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If you do not wish to read the entire document, please consider reading only the sentences in boldface.


Introduction

In an earlier post, ELL members discussed the value of writing answers in simpler language.

I looked at some recent answers and comments, and I think that ELL still needs to work harder to give learners a better experience. Many answers include styles of writing that are more difficult to understand than the simplest way to explain the same ideas.

Problem

I notice two kinds of writing that I think we should avoid.

One of them is formal, academic, and literary styles of writing. Many people who give answers on ELL have strong educations. But learners all have different backgrounds, and everyone begins to learn from the simplest words, phrases, and rules. It is easy to forget that the way we often write is more advanced than other ways that explain the same ideas, but are less difficult for the reader.

Let me give you an example. A scholar might explain an idea in the following way:

Historically there has a been a long-standing debate about whether X or Y is the preferred option for case Z, but the consensus has now crystallized to such a degree that X is considered to be obligatory.

Many who are learning English cannot understand this example well. We should try to write it differently, by making the language simpler. We can do so in a few ways. First, we can break the sentence into several smaller ones. Also, we can change some words to ones that are more basic and common. Finally, we can use an active voice in the second person.

Many who are skilled in writing in a formal style realize that they can use it to express very difficult and exact ideas in a beautiful way. It is important that they remember that they can learn how to express many of the same ideas in plain language,

The other kind of writing that I think we should avoid is vernacular and idiomatic styles. Most learners study some idioms, but may have difficulty understanding many others. Idioms change so much over time and are so different from place to place. It may surprise you how hard it often is to understand all of the idioms you may use when you speak to your friends. Think about the most common idioms in English that you hear from people born at all different times and living in all different countries. We should try to avoid any others.

When you speak to friends, many words you say have meanings different from the definitions of the same words that you find in the dictionary. You may say something like the following:

You can probably get away with Y, but that's a bit on the old-fashioned side, so you might want to just play it safe and go with X. This assumes that you are talking about Z.

In the first sentence of this example, you may notice words that might make the reader ask questions. Why is someone trying to "get away" instead of trying to "go away"? Does "old fashioned" refer to the clothes my grandmother wore? Who is going to "play" something, and what is it? A game? An instrument? How can I "go with X"? Would I carry it? Where would I take it?

You might try find reasons by yourself why a learner might have problems reading last sentence.

This example has another problem besides the idioms. The text has many pieces, but does not organize them in a nice order, or explain how they fit together. The text shows how the writer thought about the ideas, but not how the reader would have the least difficulty to understand them. This problem is common in vernacular language.

Vernacular language is how we speak when someone expects us to say something without taking much time to think about it. When a writer does not think about problems for the reader carefully enough to prevent them, the text is often easier to write than to read. We may speak in vernacular language, but we should plan and edit our writing thoughtfully.

Solution

How might we improve on writing answers, to help learners better?

We should write answers in plain language.

When writing in plain language, we think carefully about how to explain an idea in a way that makes it easiest for the reader to understand it. If we try to explain an idea in one way, but then find a simpler or clearer way, we change what we already wrote to make the result better for the reader.

We do not change the idea itself to be simpler, or treat the readers as though they are not smart. Instead, we choose the simplest and clearest language that explains an idea, and that makes it least likely that some problem interpreting the language would cause the reader not to recognize the idea.

An example is the following:

In case Z, you must write X. (A long time ago, people sometimes wrote Y instead, but do not much anymore.)

The example also has a trick that helps the reader. Parentheses make it easier to understand which part of the text is most important, even if the reader does not understand all of the language. When the reader sees items that are not words, but give some of the same information, the reader is more likely to understand the idea. The visual items also work with the reader's' memory, by connecting information that the reader already understands to skills the reader is still learning.

Discussion

Context

Although we should write in plain language, the exact choices we make should depend on the question and its author. An advanced topic has many details, so we may want to use more advanced words and grammar to write about it. Since this kind of topic usually interests someone who already understands English well, we have more freedom when we write about it.

Benefits

If you have never written in plain language, then it may feel difficult in the beginning. But writing in plain language helps you to understand a language better than before, especially your native language, because it makes you think carefully about many of the assumptions and biases that affect the way you use the language. When you apply what you have learned to your speech or other writing, you may find new ways to use the language that you like better than your old ways.

Resources

In 2010, the United States government created rules for using plain language in official documents. It now maintains a web site with guides and other information for writing in plain language. The content is released into the public domain, so you may use it however you want without copyright restrictions. A private company called the Plain English Campaign also provides cost-free guides on the same subject, but you must check the copyright restrictions if you want to make copies.

One important part of writing in plain language is using a style suitable for a particular class of readers. Remember that some text in plain language is not suitable for early learners. When you write for learners, you must remember who they are, while you try to follow the advice from guides.

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  • This is slightly touched upon in our Contributor's Guide (Answering). Anyone is welcome to update it with community-accepted guidance (e.g. whatever results from this thread, guidance from the linked post, etc). I think the focus was more on the asking side when it started, but we shouldn't forget/neglect the answering side, as you're mentioning here. – Em. Jul 24 at 7:48
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    1. Do not underestimate a learner's level and what they know or understand about grammar and lexis. 2. Please show examples of academic, over-complicated, verbose answers . Avoid naming the user, just copy and paste an example of theirs. – Mari-Lou A Jul 25 at 4:45
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    While I am a firm supporter of plain English, sometimes technical language in answers is inevitable. By providing real examples in your appeal, we might be able to explain why the author chose to write in that way. – Mari-Lou A Jul 25 at 4:49
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    @Mari-LouA: Plain language does not omit technical terms or any other kind when they are necessary, only when they are unnecessary. It also does not attempt to estimate any individual's comprehension, only to expand accessibility to the greatest breadth of readers within some identified class. Some particular example of an extremely convoluted answer would be a distraction from the main consideration that when most write they generally fail to consider the numerous ways that their language may be simplified without loss of expressiveness. – epl Jul 25 at 5:03
  • Examples taken from ELL makes your argument stronger. – Mari-Lou A Jul 25 at 5:07
  • @Mari-LouA: Where do you suggest I put it? – epl Jul 25 at 5:12
  • Not in the comments that's for sure. 🙄 – Mari-Lou A Jul 25 at 5:15
  • I think this is an excellent post! It’s very easy to fall into using idioms that not every learner will understand, and while I agree with @Mari-LouA that we shouldn’t underestimate learners, I like this as a reminder that we need to use plain language, and it’s helped me. – Fivesideddice Jul 25 at 8:56
  • I am happy if anyone finds the content useful. I am at a loss over the expressed concern to "underestimate" learners. Perhaps someone would clarify 1) what it means, 2) why it is harmful, and 3) how it conflicts with any idea I submitted. – epl Jul 25 at 19:46
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    3) You said “I notice two kinds of writing that I think we should avoid. One of them is formal, academic, and literary styles of writing.” I have not noticed any answers that are literary, not in the sense that I understand it to be. However, it is precisely formal writing which is easier for learners to understand than casual, colloquial, slang speech. – Mari-Lou A Jul 26 at 0:41
  • Did you mean "the expressed concern not to underestimate learners"? – Eddie Kal Jul 26 at 18:15
  • @EddieKal: What I meant is that others are expressing a concern that I am "underestimating" learners, and I am not able to understand what that word means in this context. – epl Jul 26 at 18:43
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    I never said anything you said was vague. I am saying "who is a learner" is vaguely defined at best. You acknowledge "learners all have different backgrounds" but you also claim "everyone begins to learn from the simplest words, phrases, and rules." A lot of people asking questions on ELL are way beyond that. Another thing is some people who answer questions on ELL and for that matter ELU have difficulty understand advanced grammar or deploying idiomatic language. So who is a learner? That is at the core of issue and that is the rub. – Eddie Kal Jul 27 at 6:15
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    I agree answers should be geared to learners but that does not always mean dumbing things down. And please, please, please, let's not refer to the US government's plain language mission. ELL is not the US government and the US government is not in the language teaching business. As for idiomatic, we very much want learners to learn idiomatic English. By stating (not use the vernacular or idiomatic styles), you show ignorance about these matters! I just do not know how to state that diplomatically.... – Lambie Jul 27 at 13:59
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    plain English like this?? ell.stackexchange.com/questions/252273/… compare epi's answer to mine. She said my answer was ambiguous and she could not even state the question properly in hers...,.[sigh] – Lambie Jul 27 at 19:04
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While loquaciousness for the sake of loquaciousness is obviously a bad thing to have in an answer, I do think taking a common sense approach to writing answers is enough, and don't agree that ELL should have any other rules than ELU or other SE sites.

First off, the underlying assumption - that the asker has a much lower level of English comprehension than the answerer, and the answerer needs to bring themselves down to their level - is fallacious from the get go. SE is not an "ask an expert" site - it's a peer to peer exchange of knowledge, and ideally the same people should be able to both answer the questions they know the answer to, and ask the questions they don't know the answer to.

I fear that if we provide the askers with dumbed-down answers and treat them as having a low level of knowledge of English, it'll discourage a lot of people who are somewhat proficient from asking their questions here. They'll fall into the role of answerers, and when they stumble upon something they don't know they'll think "well, I'm not like those guys, I want a proper answer", ask on ELU, and get unceremoniously booted out of there as ELU tends to do.

Plus, not everyone wants to be treated with kid gloves. Even if you're not very good with English, you're on ELL to get better - and getting a simplified answer feels discouraging, as if the answerer doesn't trust your level of proficiency. I'd rather get a professional answer even if it means I need to do some additional research to comprehend it.

If there is a comprehension problem, the asker is welcome to ask for clarification in the comments, or even follow up with another question. As a bonus, they might get exposed to some new knowledge and pick up a new word or grammatical structure from the answer.

Finally, it's an obligation for answerers, and that means some questions might get unanswered. If I see a question and can answer it, but don't have time or want to expend the effort to simplify my explanation - well, then instead of a possibly too complicated answer you get no answer at all.

Overall - don't assume the asker doesn't know anything but the thing they're asking about.

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  • Unfortunately, what you have written badly mischaracterizes my suggestions. I have never made any general assumptions, nor suggested that anyone give dumbed-down answers. I am sorry for the miscommunication, but the differences between what I suggest in my post and what you discuss in yours are too deep and numerous for me to address adequately. – epl Jul 27 at 11:43
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    @epl you want answerers to simplify their language beyond what's normally expected on SE, is what I've gathered from your suggestion. To me, that's dumbing down, even if the content of the answer doesn't change. (and if the "beyond what's normally expected" part isn't true, then the suggestion is moot as it just restates the current guidelines). – Maciej Stachowski Jul 27 at 12:01
  • You may explain the term however you wish, but I am only able to conduct a conversation from usages that are familiar. Wikipedia explains the term "dumbing down" as "[to] revise so as to appeal to those of little education or intelligence". This definition is familiar to me. If it is what you have understood to be my suggestion, then I regret that you have misunderstood quite substantially. If not, then you may want to explain yourself using a term that helps me identify what you are actually trying to express. – epl Jul 27 at 12:10
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    @epl this seems to be a correct definition, and this is how I understand your suggestion - you expect the answerers to revise their answers so as to appeal to those of little education (in the English language specifically, in this case). Is that not the case? – Maciej Stachowski Jul 27 at 12:17
  • No. I have suggested that answers, for the most part, be given in some variety, appropriate for the specific case, of plain language, a fully-expressive writing style that emphasizes clarity and accessibility. I could continue, but as I have cited material that explains the subject exhaustively, and since it appears that you have no understanding of the subject, I suggest that you educate yourself on the target of your objections before making any more of them. – epl Jul 27 at 12:40
  • You might start with the Joe Kimble article The Elements of Plain Language on the US government site, and How to write in plain English from the Plain English Campaign. I expect that neither will take more than ten minutes to read. Once you become acquainted with the subject matter well enough to discuss it competently, I would be happy to engage you in any cordial dialog. – epl Jul 27 at 12:41
  • Also, it would be nice if you didn't conflate "those of little education or intelligence" with everyone who is not skilled in the English language. I believe that you are able to make that distinction, and it is insulting to me to suggest that I am not. – epl Jul 27 at 12:44
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    @epl yes, which means revising the answer to simplify it. Which I don't think is a good idea no matter what kind of simplifications you want to introduce. Most English in the wild is not plain English, and I see no harm in exposing people - especially people who are showing willingness to study the language - to more advanced vocabulary and grammatical concepts. Sure, you shouldn't let your answers turn into purple prose or legalese, but that's common sense and not applicable only to ELL. – Maciej Stachowski Jul 27 at 13:16
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    @epl also, it would be nice if you dropped your dismissive and frankly insulting tone, and not assume everyone who disagrees with you lacks competency. – Maciej Stachowski Jul 27 at 13:17
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    Vernacular and idiomatic English is the whole point of learning English, spoken English. And written English should always be idiomatic. Obviously, the OP has no background in all this. The problem is not academic writing. The problem is giving overly technical linguistic explanations as if one were dealing with an audience of linguists! That is the issue. And formal or literary language, both of which can be very charming when used in a manner in tune with a particular learner or question, can help a learner raise their level of knowledge if used properly. – Lambie Jul 27 at 14:02
  • I seem to be your only supporter so far, both with regard to your comments and your answer. :) It would seem that this is not mutual. – Lambie Jul 28 at 14:24
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    Good answer, especially a good description of the native speaker on ELU. I've been there, and admit that I don't understand the criteria for "booting"--you get comments like "You're mature enough now to know better than to anwer a Low Quality Question". I'm not an academic, but I have to say also that I agree with @Lambie's comments in this thread. – Conrado Aug 9 at 0:40
  • That said, I think there's a gap between ELL and ELU: their stated targets (coppied from their respective "tour" pages) are for ELL: speakers of other languages learning English; and for ELU: linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. I am a proficient native English speaker, and a serious English Language Enthusiast, so a little unsure of welcome at ELL before I found this thread, but not an academic. I fear that most of the questions that I would ask on ELU would be told, "Show your research?" – Conrado Aug 9 at 0:49
  • @MaciejStachowski: Please understand, although I acknowledge and regret that some of my language was harsh, I was never motivated by a belief that you are incompetent. The only relevant difference between you and me is that at the time you entered the discussion, I already had investigated and educated myself on the subject of discussion, and you had not done so, instead initiating a straw man attack against it. You were, at that time, incompetent to discuss the subject, as I am over the greater balance of subjects that anyone has so far considered. – epl Aug 18 at 4:14
  • @MaciejStachowski: If you wish to take an interest in the actual subject, then I am happy to discuss your contribution cordially, moving beyond any past misunderstandings. While certain phrasings in my comments were perhaps disproportionate, please realize that the way you chose to discuss this topic was to pretend I made a range of assumptions and suggestions that I never made, and then, when I clarified what I intended, you pretended to understand my beliefs more accurately than I understood them. Please think about whether this approach toward conversation is really a productive one. – epl Aug 18 at 4:21
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One thing that your post overlooks that should be highlighted is that ELL is not divided into "askers" and "answerers". In many cases, because they've struggled with the same source of confusion as they were learning English, a learner can explain something more effectively to another learner than a native speaker can. Native English speakers don't automatically know everything about the language and can have questions that might not be interesting for the "serious English language enthusiasts" of English Language and Usage.

The guideline has always been "write to the best of your ability". As a collaborative site, we rely on each other to help make questions and answers clear. However, "clear" doesn't mean "written in the voice and style dictated by someone else" or "written like a textbook". The advantage Stack Exchange has over regular reference libraries is that it is interactive. If a learner doesn't understand something about an answer to their question, they can ask the author to clarify. If the answer's author isn't around, any member of the community can help by writing a better answer, leaving a comment, suggesting an edit, or flagging the post for review among other things.

The ELL community and audience has varying levels of English fluency. While it is helpful to remind people that answers should be in standard English, properly punctuated, and with no misspellings, we should not undervalue having answers written for different levels of fluency, from different perspectives and in different voices and styles. ELL is a global community of people helping each other learn English, not a bunch of volunteers writing an encyclopedia. The posts here should immerse learners in diverse samples of well-written English, not just formal "plain" English.

Authors should not be discouraged from writing in their own voice, or using idioms or colloquial language non-native speakers might find interesting. If the language used makes it difficult to understand the answer, there are feedback mechanisms to correct it. There are comments for pointing out issues or asking for clarification. Answers that are hard to understand won't get up-votes or get accepted by authors and may even be down-voted. Authors that choose to write in "plain" language may be rewarded with up-votes if doing so makes their answer more helpful than an answer that doesn't.

If anything, we should work on encouraging more voting so that authors get more feedback on what sorts of answers are well-received and the sorts that are not. Trying to get everyone to write in the same particular style is neither feasible nor desirable.

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  • I overwhelming agree with, or find no objection against, the bulk of this post. I have two quibbles: 1) Whereas you suggest that the ideas from my post overlook certain observations you offer, I view both as separately valuable and fail to find any systemic conflict. 2) I agree that outright discouraging the use of idioms is a mistake, though the nuance was not rigorously clarified originally. The larger ideal is awareness of when one might use an idiom, and doing so judiciously but cautiously, supporting a balance between accessibility and other objectives. – epl Aug 18 at 4:03
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As an editor and proponent of what editors call plain language, I feel I have to act as a kind of apologist here, as well as provide possible side commentary to what's already been said.

In the vocabulary of editors, plain language does not mean dumbing things down, nor does it mean changing the meaning of something for the sole purpose of making it use fewer words.

The essential meaning of plain language is to take something and, where needed, rephrase it in such a way that it's more easily understood by the greatest number of people—all without changing the essential meaning of what's being communicated.

This often means reducing the verbiage (in a useful way), but it doesn't have to. Sometimes, the verbiage can be significantly increased.

The best example I have of this is a cartoon that came to my attention just yesterday. It's from Health Literacy Headquarters:

A confused doodle reads out loud from the label of a pill bottle: “Take 2 pills 4 times a day.” In the next pane, the same doodle reads instructions off the pill bottle: “Every day, take: 2 pills in the morning, 2 pills at 12 p.m. (noon), 2 pills in the evening, 2 pills at bedtime.” The doodle exclaims, “Now I get it!”

In this example, the amount of text is dramatically increased. However, it's still an excellent example of so-called plain language, because the original text has been taken and rephrased so that its meaning is now completely clear.

As Health Literacy Headquarters says:

When writing about health in plain language, the fact is that sometimes you need a lot of words to tell your readers what they need to know. And while you may feel like this is at odds with your clear communication instincts, it really isn’t!

That sentiment is true of almost every context, not just health. But the point is not just to add words for the sake of adding them, but to add them where adding them aids comprehension.

They give another example where more words make for plain language:

In general, it’s best to fight the urge to use a more complex phrase just to lower your word count. Here’s another example:

You may have swelling at the injection site.
You may have swelling in the place where you got the shot.

Again, more words — but way clearer …

The bottom line: Sometimes, writing in plain language means more words — and that’s okay!


As further stated by Public Works and Government Services Canada:

The purpose of a plain-language approach in written communication is to convey information easily and unambiguously. It should not be confused with an oversimplified, condescending style. Rather, by choosing straightforward vocabulary and sentence structures and by organizing and presenting your material clearly and logically, you can save the reader time and effort and ensure that your message will be clearly understood.

This applies equally to both native speakers of English as well as to learners of English.

For example:

The following sentence becomes much more transparent if the two verb-noun phrases are replaced with verbs:

not

  • The recommendation of the committee favoured continuation of the applied research.

but

  • The committee recommended that the applied research continue.

Saying all of that, I do agree that changing colloquial or everyday English just for the sake of making it "easier" for a learner can be the wrong approach, and, in the long term, could actually hinder the adoption of English.

But there's a difference between using what editors call plain language and avoiding idiomatic expressions.

It's quite possible to include idiomatic language, without dumbing anything down, and still employ clear communication.

Whatever communication we use at other sites is the same communication we should be using at this site. Plain language, as I've expressed it, is a good thing to use everywhere, not just here.

But I think that applying some kind of "simpler" vocabulary at this site alone is the wrong approach.

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  • I would understand an essential function of plain language to be to make a presentation less confusing or ambiguous for the greatest range of listeners or readers. You say you support plain language everywhere, but also reject using language on this site that is intentionally easier to understand. Would you please expound your position with respect to this potential conflict? – epl Aug 18 at 4:40
  • @epl I've already explained it, and there is no conflict. You are confusing simplistic with clear. The two are not at all the same. I support almost everything that's been said in the other answers. The answer I gave was just to make the point that plain language (as used by editors) is not at all the same thing as simplistic. Plain language is not just the combination of those two words; it has a different specific meaning—as do many idioms. – Jason Bassford Aug 18 at 6:40
  • I agree that simplistic and clear are different. I just haven't caught on to why you have the view that I make that conflation. – epl Aug 18 at 6:43
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    @epl You object to the use of literary and academic writing. You object to vernacular and idiomatic language. You also object to "advanced words and grammar." Those are all your own words. Removing any or all of those things has little to do with promoting plain language. If you think it does, you've misunderstood the answer I've given and you don't understand the difference between simplistic and clear. This site should not be simplistic. It, like all other sites, should be clear. And that includes using all of the things you object to in a clear manner—not sanitizing the language. – Jason Bassford Aug 18 at 6:48
  • I realize I have not understood your answer, and I'm working on getting clarification. I thank you for your patience. It may be also that I don't understand the difference between simplistic and clear, but I believe I do. Let's put that question aside for a moment, and work with a concrete case, changing "injection site" to "place where you got the shot". Do you believe that in some cases, revisions of this kind may play a useful role in building more helpful answers on ELL? – epl Aug 18 at 7:03
  • @epl Again, it has nothing to do with ELL specifically. For instance, if I changed the injection site to the place where you got the shot, I would make the same change on every site (with the exception of a site aimed specifically at doctors), not just on ELL. Treating people on ELL only as if they have limited comprehension is doing them a disservice. – Jason Bassford Aug 18 at 13:34
  • How does the question of whether the benefit is specific to ELL help us choose policies for ELL? The current discussion is occurring on ELL, and the subject of that discussion is preferred activity on ELL. One might as well say that the legislature of the US state of Alabama should not maintain laws against homicide, because homicide is not a problem specific to Alabama. – epl Aug 18 at 13:48
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The suggestion we use "plain language" as described to help English language learners is not a good one. It assumes that those who answer might use confusing language. Some may, there is no way to stop that except by not choosing those answers.

The term is plain language. And the Plain Writing Act was signed into law by Obama.

Here's why it is not a good idea to extol "plain language":

  • That system was developed to help readers of government sites understand what can be very tricky regulations, laws and methodologies, etc.
  • The system was not developed as a teaching tool for language learners.

The ELL site has learners who range in level of knowledge from beginners to post-advanced.

It's up to the answering posters to gauge that level. This can be done when the questions are posed clearly or well.

Answers should be geared to the level of the question, when possible. A highly involved question can involve formality, literature or even academic writing. The better posters with the best answers generally follow that idea in their answers. These need to contribute to learners acquiring more idiomatic phrasing, more idioms and the vernacular (in speech) as well as learn the difference between what can be spoken language and what is written language.

Naturally, the more experience one has had as a teacher, editor, writer or translator, the better one's answers should be, all things remaining equal.

Answers need to be helpful and, it is hoped, provide information that will encourage those who ask questions to learn more and not discourage them from wanting to go further.

I am not providing pointers here for those who answer questions. This answer is aimed at explaining why the "plain English" option is not suitable for this site.

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  • Ah but OP thinks that the community should be more supportive of editing questions for grammar and not just for clarity, so the people answering the question will not be able to judge the fluency of the author of the question without digging through the revisions. Their suggestion that we write according to how "advanced" we judge the topic to be instead of how fluent the person asking the question is is a necessary consequence of the first view. I feel sorry for the learner that accidentally stumbles upon a topic too advanced for their English level. – ColleenV Jul 28 at 16:40
  • @ColleenV Do you believe in catering to the lowest level? Or gearing answers to a level that can be seen in a question? Not every learner will be advanced enough to understand advanced issues. Besides all this, you seem to have missed my main point. – Lambie Jul 28 at 16:49
  • I'm not arguing with you - I agree with you. I'm just pointing out that someone who supports editing out all clues to the fluency level of the learner from questions has to also insist answers being written to some "standard" level of fluency. If a less fluent learner somehow has an interest in a topic considered "advanced", and we're writing based on the topic and not based on the fluency of the learner asking about it, well, that seems dumb to me. I think learners like to be exposed to idioms and interesting words, so long as they're explained. "Plain" is often a synonym for "boring". – ColleenV Jul 28 at 19:32
  • @ColleenV Yes, I agree with that, of course. – Lambie Jul 28 at 20:24

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