I have seen a handful of questions get closed on ELL, and the close reasons usually start something like this:

I'm voting to close this question because it's about a rare or non-standard form of English that learners don't need to worry about.
(italics often in original)

This comment is often followed up with a link to an Ngram or a Google search designed to prove that the wording being asked about is rare, along with more close votes from native speakers.

Frankly, this rubs me the wrong way, and strikes me as condescending. I think it should be our learners who get to decide what interests them.

Our learners are trying to learn English from a wide variety of sources – classic books, new books, English language textbooks, children's books, news articles, internet discussion boards, television, and movies, and so on. As such, they are bound to run into odd phrases, strange words, and non-standard forms. This will often pique their curiosity – and they should feel free to ask about such expressions here. Moreover, we natives are here to help, and should make an earnest effort to NOT be so dismissive of such questions.

I have a theory about what's going on, and I'd like our learners to tell me if I'm right or wrong. I'm not fazed by questions that ask about a non-standard usage or word – because I'd surmise that such passages are more likely to prompt a learner to ask a question. After all, a sentence with no unusual words or constructs is unremarkable, understandable, and not puzzling at all. But passages or quotes containing something out of the ordinary are the ones that make a leaner think, "Wait a minute – now I'm confused."

These are exactly the kinds of question I believe ELL was designed to field, if we can just remember that:

  (a) learners often have trouble detecting when a usage is an error, or something they simply haven't learned about yet;
  (b) sometimes finding an answer on the web isn't as trivial as we think it might be – particularly when someone doesn't understand the original text or have a firm grasp on the language;
  (c) learners are not solely interested in proper, formal, standard, textbook English;
  (d) it's good to know that a mysterious construct is seldom used, but that won't make a learner's curiosity vanish.

It's one thing to put a question on hold because it doesn't have enough context, and needs to be fleshed out more. (Learners, please tell us more about why you're asking the question! The more you tell us about where you heard or read something, the more likely we are to understand your confusion.) But I don't think it's right to put a question on hold because it has a limited scope, or because it's asking about something we rarely run across.

So, learners of English, this is your chance to sound off! Am I onto something here? Or am I barking up the wrong tree? What do you want to learn about?

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    Double-plus-good. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 16:39
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    Thanks for writing up this post. I had a user who told me before on one of my questions that studying (more) advanced grammar isn't useful for me, with a bit of a snarky attitude. Glad to think there are people that give me the right to learn what I like. :)
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 18:29
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    I take it for granted I'm one of (if not the main) user whose position on this on bothers you, and I'm genuinely sorry if I "rub you the wrong way" or appear "condescending". There are cases where it seems clear the OP wants to know every last detail relevant to his query - and I've no doubt they are many more cases where if asked, the OP would probably say they want to know everything, even though in reality they don't (or couldn't absorb it all anyway). But they're comparatively rare. Anyway, there's my marker for now, and I'll probably post a more complete answer sooner or later. Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 21:41
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    even though in reality they don't (or couldn't absorb it all anyway) - I'm surprised you don't see that as condescending. After going through all the trouble of creating the Stack Exchange for the learner, we then presume to know what they need and don't need to know about?
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 9:50
  • Are you taking issue with the question getting closed, or with the way someone stated their opinion that it should be closed, or is it the combination?
    – ColleenV
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:38
  • @Colleen - Good question. More the latter than the former, I think. However, I'm most interested in what the learners think about this. If they ask a question about a rare word or phrase, would they rather be told, "Don't worry about it; this is some aberration that shouldn't concern a community of learners," or would they rather have the question answered, regardless of how common or uncommon it might be?
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 17:53
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    @J.R.♦: I really don't see why you consistently choose to find condescension in whatever I say. Clearly there are limits to how much information anyone can absorb - particularly, in one session. I regularly assert that getting 90% of the relevant information in a format that's easily accessible is better than being told everything, but not being able to understand and remember it all (or to recognize which are the really important bits). Particularly for learners, who will often be struggling with the fact that the information is presented in a language they're not totally fluent in. Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 18:33
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    @J.R. Is there any person that asks a sincere question and wouldn't prefer to have it answered completely rather than have someone say "don't worry your pretty little head about that" ? What we want as individuals can be very different from what is best for us as a community. I think that it's valuable to hear from everyone, but it seems like there are more answerers than askers that regularly participate on the meta site. Or maybe we're just more vocal, I'm not sure. I would like to hear what the learners say, but that's not going to keep me from pitching in my 2 cents (as if anything could!)
    – ColleenV
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 18:36
  • @Fumble - I don't find condescension in "whatever" you say; your remarks are often helpful, and I agree with many of them (even if you do tend to overitalicize "learners" on occasion, as though the rest of us need to be reminded about who our target audience is). Anyway, I don't want to enter into a debate with you here; I deliberately avoided naming names because I thought everyone (including me) could benefit from hearing what our learners might think about this matter. We may all think we have the learners' best interests in mind, but I'd rather keep an open mind and hear their thoughts.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Apr 8, 2016 at 20:10
  • @J.R.: Fair enough. I'm actually just realising that I probably shouldn't be thinking of posting an "answer" here, since you're asking the learners themselves what they want (not what people like me think they should want! ;) I can't deny that my pet theory there about people tending to ask for more information than they're likely to benefit from (to the extent of it becoming counterproductive) is just that - a pet theory. I've no background in education, so maybe I'm mistakenly extrapolating from other social contexts where people ask questions not wanting "exhaustive" replies. Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 1:31
  • I almost alwas ask here when the question is very unfamiliar to me ( even it was found out later that the question is baed on my personal misunderstanding. ). We have tons of materials and books, sources, thanks to the popularity of English, so when native speakers discard only because the question is too minor or out side of the standard box, I personally feel less happier.
    – user17814
    Commented Apr 9, 2016 at 12:35
  • @Kentaro there is a good reason people vote to close things. We're not jerks, and lots of close voters are learners themselves, like me. We have regulations put in place and we just abide by them, and those regulations are there because we want to be more effective than the rest of the internet in helping you. Think of it like this: If people went on shouting in the library, would it have been a useful place for you?
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Apr 10, 2016 at 16:46
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    I think every user here dedicated to answering and helping others should not be bothered by the level of questions asked. Yes, they should first look up on the internet if there's already a solution to their problem, but if they want to ask specifically here, there's no wrong in that. But yes, if someone here asks a question without providing context, then anyone will be like, "At least provide the context." @KentaroTomono
    – Usernew
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 6:31
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    @Usernew I didn't mean "perfect" books or anything like that. Material in reference books like CGEL won't actually make a good beginner textbook. I meant that for a lot of questions you can't help the learner with an answer. They should grab a book and read on. Come to chat if you want to know about my perspective.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 8:43
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    globalit? whatever. If a language is spoken worldwide, that doesn't mean every single person becomes enlightened or knows, magically, the basics of the language. If you google what you asked, you will come to find that there are many learners who are confused when to use "was" or "were." usage depends on what is the case: subjunctive, subject, blah blah blah. If anyone comes here and asks me about the difference between the two, I won't be at all bothered explaining the difference. @KentaroTomono Cheers!
    – Usernew
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 14:40

3 Answers 3


Some might interpret a curt comment like the one paraphrased in the question as condescending to all learners and I might see that same comment as

I'm voting to close this question because it's unlikely to be of use to anyone but the OP and a handful of other folks that may or may not come across this site. Keeping questions like this around makes it more difficult for learners to find the answers to more common usage questions and sacrifices the user experience of the many to satisfy the curiosity of the few.

There are some questions that a learner comes across that just aren't useful to keep on the site. For example, questions about typos or mistakes specific to a particular source or usage that is so rare or archaic that questions about it are more of an EL&U question than an ELL question.

There are plenty of things that learners are interested in knowing that might not be appropriate for this site. It wasn't that long ago that we were discussing Genocidal questions and Do we need to welcome "thesaurus" questions? so I don't think it's the learners that get to unilaterally decide what questions stay open based on what they're interested in. Of course most folks would rather have their questions answered than be told "don't worry about it". If there's an answer that will fit into a comment, like "it's a typo" or "it's archaic, here's a link to more information" I will provide one even though I'm voting to close.

It's understandable that a learner would not know that what they're asking about falls into these situations, but if the question is not likely to be useful to many other users, we should close it. A question that is about advanced grammar might have a more limited audience than a more fundamental question, but that's not the type of limited scope I'm thinking about when I consider closing a question for scope reasons. Some of these questions I think are actually EL&U questions because they aren't about practical usage so much as about the underpinnings of the language. We shouldn't expand our overlap with EL&U just because some folks are more comfortable asking here, or because the person asking the question isn't a native speaker.

That said, there's a huge gray area and we aren't always going to agree on whether a question is a one-off or something that might be useful in the future to someone else. The only way to resolve that is to discuss it. Edit the question to make it better. Bring it to meta to get a wider audience than the 5 folks that closed it. Closing isn't meant to be the final word, and I have been convinced to retract a close vote or vote to re-open a question quite a few times by someone pointing out something I hadn't considered.

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    Will you explain why this link was closed? 4 upvotes plus 1 star yet "primarily opinion based".... according to you, because the question is not "useful" to the users?????? But still with some upvotes????
    – user17814
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 22:21
  • @KentaroTomono ell.stackexchange.com/help/closed-questions
    – ColleenV
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 23:08
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    "Keeping questions like this around makes it more difficult for learners to find the answers to more common usage questions and sacrifices the user experience of the many to satisfy the curiosity of the few." That is a fair point, but to me sounds like a call to brainstorm tagging or UI improvements that would obviate this problem. How can we make questions about common usage more visible without marginalizing interesting questions about rare usage? The Stack Exchange UI is, AFAICT, intended to be sophisticated enough to handle both! Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 19:10
  • @CynicallyNaive I don't disagree with you. As I mentioned, there's a huge gray area, so we might not be thinking of the same sorts of questions. I'm thinking of questions like this one: ell.stackexchange.com/q/19102 How many folks are going to need that answer to that question even though it is helpful and correct? How many learners might search for, say, "breaking news" and have that question and many other one-offs like it come up in their results. How do you prevent that question from diluting search results if you don't want to remove it from the pool?
    – ColleenV
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 20:06

As English learner, I am interested to know when a word is used everyday or it is used in specific contexts. Since I am a learner, I don't know which case is, and I need the guidance of somebody else to know it.
I think it should be the same for users learning Italian, and wondering if a word they found in a newspaper or in a blog is used everydays. Maybe in Italian is different, since people often speak a second language (which is very often confused as dialect of standard Italian) which sometimes influences how people speak in Italian, but I can imagine users would wonder the same if a word should be used when speaking in Italian, or it is a word that should be avoided when speaking in public.

What I think could make the difference is where I find the phrase for which I am asking the question. If I read it in a newspaper, I think it is legitimate to ask the question, but if I am reading a Sci-fi book where the author is making words, I could expect that after 4 questions about words found in that book, a comment makes me notices there are chances the author is using a word in a totally non standard way just to give the effect of events happening in a far future.

For the rest, I think that a question about a phrase that is likely to be heard or read should be acceptable. English learners need help even with those strange words. After all, when I started learning English, I found the word inversion in phrases like So do I. strange, and I thought it was an old way of saying; if I didn't ask about those, I would have not have learned that is normal, in English.


Non-standard is a technical term. Certain dialects are labelled as "standard" They are widely understood even by speakers of other dialects. Most speakers of non-standard dialects are also capable of diglossia, shifting from a regional dialect to the standard one.

Thus learners should focus on speaking one of these "standard" dialects. By doing so they access 1) good dictionaries and grammar guides in the dialect. 2) The maximum speaker community and 3) No judgements from natives speakers that they are making a mistake through ignorance. It is important on ELL to identify non-standard English and a disservice to learners to suggest all dialects have the same wide acceptance.

But more advanced learners should also be aware of non-standard and dialect forms. Learners who are living in the UK or USA will begin to incorporate local dialect terms into their speech "naturally" by language acquisition.


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