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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.

Specialty subjects

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.

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    In my opinion, the example question is properly on hold because it doesn't have the context necessary to answer it. Your answer guesses (probably correctly) that they're talking about the computer term, but what if they pulled it out of the middle of a sentence where 'non-integer' was not connected with 'string'? It's not a good example for a discussion about what specialized terminology is on-topic for ELL IMO. Here are a couple of terminology questions that were well-received: ell.stackexchange.com/q/96742 ell.stackexchange.com/q/73055 – ColleenV May 28 '17 at 23:15
  • This is sort of related as well: Proposal: tags for professional/specialty jargons – ColleenV May 28 '17 at 23:18
  • @ColleenV, thanks. I didn't think to make the distinction between jargon and passage meaning. What I was actually referring to was "what does this sentence or passage mean" questions. The qualifier is that the passage is from a specialty topic. Jargon often plays a role, but the real issue is that in order to explain the meaning of the passage, you first need to explain a lot of specialized knowledge. But jargon questions can be in a similar boat so I'll take a closer look. (cont'd) – fixer1234 May 29 '17 at 0:06
  • In the non-integer string example, suppose the entire context had been included in the question and the meaning was clearly what I guessed. Would a question that needs that level of subject matter explanation be considered on-topic for an English site? – fixer1234 May 29 '17 at 0:06
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I don't think any more-specific ruling is needed than this:

  • Questions about any subject whatsoever, no matter how specialized or esoteric, are on-topic as long as they're not questions about that topic, but about learning English.

So, you could ask about quantum thermodynamics, as long as you're asking about some peculiarity of English within that topic and not the topic itself. You could ask, and we could answer, "Why do you use 'Hamiltonian' as a noun instead of as an adjective?", "How do people read aloud the ℏ symbol?", or "Do people giggle when they say 'Lipschitz function?" But if you asked what a Hamiltonian is, what is the difference between the Planck constant and the Dirac constant, or what a Lipschitz function is, that would be out of our bailiwick.

A specialized vocabulary question is probably a question about the subject, not about English. There isn't much you could say that wouldn't already be in a dictionary or textbook about the subject. We couldn't add anything to it that would fall under FumbleFingers' point about "teaching a man to fish".

That's why "What is a non-integer string?" is getting resistance: without addressing something specific to English other than the vocabulary, it seems to be about computer programming, not about English. If the OP really wants to know something like "Why is it 'non-integer string' and not 'non-integral string'?", we might be able to answer. A good answer to that might convey something of the customs according to which a lot of technical terminology in English gets coined.

A good computer-science question that's really about English is "polynomial time in?", which is about customs for choosing prepositions to modify polynomial time. It requires specialized knowledge to answer, but the focus of it is the peculiar customs that English has evolved for that topic, not algorithmic time complexity. A learner who reads a good answer to that will be well set to make sense of many other peculiar usages in math and computer science.

I think good answers to questions about highly specialized topics will often explain something about the ordinary, non-specialized English usage that that the specialized usage grows out of, and how the specialized usage differs—and why. For example, here's an answer about the peculiar usage of exist in mathematics, where it sets up a weird singular use of a variable with a plural meaning. An important part of answering that question was establishing that exist in that context is not in the present subjunctive mood even though it looks that way. That's not something that most mathematicians who don't take an interest in English would tell you.

ELL is not limited to beginning learners or general-interest questions. We get a number of questions from people who've mastered English well enough to write for publication but still haven't picked up the "feel" that leads fluent speakers to find certain conventions natural and others unnatural. For example, here's a question about which tense to use in the abstract to a scientific journal paper. ELL is probably the best place on the Internet to ask a question like that. Native English-speaking scientists choose tenses in a peculiar way there, following precedents set by other common English customs, but often aren't aware that they're doing it. You need to ask someone who takes an interest in the difficulties faced by people coming from languages that work very differently than English.

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    Great answer (and some excellent examples). Looks like I was reaching a partially right conclusion but for the wrong reasons. Thanks for the revised perspective on the question. – fixer1234 May 29 '17 at 4:31

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