The question How should I use least in this sentence? Least vs Less was deleted by the OP following critical comments about the example presented.

I reproduce the relevant part for the benefit of users who don't have sufficient rep to view "deleted" questions...

How do I use least and less? for example, can I say this?

Come on, hop on my back and try to make this the least gay possible, I don't want the girls to see this.

I'm no great fan of this usage myself. I actually pointed out in a comment that I don't like your use of gay here in the first place, as something of a "side issue" while attempting some "pre-analysis" of the syntactic issues involved.

But I don't think it's justifiable for us to delete such a question (or to bully / shame the OP into deleting it himself) just because not everyone approves. Like it or not, plenty of (not necessarily homophobic) young people today use gay to mean 'silly' or 'foolish'. Besides which, the OP himself was at pains to point out that his context is an "ignorant and immature" character in a fictional narrative.

I've voted to reopen the question (even if that might not be what the OP wants, in which case perhaps the mods could "anonymise" it into a "Community" post), because I think the syntactic issues raised are interesting, and well worth pursuing.

If the post is reopened, and future visitors end up being made aware of the potentially offensive aspect as well as the interesting syntactic issue, so much the better!

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    I have some thinking to do before I say more, but my initial reaction is that non-inclusive language is not a close reason, although it may be a reason to flag for moderator attention. – ColleenV Mar 5 at 19:05
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    Also, I consider the use of gay to mean “lame” as a problem and as a gamer who is often exposed to this sort of language I call people out for it when they use it. That the people using don’t understand it as a slur is not an excuse to tolerate it. (I have an oft-repeated story of a college roommate who thought she was saying “jooed down on the price” in front of our other roomie who was Jewish and was horrified when we explained that it was a slur) – ColleenV Mar 5 at 19:08
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    @ColleenV: Careful! The Washington Post, the National Center on Disability and Journalism, and many other reputable sources (erm... is WP "reputable"? :) all warn against using lame to mean 'silly' or 'foolish'. To a first approximation, it's simply impossible to use language "naturally" in a way that precludes all possibility of giving offense! – FumbleFingers Mar 6 at 13:57
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    I didn’t choose “lame” to mean “silly”, I chose it as a slang synonym for “gay” which is not even close to meaning “silly” in my experience with current usage. I suppose I could have chosen “stupid” instead. (And no, WaPo isn’t an authority on the proper use of language lol). – ColleenV Mar 6 at 22:01
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    Downvoted for the implication that the community could somehow go too far in trying to keep the language as inclusive as possible. "Too PC" reads like "too inclusive" to me, and I don't see an upper limit on making ELL inclusive. – Todd Wilcox Mar 12 at 13:27
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    The OP did state he was writing a book. The book's character may very well be homophobic. People around here seem not to consider things carefully. In any event, one can answer the question and ignore the term "gay" altogether. He also said: "This is a novel I'm writing and the character who says this phrase is supposed to be ignorant and immature." Isn't this a great teaching opportunity all around? – Lambie Mar 14 at 14:18
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    Are there deleted comments that make it clear the OP here used "gay" to mean silly"? I interpret the original sentence as using gay literally—"try not to make this look like a homosexual act," especially given the following comment about not wanting the girls to see it. – Kevin Mar 15 at 22:59
  • What is "PC" (in this context)? – Peter Mortensen Mar 17 at 10:12
  • @Kevin - The OP left a comment under the original question saying. “The character who says this phrase is supposed to be ignorant and immature.” This was after another user left a comment saying, "Using the word 'gay' to mean 'silly' or 'foolish' is mainly restricted to juveniles and unthinking, careless people.” – J.R. Mar 18 at 0:07
  • @FumbleFingers: PC = personal computer, PC = people-centric PC = program counter (register in a processor) etc. I always have to re-read the question to understand which meaning of PC I should use (actually Politically Correct). Will you please consider changing the title? Thank you. – virolino Mar 19 at 14:06
  • @virolino: Done. With my apologies to you and anyone else who might have struggled a bit with the usage. It just so happens that not only am I a native Anglophone - I'm also a bit of a "grumpy old man", which means I probably use the abbreviation with this particular sense even more than most. And I keep forgetting that for people who aren't even reading in their native language, little things that are just extra problems they could do without! :) – FumbleFingers Mar 19 at 14:56
  • @FumbleFingers: you are definitely an original guy :) You "challenged" me to selectively read some words: "ashamed abjectly indulgence perverse forcing". My twisted mind had no trouble catching them :D You are man of your word - about being (or not) too "PC". I am able to learn fast, I understood quite easy what you meant with nns - probably thanks to the context. – virolino Mar 19 at 16:40

I didn't like the question, and I'm not sorry to see it gone.

If someone is truly confused about the words least and less, surely it's not too hard to contrive an example sentence that would raise fewer eyebrows and ruffle fewer feathers.

I've seen this sort of thing before on ELL: we've had questions about grammar using example sentences that were laced with racism, sexism, or allusions to domestic violence (even murder).

In a thriving community, everyone should do their best to minimize the likelihood that anyone will be offended. That is why, when searching through books to provide example usages, I often shy away from books that are centered around politics or religion – not because I'm "PC-obsessed," but because those are hot-button issues that might needlessly detract from the grammatical discussion at hand.

ELL has a worldwide audience, and its language ought to be as neutral and inclusive as possible.

In the past, if I thought the question used a potentially offensive example sentence, I've made an edit. I didn't see the question you've cited until after it was deleted; however, had I seen it earlier, I might have changed the example to read something like:

Come on, hop on my back and try to make this the least silly possible, I don't want the teacher to see this.

If an OP is truly concerned about figuring out the differences between "the least gay" and "the less gay" for his immature character, there's no reason we can't use "the least silly" and "the less silly" to clarify the matter. Getting into sidetracked into lengthy and needless debates is unproductive.

If an OP inadvertently uses offensive language, I'd assume they would be thankful for an edit that refocused a question to where the true question is. If, on the other hand, the offensive language was deliberate, well, that's just trolling, and is not indicative of the community becoming "too PC."

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    I do think that if we had gotten a flag instead of the author getting the comments they did, we may have been able to work with the author to fix the question. It is entirely possible that they didn’t know how offensive it was. They were given the suggestion to rephrase the examples to use a less offensive word, but it may have been better to edit the change in and explain in a comment after the fact. If the author rolled the edit back, then of course we delete. I think that the close system doesn’t correct the situation fast enough. It needs to be edited or flagged. – ColleenV Mar 5 at 21:53
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    Given my experience moderating elsewhere (video game forums), we do have to be aware of the fact that some people will ask a seemingly innocent question and quite deliberately put provocative language in an example. It might be innocent, it might not. I think it's important to be aware of both possibilities. – SamBC Mar 5 at 23:48
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    @FumbleFingers - From what I could tell by the post, the question wasn't about the words gay, ungay, or silly. It was about least vs. less. – J.R. Mar 6 at 15:12
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    I think @J.R.'s response is exactly right.The website is about grammar for English language learners. To get dragged down rabbit holes about PC usage is a distraction. As this thread now proves. The word 'gay' had no relevance to the question, and it's also a phrase that novice speakers would be well advised to avoid in the context in which it was used. So remove it. If there was a legitimate grammatical or language question arising from the use of the word, I'd have no problem with it. – fred2 Mar 10 at 17:20
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    I think the question can be answered in two ways: answering the least/less issue and also addressing the gay issue by stating it is a slur in real life. This is a great teaching opportunity in fact, especially because the OP states he is writing a novel. We have the opportunity to "tell the world" why this is insulting. If people can't learn about what is insulting in English in the real world, how can any progress be made?? Pushing it under the rug (the insulting aspect) is not healthy. – Lambie Mar 14 at 14:25
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    Slippery slope. You are essentially saying we must ban anything that any culture finds offensive. If someone asks a question about "wanker", Americans might find it funny but British might find it offensive. So delete it? And who is the authority on what every culture finds offensive or acceptable? You? I say just answer the question. Leave the culture-centric etiquette lessons for some other site. Lots of slang is offensive. Should ELL not be used for questions regarding slang? – JamieB Mar 18 at 19:18
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    @JamieB You’re down a wrong path. We don’t patrol the site looking for stuff to delete. Someone says “This language makes me feel unwelcome here, and it is gratuitous” and we investigate assuming that they are sincere and that the person who posted it probably didn’t intend to make anyone feel that way. Absolute rules are easy but they are rarely fair in implementation. What’s fair is to assume good intentions and see if we can come to a resolution that either puts the offensive language into a better context, or rephrases the question to remove the controversial bits. – ColleenV Mar 18 at 20:16
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    Slippery slope? I would think that “Anyone should be able to say whatever they want regardless of how offensive it may be to some people” is a more slippery slope than “Everyone should do their best to minimize the likelihood that anyone will be offended." – J.R. Mar 19 at 8:29
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    @NathanT - Well, obviously any community can go too far in either direction, but I think it was a mischaracterization to say that I am advocating “banning anything that any culture finds offensive." If good manners are too much to ask, then the Stack Exchange might not be the best place to spend your time. – J.R. Mar 21 at 9:42
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    @J.R.: You certainly did not argue for "banning anything that any culture finds offensive", as another user has suggested. What the answer suggests, and what you seem to have repeated in the comments, is instead "minimiz[ing] the likelihood that anyone will be offended". It's difficult to avoid reading "anyone" rather broadly to mean "anyone that might ever come to SE", which is as close to "anyone in the world" as makes no difference. Minimizing offense, and actually banning offense, aren't the same thing, but when you speak with the mod diamond, well, banning is always an option. – Nathan Tuggy Mar 21 at 10:16
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    @NathanT - We try not to ban anything or anyone. Tidy up? Sure. Suspend? Occasionally. But the best part of moderating is sitting back and doing nothing while everyone is getting along. – J.R. Mar 21 at 10:20
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    @J.R.: OTOH, I find it a bit much to broadly hint that I personally might be unwelcome here — that my strong distaste for suppressing free speech (and therefore anything that tends in that general direction) might conceal some penchant for offending people. I dare say if I have such a penchant it is so "concealed" no one would be able to find evidence of it. Have I ever posted a rude comment? Even an unfriendly one? I don't know of any. "Good manners" as such aren't the threat. Steadily-expanding social conformism masquerading as "manners" is. – Nathan Tuggy Mar 21 at 10:33
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    @Nathan - I don’t know about the rest of the community, but I do know that the entire mod team considers you the epitome of good manners, civil discourse, and helpful contributions. – J.R. Mar 21 at 11:45
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    @NathanTuggy I really shouldn’t read comments when I’m tired, I missed the point of it entirely because I was skimming. I do think though that the slippery slope arguments assume that we’re just random people, each with our own agenda, but we’re a community that cares about this site and wants it to work well. Even though we don’t agree on everything all the time, we agree on enough, and people care enough to try to figure it out. I’m not worried about slipping down a slope. – ColleenV Mar 22 at 3:24
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    @Nathan - Sometimes it isn't easy with a diamond next to your name. We try to say something meant to be straightforward, mundane, and innocuous, like: Let's everyone be polite and get along. But people see the diamond and think, "Whoa! If I ever offend this guy, he's going to suspend me! Whatever happened to free speech?" It kind of reminds me of a scene from Muppet Treasure Island, where Mr. Arrow says, "Anyone caught dawdling will be shot on site," to which the Captain replies, "Uh, I didn't say that." Mr. Arrow: "I was just paraphrasing." :-) – J.R. Mar 22 at 11:21

Ultimately, like it or not, these offensive words and phrases are a part of the English language. I don't think that closing questions based on example sentences that might offend someone is justified. It's important to know how "less vs. least" might work in those contexts as well, and I don't think that offensive language is itself a problem in that question.

Sure, offending people is bad, but if potentially offensive words are used in an example, I don't think it would be reasonable to take offense.

It's like "offensive jokes" and their grey areas. Mentioning sensitive subject matter is not offensive by itself. When coupled with other things, they can realise their potential, but if I said "Osama bin Laden must have been really good at playing hide-and-seek", that isn't offensive at all. Yet people recognise the name and immediately preclude that the sentence is offensive. (Are we to argue that mentioning a bad person's name and not immediately going off on a tangent to verbally attack them is wrong? That reminds me of North Korea, where one must always speak positively of their leader. It's the same idea...)

Words have as much power as we let them have. Those who use words to hurt others are a large evil of society. Yet we cannot simply remove the words they use from our language; the more we shun the words wrongdoers use, the more power we give to them to offend us.

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    This idea that we can just decide not to be deeply offended is simply not true in the case of slurs. Araucaria posted an interesting excerpt on a similar discussion on EL&U's meta: english.meta.stackexchange.com/a/12072/80039 We don't close questions because they might offend someone. If someone flags it, someone was offended and we investigate the flag with the assumption that they're sincere. And maybe "offended" is the wrong word, because the CoC mentions not just offensive language, but "unfriendly" or "unwelcoming" language. – ColleenV Mar 10 at 14:53
  • @ColleenV I didn't mean to imply that people should simply choose not to be offended, and if it comes across like that, I apologise. I just don't think that society should react the way they do, ie. acting as if the phrases themselves are dangerous. Also, thank you for sending me that link, it was quite interesting. – user45266 Mar 11 at 3:06
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    Also, in the CoC there is the idea of “likely” to cause offense. I think a lot of folks arguing about whether or not it’s reasonable for someone to be offended by something miss that part. We’re not going to remove a post because it uses “chairmen” instead of “chairpersons”, but we’re also not going to pretend that something that seems fine to the majority group but makes a smaller group feel unwelcome shouldn’t be acted upon because “most people” don’t have a problem with it. That would miss the point of the CoC entirely, which is about inclusion, not suppressing offensive language. – ColleenV Mar 11 at 14:46
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    Close votes and edits also have as much power as we let them have. It sounds like you're saying people are only bothered by word choice as much as they want to be. If that's your argument, I would counter that people are only bothered by edits and/or votes to close as they want to be. – Todd Wilcox Mar 12 at 13:29

I think certain language should be avoided on sites like ELL, not so much because it is deeply offensive, as because they are likely to trigger exactly this sort of debate.

I propose a new law of internet discussion, which I shall call 'Fred's Law'.

In discussion of offensive language the people offended by the reaction of the people who were offended by offensive language will be at least as offended if not more offended by what they perceive as unnecessary offence taken as those offended in the first place.


My 'law' above was meant just in jest. If you want a shorter, clearer version:

"Nobody gets more offended than those who take offence at others taking offence."

  • +1 for Stack Overflow to make that Law an official rule. /s In all seriousness, that phrasing is going to confuse pretty much anyone on ELL :P – Aryaman Mar 11 at 12:50
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    I'm being facetious/stupid, depending on your perspective. But these debates turn into never-ending and fruitless discussions. A simpler way to say it would be "Nobody gets more offended than those who take offence at others taking offence." It's the heart of the utter futility of so many 'PC' debates. – fred2 Mar 11 at 19:24
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    I like the more concise proverb/fortune cookie packaging in your comment. I think you should edit it into your answer ;) – ColleenV Mar 11 at 19:58

I do not think it would have been appropriate to change the original poster's example from "gay" to "silly".

One or both of the following analyses applies:

  • Perhaps the original poster thought "gay" meant "happy or silly". Not that long ago, "gay" meant exactly this. If so, then the people who complained and deleted the post were taking offense where none was intended.

  • Perhaps the original poster thought "gay" meant "behaving like a stereotypical homosexual". If so, then changing the example changes the meaning of the example.

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    Why is changing the meaning of the example a bad thing, if it preserves the grammatical issue which OP was asking about? – Kevin Mar 9 at 23:57
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    Also, "behaving like a stereotypical homosexual" as "a bad thing that I don't want you to do" is the underlying problem with "gay" as a pejorative. It would be the same as if I said, "don't be such an American". It may not be patently offensive, but it is unfriendly toward whatever group you're negatively stereotyping, and as such is potentially a violation of the CoC. – ColleenV Mar 10 at 14:59

This isn’t an explicit response to the question, but I want to point out where we might have been able to handle this situation a bit better. Also, I want to make perfectly clear that questions about offensive language are not off-topic simply because they’re about offensive language. I think we have done a pretty good job as a community in balancing the need to be able to ask and explain things that might be taboo with the need to be sensitive to the impact that language can have on people.

I think in situations involving posts with language that a user finds offensive or unwelcoming, commenting and voting to close are not the right course of action. The goal is to remove the potentially unwelcoming content as quickly as possible. We can help the author get their question back on track afterwards, or restore the content if a mistake was made.

All of the users involved in the comments had the ability to edit without peer review, and could have made the examples inoffensive and then left a comment explaining why the edit was made. If you’re not comfortable doing that, or the author rolls back your edit, you should flag the post for moderator attention if you think it may be an honest mistake. You should flag the post as rude/abusive if you judge that it’s intended to be offensive. There are consequences to having posts deleted as rude/abusive, so be thoughtful in using that flag. Moderators can clear those flags, so don’t panic if you make a mistake.

Having content that is in violation of the code of conduct removed from a post is not an an automatic black mark on your account. Context is important and if you post in good faith and work with us to make sure your post fits within the guidelines everything should work out. If the moderator team getting is a repeated reports that your posts are violating the Code of Conduct, we will have to take action which could include suspension as explained in the policy. If you are unsure about whether something is OK, come to meta and ask, or you can ping me in the main chat room and we will get the right people involved and figure it out.

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    The user deleted his answer because he felt alienated, not one comment was actually "friendly", each one was quite critical of his sample sentence. The fact is more than 40 years ago, gay originally meant "happy" or "brightly colored" then in the 70s it was embraced by the homosexual community to counteract the more common and vulgar epithets used against them. Today (last 20 years or so) it's young heterosexual men (and woman) who have assigned a new meaning to it. – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 at 6:29
  • The OP then commented This is a novel I'm writing and the character who says this phrase is supposed to be ignorant and immature. You're overreacting. Whether the OP is writing a novel or not could be debated, but if he had supplied the context in the question in the first place would it have attracted any fewer criticisms? If a word is non-inclusive, a slur, and clearly derogatory why should "context" matter? – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 at 6:30
  • Does context matter? Think about it, if it doesn't matter because a slur against any group of people should be edited, then the following posts should not exist: E.g. "whores", "hobos", "bitches", "faggots", or "piece of shit" – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 at 6:38
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    @Mari-LouA Context does matter, but with potentially offensive material we need to remove the material while we’re figuring it out. It may not stay removed, but leaving it in place without the additional context (in this case that this was a character in a novel) causes harm. – ColleenV Mar 8 at 11:31
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    @Mari-LouA Also, the existence of posts that weren’t moderated is a very weak argument. We are never going to be able to moderate every post on this site 100% consistently, especially if we take a “context matters” view. If you see something problematic, flag it. We depend on the community to help us find problematic posts. – ColleenV Mar 8 at 11:36
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    @Mari-LouA I wrote this answer because I felt that piling on in comments, especially when we have a language barrier isn’t a good way to handle this. It makes people defensive instead of open to editing their question or explaining why the word is needed. – ColleenV Mar 8 at 11:44
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    ELL and EL&U were never meant to cater under 14-year-olds, and I'm illustrating that this CoC business is actively harming content and influencing people's perceptions of what is impolite, offensive and hurtful and what is just part of normal everyday life. Like it or not, there will always be taboo words (and gay isn't one of them) which adult learners will pick up and they will ask questions focused on or by using these terms. – Mari-Lou A Mar 8 at 12:27
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    @Mari-LouA If “gay” had been what the question was about, we would put it in context and discuss it academically. If someone used the example “MariLou is a fool”, it needs to be taken down until it’s put into context. (Oh I meant “MariLou is no fool”) Slurs incidental to the question are not appropriate for any audience, adult or child. The Code if Conduct is a requirement for using this site. There are other sites that are less insistent on avoiding unwelcoming language, and in my experience, that does not elevate the discourse. This is not about banning specific words. – ColleenV Mar 8 at 15:03
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    @Mari-Lou - The fact that those questions are still there tells me that ELL is not becoming “too PC.” Thanks for pointing to several instances where controversial language has been discussed constructively here. I think the lesson to be learned is not that certain trigger words will bring down a torrent of condemnation; instead, it's this: if you intend to ask about potentially offensive language, make sure your question provides enough detail and context that we can all be assured we are dealing with a legitimate learner’s question and the site is not being trolled. – J.R. Mar 16 at 16:09

I was the one who asked this question, and I think all of you guys overreacted a little bit. Had I known that I would've gotten so much backlash because of this, I would've avoided using the term "gay" and written something completely different. This type of language is everywhere there's even worse language in certain novels. when I joined the website I wasn't aware that in order to ask a question I would have to make it as PC as possible. Now everyone hates me for it, and I had no intention to offend anyone. I had just joined the website. Look at it now, there's even an open discussion on it, all because I wrote exactly what the character in my fictional story was supposed to say.

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    I don’t think anyone hates you. And this question was asked because at least one long-time community member was sad that you deleted your question. My answer says that I’d like to see the question asked again, with a different example text used. Colleen says the whole situation could have been handled better. Jasper is giving you the benefit of the doubt, saying that the examples were likely unintentionally offensive. If you read through this post in its entirety, I think you have a lot of support here. Many of us didn’t like the example, but no one seems to have a problem with you personally. – J.R. Mar 11 at 9:09
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    Kyle, I don’t think you did anything wrong. In the future, if you feel like people are overreacting in the comments, please flag for moderator attention. You should also feel free to start a discussion here on meta if you feel something was handled unfairly or if you see other problems with how the site is working. – ColleenV Mar 11 at 14:33
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    It's still possible for your to edit your question and change the word "gay" to some other adjective - almost any other adjective. If you really would have avoided using the word "gay", well you still can. – Todd Wilcox Mar 12 at 13:31

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