I thought it would be nice if we had a community maintained guide to ELL written in easy-to-understand language and arranged to make the most important things to know easy to find. The help center has a lot of information and we should definitely refer to it, but often the language is difficult to understand and where to find certain types of information isn't always obvious.

Table of Contents

  1. Asking questions
  2. Answering questions
  3. Tips for Searching
  4. Giving your question a title
  5. Formatting your posts
  6. Commenting and chatting
  7. Editing, reviewing, flagging, and other community moderation activities
  8. Using site features
  9. Posts with helpful information
  10. How to ask a question about a quiz or practice question that is stumping you
  11. How to start a new line on Stack Exchange
  12. Titles are for titles, and questions belong in your question.
  13. Avoid using a slash when asking about two versions
  14. Marking and Attributing Examples, Sources, and Other Quotes

Some proposed guidelines:

  1. Answers to this post should be community wikis and linked in the table of contents with their topic.
  2. Guidance should be written in easy-to-understand language. Use short sentences and avoid non-standard English.
  3. Avoid duplicating content. Edit existing content instead.
  4. Everyone is welcome to contribute but should expect that their contributions could be edited by other people.
  5. This guide is not intended to reproduce or replace existing Stack Exchange documentation or policies. Be sure to think about how the guidance you're contributing is specific to ELL.
  • This looks lioke an excellent idea to me. I note there are currently items (technically answers) not included in the ToC. I will add them, unless you object. Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 21:57
  • 2
    @DavidSiegel My hope was that the community would pitch in to maintain it, so feel free to add whatever you think would make it more complete.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 1:00

16 Answers 16


Titles are for titles, and questions belong in your question.

Please, don't ask a question like this one:

screenshot of a question There are four things wrong with this question – two are formatting issues, and two are "details" issues.

  1. There is no question in the question! The question itself is just a block of text. The question you are asking shouldn't be in the title only (after the question is opened, many users pay little notice to the title, and start reading below the grey line instead).

  2. Quoted material should always be put in a quote box to offset it from the rest of the question. This is easily done by adding a > symbol as the first character on a line.

  3. The title is too generic. "Is this correct" doesn't tell us anything about the subject of the question. If your title could be moved to an entirely different question, chances are it's too generic.

  4. There are no details in the question. We have no idea what rules (if any) the person posting the question has already found during prior research. And we don't know if they are already considering using some other punctuation (say, dashes or parentheses) in lieu of commas.

The first three problems are easily remedied with a few quick formatting improvements and a title change:

screenshot of the corrected question However, the last problem can only be made by the person who originally posted the question, because only that person can explain what they already know, and why their question can't be easily answered by a website like this one.

For more titling tips, see these excellent meta posts:


How to start a new line on Stack Exchange

You type this into your computer:

"What is this strange smell?"  "The food _________"  
a) has burnt  
b) burnt  
c) was burning  
d) had burnt

Yet when you submit your question, it looks like this!

"What is this strange smell?" "The food _________" a) has burnt b) burnt c) was burning d) had burnt

There is an easy to fix this: simply add a blank line between paragraphs. To break a line without starting a new paragraph add TWO blank spaces with the space bar to the end of a line. For clarity, the character will represent one blank space from the space bar in this example (= 1 space). If you do that, then each new line will really start on a new line, and your question will look the way that you want:

"What is this strange smell?"  "The food _________"

a) has burnt␣␣
b) burnt␣␣
c) was burning␣␣
d) had burnt

"What is this strange smell?" "The food _________"

a) has burnt
b) burnt
c) was burning
d) had burnt

Alternatively, and probably better in most cases, we can format as a list instead. We do this by starting with a blank line, and placing 1. at the beginning of each item, like this:

"What is this strange smell?"  "The food _________"

 1. has burnt
 1. burnt
 1. was burning
 1. had burnt

"What is this strange smell?" "The food _________"

  1. has burnt
  2. burnt
  3. was burning
  4. had burnt

See also How to properly make a list.

  • 5
    Wow, that's a lot easier than putting <br> after each line - which also works.
    – Davo
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 17:18
  • 1
    The common problem with listing things by using 1. is that users who are not familiar with markup language will forget to add a space after the period (full stop) or add a bracket, e.g. ), after the number, and then end up with a list of number 1s. Besides, the number of options on English tests or exercises rarely go beyond 4.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 9:35
  • If anyone is here, could they please tell me, how to generate that character for line spacing? I mean I always put spaces in the general way, i.e. hit enter button twice to create a one line space, but there is no harm learning something new. Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 18:47
  • 1
    @Dhanishtha - Google "open box character".
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 11:53
  • 1
    The main way of starting a new line should always be "paragraphs" and not line breaks. For me it is always nicer to use 1. 2. 3. instead of 1. 1. 1. Works the same way but the markdown remains legible
    – James K
    Commented Oct 26, 2021 at 7:36
  • @JamesK, “*starting a new line should always be "paragraphs"”? — "normally", yes; "always", no. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 13:58
  • 1
    @JamesK, "use 1. 2. 3. instead of 1. 1. 1."? — Using all 1s makes it easy to swap, delete, or add lines. Using all 1s provides visual feedback that it was entered correctly and is a real list. ¶ This, to me inappropriate, change has made the example no longer match the description. But notice that changing the description to match the example would remove information about the official way of doing it. To avoid making it more complex and awkward, I'd change it back to all 1s and perhaps mention that one can supply explicit numbers, but they will be ignored. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 14:04
  • 3
    Using 1. 1. 1. goes against the Zen of markdown, which is that the source should be as legible as the rendered version. Same with paragraphs. The primary way to start a paragraph should look in the source like you are starting a new paragraph: blank line. Markdown shouldn't be TeX. It shouldn't be code.
    – James K
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 15:15

Avoid using a slash when asking about two versions

For example, instead of asking, “Which is correct?":

There was a zebra at/on the mouth of the river.

It would be better to ask, “Which is correct?”:

There was a zebra at the banks of the river.
There was a zebra on the banks of the river.

Listing both versions separately makes them easier to compare, contrast, and analyze. Using bold to highlight the difference is helpful as well.

One can also show both using list markup:

“Which is correct?”:

  • There was a zebra at the banks of the river.
  • There was a zebra on the banks of the river.

If you want to compare and contrast the two words in a title

some ways of doing this include writing:

“a zebra at…” vs. “a zebra on the mouth of the river”

Which preposition should I use with a “river bank”: “at” or “on”?

Do you sit “on” or “at” the bank of a river?

If there are more than two options then slashes can be used in titles

Do I sit {in/on/at/near} a river bank?

It helps to group the options with braces, bolding, or similar formatting so we can tell which words are part of the options. Without the braces in the example above, for example, we might think the last option was “near a” instead of just “near”.


Proper spacing around punctuation and the first-person pronoun

Because this site helps learners improve their English, we appreciate when people format their questions properly. Here are a few things to watch out for:

  • The first-person pronoun I should always be spelled using an upper-case "I", and never spelled as i.

  • A space comes after a period and comma, but not before.

  • Quotation marks and parentheses have a space before their opening and after their closing, but no space should be used in the middle. For example:

"This spacing is correct" (and this spacing is correct, too).

This spacing is wrong , because there should be no space before the comma or period .

" This spacing is wrong "and what I've done here( with parentheses) is wrong, too.


How to properly make a list

This post illustrates common mistakes and provides a proper example. For more information on basic lists, see Simple lists. For nesting, see Advanced lists: Nesting. In order to display a blockquote ("frame" your example), start the line with >. For more tips, see Formatting Sandbox – Please test stuff here.

Common mistakes

These are a few common mistakes when making an unordered list (• Item) or a numbered list (1. Item):

  1. ✘ You are missing a space between - and Item (or . and Item in a numbered list):

    -Item 1
    -Item 2
    -Item 3

    -Item 1 -Item 2 -Item 3

  2. ✘ You are missing an empty line between the list and the previous text:

    The following is my list:
    - Item 1
    - Item 2
    - Item 3

    The following is my list: - Item 1 - Item 2 - Item 3

  3. ✘ You are missing an empty line between the list and the following text:

    The following is my list:
    - Item 1
    - Item 2
    - Item 3
    Isn't my list nice?

    The following is my list:

    • Item 1
    • Item 2
    • Item 3 Isn't my list nice?

Proper lists

In order to get the right display, make sure to add a space between - and Item (or . and Item in a numbered list) and include an empty line before and after the list:

    The following is my list:

    - Item 1
    - Item 2
    - Item 3

    Isn't my list nice?

The following is my list:

  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • Item 3

Isn't my list nice?


How to ask a question based on a practice question you are struggling with

Occasionally someone will be trying to figure out an answer to a practice question, and will stumble across the Stack Exchange and think, “This is great! Surely I can get an answer here.”

Here are some do’s and don’t’s for getting help with questions that come from somewhere else, such as a homework assignment, or a TOEFL prep book.

  • Don't simply copy the question verbatim and ask for the answer.
  • Do ask the question in a way that will make it more helpful for other users down the road.
  • Don't give the question a grammar tag.
  • Do include the exam-questions tag in your question.
  • Don't ask your question on multiple Stack Exchange sites (that’s called cross-listing, and it’s highly discouraged here).
  • Do include what you think the right answer might be.
  • Don't simply say, “I googled this but could not find anything.”
  • Do include what specific research you did before you asked here.
  • Don't be excessive in your punctuation, or plead for quick help (even if your homework is due tomorrow, you only need one exclamation point).
  • Do mention where your question came from.
  • Don't give your question a vague and nebulous title.
  • Do make sure your question is formatted correctly.

For example, a question like this one will likely get edited, or get a lot of comments asking you for clarifications, such as, “Where did this come from?” or “What do you think the answer is?”

What is the answer to this question?

I want to buy _______ laptop computer next week.
A. A B. An C. The

I need to know the answer to this question. Plz help!!!

However, a question like this one is more likely to get good answers and upvotes:

Wanting to buy {a/the} laptop computer

I was doing an online quiz about choosing the correct article, and I found this question:

I want to buy _______ laptop computer next week:
A. A
B. An
C. The

I answered (C), but the quiz told me I was wrong and the answer is (A).

I know that (B) cannot be the right answer, because laptop does not begin with a vowel. And I understand that (A) is not wrong, because that makes sense. I just want to know if using (C) can be grammatical, because that doesn’t sound like a wrong answer to me.

I have been reading about articles from sites like this one, but it seems to say that I can use both “a” and “the” with a count noun.


Answering questions

Remember your audience when writing your answer. Use standard English, write in complete sentences, and punctuate and capitalize correctly so that learners will be able to more easily understand what you've written. Try to avoid using idioms and figurative language. If you find it necessary to use such language, consider including the plain language meaning in parenthesis, as a footnote, or including a link to a dictionary entry.

Stack Exchange has some guidelines for their own writing style that may provide some food for thought. Keep in mind that these guidelines are focused on documentation and not writing answers for learners.

Posts should be your own original work. Answers that are entirely made up of text you didn't author yourself are strongly discouraged. See Are answers which consist only of block quotes acceptable for more discussion.

If a great answer already exists somewhere else, you may use a small part of it to support your answer if you follow these guidelines:

  1. You must make it clear which parts of your answer are written by someone else (using "blockquote" formatting is a good way).
  2. You must include information about who wrote it and where it was published (a link to the original content is best if possible).
  3. You must make sure you are not copying content without permission.

Don't just give an answer, explain why and, if appropriate, include credible sources that support your answer. See the discussion Submitting Answers that merely answer the question for more thoughts from the community.

  • 6
    Important point: use evidence and examples to back up your answer. These are often far as/more important than sources. Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 22:43

Posts with helpful information

  • Citing your source
    If you're confused by something you've read, don't just ask what it means. Be sure to tell us where it came from, too.

Tips for Searching

The help center has more detail on the How do I search? page.

  1. Limit your search to just questions by adding is:q to your search terms. You can use is:a to limit your search to answers.

    is are is:q

  2. Add tag names surrounded by [ and ] to limit your search to a set of concepts.

    is are is:q [subject-verb-agreement]

  3. Limit your search terms to the title of the question by using title:

    title:is title:are is:q [subject-verb-agreement]

  4. If you find a question that's close, but not quite what you're looking for, check the "Related Questions" on the right side of the page. On a mobile device they are after all the answers (choose “full site” from the links at the bottom of the page if you don’t see them).

More examples are in the answer to filter for questions


Asking questions

Composing the question

When you ask a question, don't skimp on the words! Take your time and write your question as thoroughly and as detailed as you can. In this case, less is not more. Short questions tend to be vague or too broad and will generally attract short answers. Remember to include:

  • why you are asking your question
  • what you already know, including what effort you've already made to find the answer

then it's easier for someone to write a helpful answer, and the community will appreciate your efforts. Here are some examples of different types of questions with good detail.

This guide also has some specific advice for asking about practice questions.


Please include the question and main example in the body of the post, not just the title. Your title should be specific and informative. See Titles are for titles, and questions belong in your question and How can I write a better title for my ELL question?.


We typically use the > character with examples and quotations. We often emphasize our text to highlight something important or different. We also use lists to provide alternative sentences, for example. See Formatting your posts for links and examples. See How to start a new line for an explanation on line breaks. See How to properly make a list for common mistakes when making a list.


It can be hard to choose exactly the right tags for a question, but please don’t give up and just choose . People often “watch” their favorite topics, so choosing meaningful existing tags can help your question get attention.

New tags should only be created if there is a set of questions that should be grouped together. If there isn’t more than one question that could use a tag, we don’t really need that tag. See the help topic What are tags and how should I use them? for more detail.


You can include an image if it helps provide context. However, you must also transcribe the text from the image into the post.

an image with a graphic and the sentence "This text is relevant context."
This text is relevant context.

For more explanation see:

"Thank you", "hi", and other salutations and taglines

Often, users include "thank you", "hi", and other salutations and taglines in their posts. Other users will occasionally remove them from the post while making other meaningful edits. Don't be offended by this. The general policy is that these details are unnecessary and distracting. See the following posts for discussions on the matter:

Accepting an answer

Once your question has been answered to your satisfaction, you should accept the answer that was most helpful to you. Accepting an answer signals that you're happy with the answers that your question received, and awards some reputation to the author of the answer you accepted. However, it's generally best to wait about a day or so before accepting an answer.


Formatting your posts

These are some basic features to get you started. Note that this is intended to be a summary. Click the links for more details and features.

Simple Blockquotes

You can use the > character to create a blockquote:

> This is my super awesome sentence!

This is my super awesome sentence!

We typically use blockquotes for examples and quotations.

We do not use preformatted text (four leading spaces and backticks `) for quotations and examples, or to emphasize text. The preformatted text style should only be used for code (and code-like artifacts). For more explanation, see Inline Code Spans should not be used for emphasis, right?

Italics and Bold

You can use asterisks * or underscores _ to emphasize your text:

  • *italics*italics
  • **bold**bold
  • ***bold and italics***bold and italics

We typically use some kind of emphasis to highlight differences in examples:

This is my example.
This is my other example.

Basic Links

There are three ways to write links:

Here's an inline link to [ELL's Markdown help](https://ell.stackexchange.com/editing-help). Here's a reference-style link to [ELL's Markdown help][1]. Here's a very readable link to [English Language Learners!][ell].
(This next part would be at the bottom of the page, separated from other text by a blank line)

  [1]: https://ell.stackexchange.com/editing-help
  [ell]: https://ell.stackexchange.com/


Add two spaces at the end of a line to add a line break. If your line break is not working, see How to start a new line.

Simple Lists

Click the link for a tutorial on lists. For common mistakes, see How to properly make a list.



Stack Exchange supports simple tables. Here is a quick overview to get you started. Click the "Tables" header for more detail.

You must always include a header row. Columns are created with a |.

    | A header | Another header |
    | -------- | -------------- |
    | First    | row            |
    | Second   | row            |

A header Another header
First row
Second row

The header row controls how many columns the table has and it is not necessary for it to contain text, or for the arrangement of the | symbols to visually match the table. You can omit leading and trailing | symbols for the rows of a table, but it's a little easier to read the mark down if you add them.

| | |
| -------- | -------------- |
 First | row            
 Second | row            
First row
Second row


Alignment of the text within the columns is controlled by the position of : symbols in the second row of the header.

    | Left  | Center | Right |  
    |:------- |:-------:| ----:|
    | First    | row | 124689 |
    | Second   | row | 975257 |
Left Center Right
First row 124689
Second row 975257

There is an answer for the main Table Support "new feature" post that shows how to use HTML to incorporate different types of formatting into table cells. For a more technical description, see the Tables extension section of the GitHub Flavored Markdown Spec.

Here are links to more information on formatting your posts:

  • Important and basic addition needed here. Use italics when referring to words in your text (- preferrable to using quotation marks). So for example: 'The noun mouse has an irregular plural, the word mice'. Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 22:41
  • @Araucaria I started tagging meta posts with style-guide for that sort of thing. I wonder if we should create a style guide wiki post that combines them all in one place.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 13:56

Marking and Attributing Examples, Sources, and Other Quotes

Users often quote text written by others in order to ask about the grammar or usage in such texts. In other cases, users will quote sources to support an answer or comment. In any of these cases, there are several steps that the user posting the quote should take.

  1. Mark the quote as a quotation, that is, as not your writing. This can be done using quote marks ("), or by using "blockquote formatting", that is, by putting a ">" at the start of each paragraph or line. See the "Simple blockquotes" section in "How do I format my posts using Markdown or HTML?".
  2. Provide attribution. This means giving the name/title of the work being quoted, giving the name of the author unless no author is stated, and in that case giving the name of the publication. There should be enough information to enable another user to find the work without unneeded trouble.
  3. When possible, supply a hyperlink to the quoted content. Obviously this cannot be done if the content is not online.
  4. If the work quotes is not fairly recent, an approximate date is highly useful. English usage changes over time, and trying to explain a passage from Dickens, say, or Shakespeare, as if it were written last year will be frustrating for all involved.
  5. If an example is taken from a translation from another language, please tell us. This can make a big difference in explaining oddities of usage.

See "How to reference material written by others" for more details on how to handle quotations. See also "So, you found a sentence or phrase... (Why you should cite your source)" for more on why such quotes should be properly attributed.

Following these practices serves several purposes. It gives proper credit to the author of the quoted content. It allows users looking at an example to find the original to look for additional context, which is often very helpful in answering questions about a text. It allows users to verify sources, and read further information those sources may provide.

If a comment asks you to provide a source for an example or other quote in a post, please edit the post to add the needed information to it. This is better than simply providing it in a comment, as comments can be deleted for any of a number of reasons.


Commenting and chatting

Once you have 20 reputation, you can participate in chat. ELL's main chat room is Language Overflow.

You can see all of the messages people in a chat room thought were interesting enough to "star" using a link on the right sidebar or by adding ?tab=stars to the chat room URL.

However, don't use comments just to say "thank you."


Using site features

Linking related questions to a post

If you add a link to another ELL question in a comment, that question will appear in the "Linked" section of the right sidebar on the full site. The "Linked" and "Related" questions are a good place to look for more information if a question you've found isn't exactly what you were looking for.

Using tags

Tags can help you find topics you're interested in. You can "watch" a tag so that questions with that tag are highlighted, and you can "ignore" tags that aren't interesting to you. Because tags can be used to filter and search, it is very important to tag questions with appropriate tags. Don't just tag them if you can think of more specific tags.

Searching bookmarked questions

You may know that you can add questions to the bookmarks in your profile by clicking the star near the the voting buttons, but did you know you can search your bookmarked questions (or even someone else's bookmarks)? All you have to do is add inbookmarks:mine or inbookmarks:userid to your search. For example "inbookmarks:9161 perfect"

Following questions and Answers

You can follow posts that you did not author by clicking the "follow" link at the bottom of the post next to the "share" link. You will get inbox notifications for a followed question if there are new answers, and for followed answers or questions when there are new comments, edits, and or a notice is added to the post. You will not receive notifications for any action that you performed.

Unlike bookmarks, the posts you are following are not listed in your public profile.

For more detail, see The Follow Questions and Answers feature is now live across the Network


Editing, reviewing, flagging, and other community moderation activities

If you see a comment that you believe violates our Code of Conduct, flag it. Other users can't see that you have flagged a comment.

You can retract your close vote by clicking on "close" again if someone has improved their question.

If you edit a question, be careful to avoid invalidating existing answers if possible. You may want to leave a comment for the author of an answer to let them know that the question has changed.

What types of issues require moderator intervention?

The Help Center explains flags other than in need of moderator intervention quite well. If you are ever confused over which flagging reason to choose, please follow the links below:

Posts should be flagged for moderator intervention when there is a situation that the community can't easily handle. The moderation team's role is to deal with exceptional conditions that could disrupt the community and to act as a liaison between the community and Stack Exchange the company. Some examples of situations where you should flag for moderator intervention include:

  • You notice a user engaging in a pattern of behavior that is disrupting the site.
  • You see content that needs to deleted quickly, like graphic adult content or something that should be removed from the revision history of a post, like someone's personal information.
  • You find a post with a serious mention of suicide or self-harm. The moderation team has a way to let Stack Exchange know about community emergencies.
  • You need to contact the moderation team about something related to ELL that you don't want to post publicly here on ELL Meta.

These are just a few examples. If you see something bad happening on the site that normal community member privileges can't fix, flag for moderator attention. If you think there's a general problem with the normal operation of the site, you may want to post a question on meta instead to see how the rest of the community sees that problem.

You should not use a moderator flag to:

  • Ask for a moderator to answer a question or confirm an answer. The main Stack Exchange FAQ includes some helpful advice in How do I get attention for one of my own questions without a good answer?.
  • Ask a moderator to delete an answer that is incorrect or has technical inaccuracies. Those answers should be handled by editing, commenting, or downvoting.
  • Ask a moderator to bypass normal community moderation tasks, like closing a post or approving suggested edits on a specific post unless there is a reason why it needs to be done more quickly than the normal process allows. Keep in mind that you can use ELL's meta to ask for the community to speed up the process if, for example, you've edited a post that was put on hold and would like to get it reopened.

If you raise a flag that doesn't merit moderator attention, it will be declined. You can view the specific reason it was declined by going to your flagging history.


Welcome to the site, we'd like to get to know you better.

Please do create an account and edit your profile to tell us a bit about yourself.

Your profile might include:

  1. Your level of English. Are you a beginner, someone with 20 years of learning, or a native speaker?
  2. Your learning environment, if applicable. Are you at school, at university, or learning independently? Do you live in a country where English is widely spoken or not?
  3. Other languages that you speak. This information can be very useful. If, for example, your native language is Korean, you may have difficulties with the English verb "to be" that a native speaker of French wouldn't have.
  4. What variety of English you speak or are learning. There are two particularly common ones: American English and British English, often referred to as AmE and BrE. There are also other major varieties such as Indian English and Australian English, and smaller ones like Jamaican English and Nigerian English.
  5. Anything else that you'd like to share or that helps us know you better as a learner or other contributor.

Of course, no one is required to create a profile, or to include any of the suggested information. But if a person, particularly a learner, does so, it may help others to communicate more smoothly and with fewer misunderstandings. At least we hope so. Please do not include any information you consider private.

  • 3
    I didn't downvote this, but I think that there should be some consensus from the community that this is something we want to encourage before we add it to the contributor's guide. I think it merits its own question on meta to discuss it.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 15:36

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