EDIT: It looks like I was viewing this topicality question from an incorrect perspective. I'll leave the question in place for other site newcomers. If the question seems to make sense and is consistent with how you view the issue, you're thinking about it wrong. :-) See Ben Kovitz's answer. Original question continues below.
I'm trying to get a handle on questions about understanding a passage involving a specialized topic.
Some sources and topics are fundamental to learning the language as used. This would include pretty much anything in the realm of conversational language, publications for a general audience, literature, and current events. I would expect almost any topic from these sources to be appropriate, even if some background explanation is needed or the passage includes some specialty words.
Language encountered in life
It isn't clear the extent to which these kinds of things an English learner routinely encounters would be included:
- An article in a financial newspaper that requires some subject matter explanation.
- Wording on everyday things that most people deal with. For example, common government or business documents as long as the question doesn't require legal interpretation, or common medical documents, labels, or instructions as long as no medical interpretation is involved.
- Consumer instructions such as for assembling or using household items.
- Instructions or help related to basic, common computer issues (understanding the words and meaning, not why or how things work).
Answering these kinds of questions can require some minimal explanations of specialty things at a layperson level, which would seem to be in scope if it can be done without turning it into a textbook, and if that is just ancillary to explaining the actual text.
Some of these questions come from students trying to understand the meaning of a passage in a textbook on a specialty subject. Explaining that in a useful way often requires more than the literal definitions of the words, the meaning may lie in basic principles covered in the subject matter. There might be only a minor portion of site users who happen to have the background to help on these. My sense of the situation is this:
- Teaching the coursework is out of scope.
The expertise of the members should somewhat guide what is in-scope. If only a few members are likely to be able to answer it or to peer-review the answers for correctness, that's an indication that it's probably out-of-scope.
However, that can be tempered by reality. If some members quickly provide an excellent answer or two, perhaps with citations for validation, that's evidence of our ability to answer it.
- Whatever subject matter explanation is required should make the answers useful to a general audience, not understandable only by the OP. Similarly, the question should be understandable by a general audience.
The required mix of subject matter vs. English explanation should be considered. If a good answer would be predominantly subject matter explanation, that probably isn't a good fit for the site.
Defining the terminology is part of the English language explanation to the extent that it can be defined simply, using common words, rather than requiring a subject matter explanation.
- This implies that whether such a question is on-topic depends on what a good answer would look like.
Poster child question
A recent example: What is a non-integer string?
The question is (appropriately) on hold based on inadequate details. However, even if more details are provided to narrow the question, it still comes down to understanding some English words that are associated with a specialty. The question illustrates the situation of a good answer needing to delve heavily into an explanation of the specialty subject matter.
I posted an answer with what I thought was the amount of explanation a non-technical person would need to understand and benefit from the thread. If the question was better defined, I wouldn't take much of it out.
Looking back at it, it's more of a mini-course on a computer subject than a definition of some English words, maybe Wikipedia vs. M-W. That suggests to me that the question probably isn't a good fit based on its specialized nature. But I recall seeing other questions similarly based on very specialized, technical terms, and people didn't see fit to close those (which may or may not be a good guide).
My Meta Question
I'm looking for input on whether I've accurately assessed the criteria, and understand the gist of what's off-topic for this type of question.