This evening, I had occasion to comment on a question that concerned in part a simple disagreement in number. The moderators, for unknown reasons, deleted several useful and instructive comments of mine which pointed out that, although native speakers in everyday discourse often, and to no ill effect, play fast and loose with agreement in number, the "correct" form of such a sentence (and the word "correct" was enclosed in quotation marks, so that no-one could possibly mistake my meaning) holds that subject and predicate should agree in number. The OP, evidently, clearly understood, and even expressed his gratitude for this comment! Yet it was deleted, along with my subsequent attempts to provide it again.

When a useful answer to the question was then posted, I commented there that, since the underlying structures of Chinese and English have nothing in common, it might be wise to consider abandoning any attempt to find similarities in the grammars of the two languages, and instead to "start from scratch". (This is hardly a remarkable observation.) This comment too was deleted! It was:

This is an interesting answer, but it is important to point out that Chinese and English are completely different where the concept of "grammar" is concerned. It is often and truly said that Chinese has no 'grammar', and there is wisdom in that observation. The Chinese learner of English is well advised to abandon any attempt to understand English from the perspective of Chinese language structures, and instead to "start from scratch."

In the midst of this, a common troll, new to the site, posted standard "challenges" to my comments. I dismissed the troll's barefaced attempt at disruption...dismissively. Even though it was obvious from their tone and wording that my comments on the question were intended not as prescriptivist claptrap, but to inform the OP of what is expected in "correct" usage, every single one of my earlier comments was also then deleted!

What reasoning underlay these deletions? Are the progress and understanding of the questioners here not our primary concern? I fail to see how it is better that a new learner of English not understand what is meant by "correct" as it pertains to simple things like agreement in number. An understanding of vernacular speech is good, but it ought to rest on a foundation of what is considered "correct".


1 Answer 1


Comments aren't really designed for answering questions. There are a number of disadvantages to allowing answers to be posted in the comments section. Comments can't be downvoted, edited, or really salvaged in any way if they're incorrect. Despite this, they are permanently featured above the top-voted answer (if any).

What's more, it's bad pedagogy to expose a learner to an incorrect answer first, even if it is followed by a discussion of whether that information is correct or not. Unfortunately, students often retain the initial incorrect information and forget the follow-up discussion – if they end up reading it at all.

We're fairly lenient with the SE policy on comment–answers here on ELL. The network-wide policy is supposed to be "don't do it at all". After all, the software isn't designed to work properly with comment–answers. We do recognize that sometimes users post helpful information in the comments section, despite its limitations. But when outright misinformation is posted in comments, it really needs to be removed by moderator action, and that's what happened here.

  • 1
    What was this outright misinformation? That "things" might agree with "ghosts" in "there's no such thing as ghosts" seems about as uncontroversial as I can imagine. Then in response to his (still extant unless removed as I write) comment, I replied that the sentence could be rendered as "There's no such thing as a ghost." If this misinforms the questioner, I can't see how. I understand that comments are ephemeral by nature and don't question that principle, of course. Jul 5, 2017 at 8:37
  • 6
    @P.E.Dant If you're attached to what you've written in a comment, you should preserve it in an answer. Comments are terrible for extended discussion (even if it was done constructively and no-one was calling anyone else a troll) for a number of reasons. Chat is where discussions belong -- messages stay in order, you can reply to a specific message instead of just a person, the formatting is a bit more robust, and key points can be "pinned".
    – ColleenV
    Jul 5, 2017 at 11:30
  • 1
    @ColleenV The content of my comments was so uncontroversial and trivial that it scarcely deserved to be preserved in an answer. It is not outré to point out that agreement in number is a principle of "correct" English grammar. How that can be characterized as "outright misinformation" is beyond me. Neither is the observation that folks speak idiomatically in the hardware store at all remarkable. The comment above, which was yanked at the same time, is also pure vanilla. Good gravy. Jul 5, 2017 at 17:04
  • 8
    @P.E.Dant Comments should be treated as ephemeral regardless of their content. If a comment being deleted is more than a blip on your radar, you are investing too much value into them. I am not saying that comments are valueless, but if you want that note to stick around it belongs in an answer or a chat room. You can also link to chat messages and they keep their context better than comments. I think you're using the wrong tool for what you want to accomplish.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 5, 2017 at 17:35
  • 1
    @ColleenV At this point I am only curious to know what it was in my comment that was considered to be outright misinformation. Am I supposed to guess? Jul 5, 2017 at 20:05
  • 1
    By the way, I agree that it is unfortunate that comments on a question appear on the screen above even the top-voted answer. I had not considered this until now, and it is a significant issue. Jul 5, 2017 at 20:10
  • 5
    @P.E.Dant Your statement isn't as uncontroversial as you believe it is. This is a good illustration of why answers should not be comments. Comments don't allow for a complete explanation of your point in a coherent fashion with supporting citations, which leads to a bunch of back and forth that isn't constructive. Mods are not obligated to sort through comment-threads that have gone off the rails to salvage any of it. Sometimes we do, especially if the answers are lacking, but you shouldn't expect us to. If the 1st comment seems problematic to me, I just remove the entire thread.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 5, 2017 at 20:24
  • 1
    @ColleenV If you mean the comment preserved above, there isn't a single Chinese student of English who isn't amazed at the inelegance of our language as opposed to the simplicity of Chinese. They don't have to deal with number, tense, gender, conjugation, plurals, articles: all the accumulated crud we call "grammar". There's nothing at all controversial about that. Jul 5, 2017 at 20:41
  • 4
    @P.E.Dant I'm not arguing content with you, I'm just saying that when a comment thread comes to my attention, and the question has been disposed of (the one here was closed as a duplicate), I don't bother with preserving comments under the question. If those comments had been under an answer, I might have read through them and tried to preserve the main contention. I don't know which of your comments generated the back and forth and it doesn't really matter. The question has been closed as a duplicate of another with a well-scored answer, so the author should have their answer.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 5, 2017 at 20:53
  • 1
    @ColleenV You are preaching to the choir. I don't have a quibble with any of what you say, and I support 99 per cent of what the mods do here. I'd like to know what was so egregious that it deserved to be denounced in black letters in the answer above (obviously, since I've now asked three times) because the last thing I want to do is misinform a questioner. Jul 5, 2017 at 21:20

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .