One of the trends I've been seeing these past few weeks on ELL is a lot of questions like What does 'onding on snaw' mean?, where I find it difficult to justify the question as something of general interest to someone learning English as a foreign language, since the text is severely out of kilter with modern English.

My original thought was to discuss whether such questions belong on ELL at all (since they seem to me to be more questions suited to ELU than to ELL, since they discuss esoteric language rather than modern English for learners).

After some deliberation, I've concluded that these questions belong somewhere, and if they are to belong on ELL, they should probably be tagged in such a way that they don't confuse a learner into assuming that these words are something you should use in ordinary formal or informal speech and writing.

So anyway, I think there's a couple of approaches that we could take here. Feel free to vote on one of them below, or add your own if you think it's not covered.

Please vote UP suggestions that you like, rather than DOWN suggestions that you don't.

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    I concur, largely; I think this site should confine itself to Standard English and should migrate such questions as this to ELU. However, the example you instance is not obsolete but dialect. May I suggest you revise the question and answers to embrace both? And provide an example or two of questions turning on obsolete usage? Feb 18, 2013 at 13:36
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    Matt, For future reference, it is preferable to open the topic to discussion rather than polling with this type of vote-on-what-I-say format. Anyone who cares to chime in should have a voice. Generally you should be able to infer from the conversation and voting what the community wants. Polling is not a substitute for discussion. Thanks. Feb 18, 2013 at 17:38
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    @RobertCartaino: I totally agree with you, and basically said as much here: meta.ell.stackexchange.com/questions/279/…. Several people there seemed to be of the opinion that they don't like to have to make a formal answer to agree or disagree, and end up just voting the question as to whether they "agree" or "disagree" with the question itself. I felt that in this particular question's case I wanted something more than "yes"/"no", so I gave people three options and encouraged them to add more if they felt those three were lacking.
    – Matt
    Feb 18, 2013 at 17:51
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    @RobertCartaino: In effect, I wasn't trying to take a poll. I was just seeding the discussion. If the question had ended up with +5/-2, there's simply no way I could divine meaning. Whereas if I post a couple of alternatives, at least I can start a discussion.
    – Matt
    Feb 18, 2013 at 17:52
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    I would have liked to see how this discussion might have proceeded if it wasn't for the "poll" format. Looking back in hindsight, that poll format gets people to choose an answer they feel most comfortable with, as opposed to prompting them to think of other ways to address the issue. This is an interesting topic, but, with the three "seeded" answers, it never really developed into an interesting conversation.
    – J.R. Mod
    Mar 29, 2013 at 9:54

4 Answers 4


In these situations, the first thing I wonder about is:

Does the O.P. even realize that it's obsolete English?

If not, then my follow-on is:

Would the O.P. have even bothered to ask the question, had it been known that the language was obsolete?

Therefore, I'd like to see the obsolete tag used in questions like these – not as a meta tag, but as a way of categorizing the question – because, if the O.P. tags a question as "obsolete," that tells me:

Yes, I know this is obsolete English, but I'm still curious about it, and would like an answer nonetheless.

That spares the community of a dialog like this in the comments:

You do know this is obsolete, right? – HelfpulMember
Yes, but I'm still wondering about it. – ConfusedOP


You know this is obsolete, right? – HelfpulMember
Oh, no, I didn't. That explains why I was so confused. – ConfusedOP

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    Superficially this seems a reasonable position, but... If OP doesn't realise he's asking about a "non-current" form (the most likely case for a learner), that tedious interchange will still have to take place. And if he knows enough to realise the status of what he's asking about, he should know enough to ask it on ELU, not here. So in the end I disagree. Feb 18, 2013 at 23:07
  • I can't agree with the notion that all questions about obsolete English belong on ELU instead of ELL. Some of them, perhaps, but not all of them by default.
    – J.R. Mod
    Mar 31, 2013 at 3:13
  • Never say never. My general position is that learners would be pointlessly distracted by confusing obsolete grammar/vocabulary with current usage (which is what they're really interested in). I grant you there may be exceptions, but I'd expect them to be few and far between. Mar 31, 2013 at 3:18
  • @fumbleFingers Tedium to a native speaker can be tremendously helpful to a language learner, although I do lean towards politely moving these questions to ELU, fwiw. Maybe the ELL FAQ or etc could say something like, "got a qn from an old source? don't forget to search ELU, too!"
    – noam
    Sep 18, 2013 at 13:00
  • OTOH... language changes fast. Maybe not internet fast. But maybe fast enough that before too long we'll wonder where that obsolescence line lives.
    – noam
    Sep 18, 2013 at 13:04
  • @noam: Yes, a lot of idioms and common metaphors could be considered obsolete already, in a way, such as, "sounds like a broken record" ("sounds like a corrupted .mp3 file," perhaps?) And, really, in the big scheme of things, was sliced bread all that great?
    – J.R. Mod
    Sep 18, 2013 at 18:27

These questions should be allowed, but should be marked or tagged as using obsolete English.

Vote for this answer if you think that questions like this are valid and belong on ELL, but that we as a community should come up with a systemic way of tagging or marking these questions as containing English that is not suitable for ordinary, modern use.

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    If marking such questions becomes the convention, tags should not be used for this purpose. Please see Death of Meta tags. Such notations should be made in either the answer (preferred), or the question itself. Please see Feb 18, 2013 at 17:35
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    @RobertCartaino At your link it is said that "The reason meta-tags are a problem is that they do not describe the content of the question. They describe some other aspect of the question, like the author’s skill level, or the author’s motivation for asking it, or generally what “kind” of question it is (poll, how-to, etc.)." But 'obsolete' does describe the content of the question. (And FWIW I did not vote for this answer.) Feb 18, 2013 at 19:31
  • @StoneyB Unless the question is about 'obsolete' you are using tags to label the question for purposes other than what the question is about. You shouldn't tag/label a question obsolete any more than you should label it "easy", "too-subjective", or "needs-edits". That's not the purpose of tags. Feb 18, 2013 at 19:59
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    @RobertCartaino Not so. It is a tag precisely parallel to British English or American English or dialect or formal register: it characterizes the content, not the form of the question or the quaerent or the respondent or either's motive. Feb 18, 2013 at 20:20

These questions belong somewhere else and should be moved elsewhere or closed as off-topic

Vote for this answer if you think that questions like this belong more on other sites such as ELU, and that we as a community should not welcome obsolete-English questions on ELL at all.

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    I'll upvote this one rather than post another answer. My only quibble is that I closevote such questions as Too Localised. From the point of view of other learners there's little to be gained by reading about obsolete/archaic forms they're unlikely to meet themselves. But bear in mind we probably wouldn't be having this debate at all if it weren't for the fact that one particularly active user (a non-native speaker, I think) is ploughing through *Jane Eyre". I imagine most learners wouldn't put themselves in that position. Feb 18, 2013 at 22:58
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    @FumbleFingers And the fact is, of that user's 18 questions about JE, 15 addressed points of syntax and grammar which are still current in Standard English and in no way exceptional. One addressed an 'obsolete' usage. One addressed a (still-living) dialect form - as does this question from another user, to which no one has raised any objection. One was ruled Off Topic for reasons which had nothing to do with its 'age'. Feb 18, 2013 at 23:29
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    @StoneyB: It feels like more to me - but I'm not going to count them, so I'll trust you on that. Perhaps some of the "still-current" forms are primarily "literary" usages that might still occur today in that limited context, but are unlikely in modern speech (which is after all the primary focus for the average learner). Feb 18, 2013 at 23:46

These questions should be allowed and we should change nothing.

Vote for this answer if you think that questions like this are entirely valid, that nothing needs to change and that we should continue as normal.

  • I would not regard Jane Eyre or Shakespeare as obsolete English, and have far more trouble myself as a native speaker with (say) American or Cockney slang. The classical works are actively taught in schools and universities to both native speakers and foreign language students. Jan 16, 2016 at 7:18
  • It is appropriate to indicate quickly where OP seems not to be aware that an expression is non-standard. This could be foreignish (some examples of foreignish in textbooks have become pseudostandard) or dialect (some authors strive for authenticity and lose comprehensibility) or archaic (ditto). For Chaucer I doubt OP would have any illusions about it being modern English, but for Jane Eyre or Shakespeare they are perfectly within scope as being part of our current literary heritage. Jan 16, 2016 at 7:22

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