Half the time when I see people post a question, there is more focus on the inadequacies of the question than on actually answering it. It shouldn't have been asked because it's a duplicate. It's put on hold because it's off-topic (proof-reading request seems to be the main reason). It has the life edited out of it by another user, so the original asker can probably no longer understand the question. Or it didn't follow any number of the other strict rules by which a question may be asked here.

As I understand there is a kind of quest here to build a database of all possible questions people can ask, each with a suitable answer. But I wonder how encouraging it can be for learners of English to come and try a site where it ostensibly looks like they can ask a question and have it answered, only to have their question doctored, rejected, or elicit a page of discussion from English speakers about the inadequacies of the question.

I am keen to provide good answers to questions, and to follow the rules outlined to provide answers. But I am not so interested in joining the legions of rule-enforcers, and I might answer questions which the community rules would prefer I didn't answer.

Would it be better for me to not answer questions at all? Or continue answering questions including ones which weren't correctly asked?

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    I asked a similar question before meta.ell.stackexchange.com/questions/3253/…
    – EXL
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 12:36
  • That's kind of ironic! Though I did try searching for a similar question, but didn't find one. It's a difficult question to put into keywords. Anyway, thanks for the link.
    – Tom B
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 12:42
  • I know sometimes people emphasise the rules in order to build a good site, but I think [some] people are overdoing it. Additionally, if they (those who overdoing) have the time to do that, they can provide a simple answer and actually help someone.
    – EXL
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 12:42
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    Yes. Essentially that is my issue. I find it distasteful that the majority of native English speakers care more about getting questions removed because they don't abide by the rules, than simply helping a learner. There are numerous ways a question can be asked, and a learner of English may not know the right way to ask the question. So how can he search for it before simply asking it the only way he knows how?
    – Tom B
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 12:45
  • Or sometimes a learner searched it, but didn't find the answer/ still don't understand after reading the dictionary and other sources. I find it frustrating when someone accuse me for not doing the research when I acturally did (and he insisted on that after I said I read it but I still don't understand). I mean, how much evidence do I need to show? I truly wish more people focus on answering questions rather than other things.
    – EXL
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 12:54
  • Certainly on the German Language Learners Stack, they seem to recognise that answering questions is more helpful than not answering them.
    – Tom B
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 13:14
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    ''Building a database of answers'' is exactly why and how we want to help learners. Helping individuals is fine, as long as it doesn't get in the way of site's mission, i.e., helping all the learners. And I believed quite the contrary; that ELL is, sometimes harmfully, too lenient on questions.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 18:27
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    Related question Do not feed the bears
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 19:51
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    I find it distasteful that the majority of native English speakers care more about getting questions removed because they don't abide by the rules, than simply helping a learner. Proof please, some statistics would convince me that the majority of questions are being removed, and no learners are being helped. How long have you been a member exactly? Do you think thirty days is enough to form such a damning opinion. Anyway, where are the facts?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 20:34
  • Just in case you didn't know, the question which you answered a while back has been migrated to EL&U. You might want to consider joining that website. Here's the link “If you don't have a fresh chicken, I'll take a frozen (one).”
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 23:20
  • I placed a bounty on the same question, and you might be pleased to know that your answer is earning upvotes. See the link in the comment above.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 16:08
  • Good to hear! There's another answer to that question which I think is a lot better than mine, however.
    – Tom B
    Commented Nov 27, 2016 at 16:18

2 Answers 2


Let's clear up some misconceptions.

SE never meant to be a place for answers to all questions. We don't spoonfeed people the answer to their homework questions. We don't answer "What is the hardest part of English in your opinion?" We don't even answer "What are adjectives?", unless decided by meta consensus. The SE model is ideally designed for pros helping pros. That doesn't mean it's not for beginners. I'll get to that.

This is what "pros" do and don't when asking:

  1. They encounter a problem while doing some real work, like when a linguist encounters a tough-to-analyze sentence in some literary work.
  2. They look for the answer themselves first.
  3. They know what to look for and where to look for.
  4. After they're fairly certain they can't find an answer, they ask other experts.

SE was for questions from people that do the above. The idea was that forums all around the internet were nice places with nice people and you could have a relaxing chat in the threads, but before SO there was no place to get a nice, clear-cut answer to a question you've been Googling the answer for, for a week. If there was ever an answer to a question like that, it was below piles of "I haz same problam" rubble.

The "keep noise out" mentality has been magnificently echoed in the philosophy of downvotes. The tool-tip reads

This question does not show any research effort; it's unclear or not useful

Unfortunately, most beginners don't know what to look for and where to look for, they ask other people as soon as a question hits them (which sometimes bothers people as they get flooded with questions), don't encounter real problems, rather exercises from a book, and most importantly, don't look for answers to their questions.

While this doesn't mean Stack Exchange sites are not for beginners, and everyone can participate, an SE site whose main participants are beginners has either of the two ways to take.

  • Be divided into two groups; one group wants moderation and the other preservation of content, like the case of ELU, more or less, or
  • Be too lenient on questions, let a lot of faults through, like the case of ELL

Notably, the mess English education is in some parts of the world, the contradictions of different terminologies and modern and traditional grammar only intensify the situation.

Yes; in my humble opinion, ELL is generally too lenient on what things can be improved in questions. One unfortunate side-effect of that is that you don't get to enjoy a clutter-free site and see how useful it can be among all those other online forums dedicated to English.

Moderation and preservation of content are on the same side. But as you see what went wrong with ELL, the seemingly endless quibbles about how a post should be phrased seem fruitless. Nevertheless, the mere existence of the tools used for moderation and the few users who do use them and not end up apathetic like me still manages to help this site grow.

And finally, the existing tools do need to be a bit discouraging. As I said, SE is meant to be a last resort. I can assure you it's much more helpful to type "have vs. had" in Google and open and read the first link than to spend time and energy typing a title at least 15 chars and a body at least 30 chars.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. You've certainly improved my understanding of the site philosophy, and I can understand more why people behave as they do. I think people could maintain this philosophy and still provide adequate help to "non-pros" asking questions, and indeed this does happen a lot even with the policing. But I can probably agree that the policing has some effect to improve the overall quality of questions, despite what I view as the negative effect of giving too many people the chance to become a policeman.
    – Tom B
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 10:55

I think the answer to your question is yes. :-) There needs to be a balance, I think.

Ideally, learners who are asking questions will do their best to follow site guidelines, by:

  • providing as much context as possible
  • mentioning what research was done prior to asking the question
  • explaining why they are confused

Questions that are scant on such details can be frustrating to answer, because it's often harder to fully understand the question, or why it's being asked. Learners who ask questions on ELL shoulder some responsibility: When such details are omitted, the quality of the site goes down, and the ire of the community goes up.

On the other hand, though, it's good for the community to remember how daunting this might be, particularly when a non-native speaker is struggling with rudimentary skills. We should be ever cautious about devolving into a police state where the same barrage of terse comments greets community newcomers. Too many comments and too few answers can give the impression that we are a community of nitpickers more preoccupied with enforcing standards than with helping learners.

I think the community functions best when people work together to keep the site healthy. I don't think we need to reach a consensus here in a meta question that everyone should behave the same way when a marginal question gets asked. Some will exhort the O.P. to improve their question; others might try to help the O.P. resolve their issue. Both courses of action can be productive. We can share the same complex tapestry of ideals yet still contribute in diversely positive ways.

In short, I've seen learners get very defensive, believing they were being singled out or picked on, when someone was only trying to nudge them toward improving their question so that it would get better answers and be a better fit for this site.

On the other hand, I've seen some folks ask "What did the dictionary say?" when the dictionary wasn't even a good place to find an answer for the question. (If someone is asking about a word with 27 meanings, it's probably not very helpful to ask, "What did your dictionary tell you?" Personally, I try not to leave that comment until I've looked up the word in two or three dictionaries, and convinced myself that an answer could be easily found with minimal investigation.)

Some questions probably deserve prompt closure while others deserve thoughtful answers. But there will always be a fuzzy area in between those two extremes that make it a little harder to figure out the "best" course of action. Rather than argue about what that best course of action is, I'd prefer everyone strive to contribute in positive, tolerant, constructive, and productive ways, mindful of being nice, and working collaboratively to maintain the quality of the site while fulfilling our mission of helping the English learner.

  • Another great comment! Interesting to see two well-argued, conflicting answers. M.A.R's, that my sort isn't wanted here. And yours - I think you are saying - my sort is wanted here. Perhaps I will have to judge after a few more days which way the votes go ;)
    – Tom B
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 14:07
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    @TomB - I prefer to think of our two answers as complementary, not conflicting. I think M.A.R. and I are largely in agreement on most key points, even though our answers have differing points of emphasis.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 15:39
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    @Tom I wouldn't call it a conflicting. I focused on answering why people do what they do, and JR on what you can do. Thing is, nothing should stop you if you wish to provide an exemplary answer to an off-topic question. When we close we're merely sending a signal to our answerers to spend their time on potentially more interesting questions, but great answers that prevent the closure of bad questions are not uncommon. And yes, unfortunately, as no system is perfect, there's always a danger of creating a clique of cool kids.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 23:06
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    +1 just for urging caution and one's own research before leaving sassy comments about dictionaries. Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 1:19

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