the left, and save them (and the poor person waiting for them) the long and twisting journey.

Yes, it's quite possible that some of the questions you're talking about actually have some need for the specific/weird phrasing that's used. But that's not the likeliest scenario. And even if it was, the directions we're giving aren't just going to be read in the context of the asker's situation. Every other person who views the question is going to adapt the answers to their own circumstances. So, at least in my opinion, it's important to give that sort of info.

Edit: Of course, it's also a good idea to find out from your lost compatriot where and why they got their directions from, so that the next time they're looking for somewhere they have a better navigational foundation to build on. Or know not to get directions from Off-track Oliver.

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    While this is true, if you don't explain what went wrong, they're just going to run into the same sorts of problems again. ELL is not here to give people fish. – Nathan Tuggy Feb 4 '16 at 1:26
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    I learn more from the mistakes I make than from someone showing me the correct way. If someone doesn't explain why what I tried isn't quite right, I don't understand the topic quite as well. – ColleenV Feb 4 '16 at 1:47
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    I think Damien makes a good point. Take for example Is it correct to ask someone in pain "Do you hurt?". Sure, it's grammatical - and some people would actually say it in certain situations. But it's not much good knowing that's "valid" if you don't know how uncommon it is compared to Are you hurt? – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 6 '16 at 18:12
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    @FumbleFingers I don't think anyone is arguing that you shouldn't point out better options. I'm saying that answers should be "yes it's grammatical but" or "No because X, here’s a better way" and not "Forget that, use this". Also, there's a difference in meaning between do you hurt and are you hurt. One is asking if you're in pain and the other whether you're injured. – ColleenV Feb 11 '16 at 20:44
  • @ColleenV: You're quite right, of course. But although my "hurt" example perhaps wasn't ideal (there are several good answers there, and they certainly don't limit themselves to saying Yes, it's grammatical) I just thought Damien's point here didn't deserve to have a net zero points (2 up, 2 down). He sets out much the same position as J.R. (who has no downvotes), with what I think is a quite engaging illustration. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 11 '16 at 21:53
  • @FumbleFingers I agree it's a good quality point, but I disagree with it (and since this is meta that means I down-vote it even though it's good quality). We're not giving directions to get some place, we're teaching. And teaching involves both discussing what is correct and what is wrong to be most effective in my opinion. There is no "need" to say she sells seashells by the sea shore, but it can be a useful exercise even though it's easier to say "She owns an oceanfront store where you can buy shells." – ColleenV Feb 11 '16 at 22:11
  • @ColleenV: Well, yes, but we should bear in mind Damien has posted an answer to a question which appears to take a fairly strong stance against pointing out "better, more common" ways of saying things when an OP presents us with some non-idiomatic usage and asks whether it's "technically valid". Anyway, at least he now has a +ve net vote tally, so I guess it's time to let dormant canines deceive. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 11 '16 at 22:29
  • @ColleenV I framed my answer solely in the context of whether or not the extra information mentioned in the the OP should be included in the answer, and while the metaphor was (at least in my opinion) a pretty good illustration, like all metaphors, it's not an exact correlation. I do believe including an explanation of where you went wrong is a good idea, but couldn't think of a way to smoothly squeeze that in. Perhaps a poor choice on my part, but c'est la vie. – Damien H Feb 11 '16 at 23:03
  • Here is a Q&A that illustrates my perspective: ell.stackexchange.com/q/78657 The only answer to the question never really says whether the phrase the learner is asking about is acceptable. We can assume that it's at least awkward by the rephrasing, but I think for learners we really need to spell it out explicitly. As it stands, there's not a lot in the answer that can be applied to other situations. @FumbleFingers – ColleenV Feb 12 '16 at 18:28

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