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

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.

15 Answers 15


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
 2. burnt
 3. was burning
 4. 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.

  • 3
    Wow, that's a lot easier than putting <br> after each line - which also works.
    – Davo
    Aug 14 '19 at 17:18
  • 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
    Feb 14 '20 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. Oct 4 '20 at 18:47
  • 1
    @Dhanishtha - Google "open box character".
    – J.R. Mod
    Oct 7 '20 at 11:53
  • 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
    Oct 26 at 7:36

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:


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.

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

some ways of doing this is to write:

“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”.


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 in the phrase.

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. If a great answer already exists somewhere else, including a small part of it can be used 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 also 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.

  • 2
    Important point: use evidence and examples to back up your answer. These are often far as/more important than sources. Apr 21 '19 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.

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.


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


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."


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

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.


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'. Apr 21 '19 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
    Apr 22 '19 at 13:56

Using site features

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.

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.

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


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 sign in, create a account with a name or a nickname, and visit your profile to tell us a bit about yourself.

Your profile might include:

  1. Your level of English (Are you beginner or someone with 20 years of learning, or a native speaker)
  2. Your learning environment (Are you at school, at university, or learning independently. Are you living in a country where English is widely spoken or not?)
  3. Other languages that you speak. Some learners are strangely coy about their native languages. But it can be really 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 won't have.
  4. What dialect of English you speak, or hope to speak. There are two main ones: Standard American English and Standard British English. There are lots of non-standard dialects too.
  5. Anything else that helps us know you better as a learner.
  • 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
    Oct 27 at 15:36

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