I have seen many questions that ask about how to interpret a word or phrase in the context of a specific literary text. According to the official guidelines, language learners are allowed to ask those questions, as long as they cite and provide sufficient context.

However, when I answer such questions, I often feel very conflicted. There are many situations in which interpretation of the phrase in question depends completely on the reader’s understanding and experience of the text. Yes, sometimes there is perhaps an idiom or expression that has a defined meaning, but oftentimes there is not, especially with more advanced or abstract texts. I always preface my answers to such questions with “Given the provided context, I interpret ____ to mean…” but this makes me feel like my answer is very wishy-washy. If I’m only offering my personal opinion, am I answering anyone’s question?

In other words, is offering a subjective opinion considered a substantial answer? And if not, is there anything that can be done to mitigate this or to redirect similar questions? I don’t want to give learners the impression that there is a “right answer” to their question, but I also wish to be helpful.



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