In particular, questions like Who exactly is "he" here?

On one hand, I understand that someone who's learning English and watching a movie or reading a text in English can think their failure to understand a scene stems from their lack of language prowess and ask a question on ELL.

On the other, there's nothing about this question that's specific to the English language, and I don't see a way to answer the question without explaining the scene in a language-agnostic way.

Should such questions be closed as off-topic on the site? If so, which site should we direct the poster to?

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    Another example I recently encountered.
    – Glorfindel Mod
    Jul 21, 2020 at 20:26
  • 4
    If the reason for someone asking a question about text or speech is limited understanding of the language, then a satisfactory answer is any that resolves the gap in understanding. If the author of a question evidently understands the language as well as anyone, then a satisfactory answer would give assurance of such understanding, and would explain that resolving any outstanding ambiguity, if indeed possible, would depend on other methods or information. In the case of the referenced question, I would feel inclined to challenge the conclusion of it not relating to a language issue.
    – brainchild
    Jul 23, 2020 at 10:02
  • @epl Please consider expanding your comment into an answer.
    – Eddie Kal
    Jul 23, 2020 at 18:22
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    @EddieKal: I may think about how to do so, but normally answers are reserved for text that intends to provide a comprehensive and objective resolution, with comments being the appropriate place for tagential and opinion-based submissions.
    – brainchild
    Jul 23, 2020 at 19:37
  • I am wondering about whether the stated distinction is actually the important one. I have not identified any feature of the referenced question that leads me personally to think that the difficulty is not "specific to the English language". It appears that the difficulty is in following a script, and not plainly related to some rule of grammar or usage. Yet, learning a language involves both studying grammar and exposure to literature. If questions of the latter category were to be closed or reclassified, then it would seem appropriate to create some clear criteria for the distinction.
    – brainchild
    Jul 23, 2020 at 19:51
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    Ugh, I just implied that Braveheart is literature.
    – brainchild
    Jul 23, 2020 at 20:24
  • As a new reviewer I notice the close queue is full of "I just read this line and don't understand it." Is someone flagging these as a matter of protocol? It would seem that these types of questions drive a lot of traffic to the site, further implying that these are types of questions that people have when learning English. A clarification is needed so that we can all be on the same page.
    – EllieK
    Jul 24, 2020 at 12:53
  • The real challenge is making these types of questions re-usable in that they can be searched. When we allow questions like, "What does 'he' mean in this sentence," we must consider such a question may be asked thousands of times. There are many sentences that use the word 'he'. Such questions do not contribute to a searchable knowledge base but instead result in something more akin to a translation service.
    – EllieK
    Jul 24, 2020 at 16:01

1 Answer 1


Leave it open and perhaps prompt the OP for some detail on why they are confused.

Remember when providing advice on ELL that those asking questions are not speakers they are learners. When we read the snippet of dialog from Braveheart we know exactly who 'He' is. The question from a speaker's POV borders on farcical.

Consider, however, the German phrase, "Mein Hut der hat drei Ecken." As an English speaker you might look at that and think, "Der? He? Who is he? We are talking about a hat."

German speakers would not wonder who he was in that sentence.

Not all "He" mean him. ;)

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    The Braveheart question is an interesting study, not because of it being representative, but because of the difficulty to identify which piece the author was missing among the several needed. Did the author not notice the statement's sarcasm, or not understand cordial, or not integrate Wallace's relationship with the lords? Without such information, it is impossible to know how to help, and yet with the current status we are left to speculate whether the author is satisfied with the answers, or perhaps withdrawn following responses that might be construed as dismissive.
    – brainchild
    Jul 25, 2020 at 1:50
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    @epl I think it's easy to help ("'he' refers to character X" is a perfectly valid answer), the difficulty is in finding the underlying issue. Usually you can pinpoint why the asker had trouble understanding the sentence, and explain the grammatical concept or idiom in a way that can be applied elsewhere as well. Here I could maybe assume the OP has trouble with third person pronouns, but that's a stretch given that they're watching Braveheart in English, which I'd say requires proficiency at a level beyond that. Jul 27, 2020 at 8:55
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    @MaciejStachowski: The dilemma is that an answer to the question as asked is either, on one hand, trivial to give but not educational, or, on the other hand, requires further information. If someone only seeks to clarify as might a friend watching the movie alongside, then one says as you say. If someone seeks to make a difference over learning, then one must to know which piece was missing from the several needed to make the inference that resolves the question. As I explained previously, I suspect that the problem was not comprehending the sentence, but following the scene overall.
    – brainchild
    Jul 27, 2020 at 9:28

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