Someone asked a question of the form: "What makes these words special grammatically, and are there any others like them". link

I am near 100% certain that there is no rule, but, sadly, not infallible, so I preceded my answer to that effect with "I believe".

Another poster aggressively castigated me for posting an incorrect 'guess', although he was unable to come up with such a rule, and eventually admitted that the selection was 'just historic'.

In the first place, I dispute that 'guess' is the correct term. If someone asks if there are any humans over 3 metres, and I say I don't think so, that is a guess. If they ask if there are any humans over 5 metres, saying 'I don't think so', is a lot more than a simple guess.

My thinking in posting the possible answer was that since no one can prove a negative (i.e. that there is no rule), the question would remain unanswered and the asker might waste time looking for something he was not going to find. I was also able to give an example of another class of words, many of which followed the same special rule.

So, my question is: If no one has provided an answer (to a question of the 'is there a rule' type), you are well experienced in the field, and have done some additional research, is it wrong (on this site), to inform the OP of your belief, in an answer?

  • Where is the link to the question?
    – Lambie
    Nov 6, 2022 at 17:46

2 Answers 2


The appropriate answer on Stack Exchange to the question "Are any humans over 3 meters tall?" is not "I don't think so"; it is "The tallest recorded human is 2.72 m according to (some source)" and maybe some further discussion of claims of taller people that haven't been well-documented or biological reasons people don't grow that tall.

It is OK to express expert opinions in an answer, but if you're finding it difficult to write more of an answer than "I don't think so" you're probably answering a question which either needs improvement or which you don't actually know the answer to. You should be able to support your answer with reasons so that readers can judge for themselves whether it is credible.

If someone's criticism of a post is aggressive or not constructive, it should be flagged for a moderator. If you're getting feedback that your answer seems more like a guess than an answer, you may want to edit it to make the reasons why you believe something to be true more clear.

  • It was the moderator who posted the criticism. And the OP's answer was more complete than just saying "I don't think so" or "I don't believe there is a rule". One of the shortcomings of this site, which I still enjoy visiting from time to time, is the lack of supporting evidence, and both parties were guilty of that. It's as if an answer must be correct by virtue of the fact the author is a native speaker. Not so. Even if there is no official rule, a respected source will exactly state that is the case.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 4, 2022 at 0:37
  • @Mari-LouA It's sometimes difficult to find a source that explicitly addresses the question, especially if the question comes from a bad assumption or the person answering lacks the right expertise, but I agree with you that ELL's answers could use more supporting evidence or citations of reliable references. I would rather have people writing answers they are confident are correct than holding back because they can't find a source to cite though.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 4, 2022 at 12:40
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA The real issue is that not all language questions can be supported by evidence other than one's own experience and knowledge.
    – Lambie
    Nov 6, 2022 at 17:48
  • @Lambie not all questions can or necessitate support, and some questions are so lazy they don't justify users spending more than five minutes composing an answer. But on this site, it seems hardly any native speaker, regardless of how well they speak or write English, can be bothered to hunt down a reference or find evidence which confirms their answer. if it needs reminding, the site is aimed towards learners not highly competent native speakers. Colleen's answer suggest that citing facts, not only reasons, is an optimal way of helping users understand better.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 13, 2022 at 14:31
  • @Lambie With the advent of ChatGPT, an AI programme that answers within minutes of questions being punched in–think the oracle of Delphi–citations and references will be one way of identifying human intelligence...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 7, 2022 at 22:54
  • @Mari-LouA There are questions that no program can answer. She actually said: You should be able to support your answer with reasons so that readers can judge for themselves whether it is credible. So reasons can be one's own experience and knowledge.
    – Lambie
    Dec 7, 2022 at 23:27
  • How are you going to prove that knowledge is yours, unique to no other, when the entire Internet consists of data, statistics, and books written by experts? An AI will have immediate access to all this data, at the push of a button, and will pull out answers within minutes, in smooth, natural standard English. The user can copy and paste this answer and you may look online to see if it is copied, but it's not. It's original content, created at that specific moment. We will be seeing users cutting corners and posting answers to unanswered English questions. It's already happening.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 7, 2022 at 23:35
  • @Mari-LouA I was talking about points not easily found on the internet. The problem is not with good English. The problem is with connected speech and spoken English and cases that AI does not address. The cutters and pasters can only provides answers to questions that are actually answerable. They are many lacunae, exceptions and very odd turns of real speech. I am not looking to prove the knowledge is unique to me. Just that it has not been codified by some "authority". Which is often the case with spoken utterances taken from tapes, transcriptions, TV shows et alia. Do you recall this:
    – Lambie
    Dec 8, 2022 at 0:09
  • english.stackexchange.com/questions/574633/… Nobody even wanted to acknowledge the practice!
    – Lambie
    Dec 8, 2022 at 0:12
  • If an answer to something cannot be found on the Internet, there are three reasons. 1. the question is very unclear to begin with, probably because the querent has ill-conceived ideas and has done little to no research on the subject itself. 2. the question is purely subjective; i.e. Is this sentence/word good? What should I write in this email? What is the most beautiful English word? and 3. Impossible to answer without knowing the context, e.g. Why did Bill say that line? What did she mean when she said that? But I think one day AI will be able to answer even bad and off-topic questions.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 8, 2022 at 0:34
  • @Lambie your EL&U answer includes references, and an extract taken off the Internet. Your answer is supported. As for good, natural speech, I was referring to the answers posted on SO and EL&U by ChatGTP, you would not think they were written by a machine. An answer that is well-supported and provides examples will, for now, be harder for a machine to reproduce.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 8, 2022 at 0:46
  • @Mari-LouA See, when I see "the question is purely subjective", my antennae go up. All questions from individuals are subjective...I think you are still not understanding the point I was making., So, I give up.
    – Lambie
    Dec 8, 2022 at 16:03

If I were answering a question here on ELL phrased as "Is there a rule (of grammar or usage) against X" or "What rule requires Y" and I could find no such rule, I would incline to respond something like:

I don't know of any such rule. I have checked {reliable sources A, B, and C} and none of them lists such a rule. Therefore I do not believe that there is such a rule.

I might go on to discuss how many people expect there to be definite, citable "rules" of English grammar, when often there are merely patterns of usage, frequently with exceptions or variations, and that "rules are in many cases oversimplifications or memory devices, and not laws.

I will add that I throughly agree with and approve of the answer by ColleenV that was posted to this thread a day ago.

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