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I don't mind the downvotes. I am here to ask questions and get answers not to score points. But what seems strange to me is how what I intended in some recent questions failed to get across. And I'm posting this meta question to get to the bottom of this: is the dismissiveness I have seen across the board the result of my unclear wording or is it a problem of the site? It could only be one of these two reasons, as far as I see it, because what some of the commenters have asserted seems to have nothing to do with the intent I had in mind for the questions. And a lot of people seem stubbornly refuse to try and understand what askers need or what the question is about.

Successfully communicating one's ideas of course hinges on effective use of language. I guess it must be my wording then. But after some thought I am still not sure what to say to the commenters, so I think posting on this meta site and laying out my thought process should be the best way.

Let's first look at this question together: "I have always not had many friends"

So full disclosure: what prompted me to ask this question is that I saw this awkward phrasing twice, both from native American English speakers with degrees from top American colleges. I couldn't quote their words in my question as they were private messages, so I googled an example and used it in my question. Why did I ask it? Because the wording sounded awkward but I couldn't quite put my finger on what exactly was wrong with it. "always not" didn't sound right but I was reluctant to make the assertation that it never occurs in English.

Let's look at the two comments under my post:

Asking for something to be checked or improve phrasing is off-topic here. If you did some really basic research you'd find that english speakers say 'never', rather than 'always not'. – Astralbee Apr 11 at 7:33

This comment has been liked by 4 different people, which indicates at least five people think that the problem is trivial, so much so they jumped to the conclusion that I didn't do "really basic research." Let's see how basic that research really is. Shall we?

This is what it looks like if you google "always not": link for lazy folks. And among the hits only two seem to have to do with English: Not Always Vs Always Not? and "I don't always" vs. "I always don't" And neither really touches on what I'm asking about or what Astralbee ever-so-assertively states. So you tell me how else I should've researched, and keep in mind I just had a weird yet vague sense about the phrase at issue and I wasn't sure what exactly was wrong with it. In such a situation, how do you do the "really basic research" that you so dismissively suggested?

More background information: English is my dominant and primary language. The only way I would have responded to that comment would be: "If you had given the question a quick yet proper read, you'd have seen that it is not from someone that you could or should set apart from 'English speakers'" So to that five people who concurred with Astralbee's position: did any of you really read the question? I am an English speaker myself, whatever that means, and I don't say "always not" but I am reluctant to say "never" to that. Are you making that assertion Astralbee? If you are, you should have made it in an answer not as a comment, per SE policies. Also did I not clearly lay out my exhaustive research using Google and Google Books? Not to mention the example from a published book. Exhaustive, as I pretty much listed all the things I could find. How could you suggest something like that if you had spent even 2 seconds on my question?

Here's another comment under the same post:

The whole passage is written by someone with poor language skills. Don't treat it as an example of how to write in English. – Kate Bunting Apr 11 at 7:47

Where did I ever say I am learning how to write in English? Did you read my post, at all? Does my use of the English language suggest to you that the words are from someone in need of English writing classes? For the record I am a multi-published author. As I just mentioned I have seen such wording used by well-educated native speakers and that's the genesis of my question. True, the only examples I could find didn't demonstrate the most proper English but that doesn't change the fact that they are both from native speakers as well. Also, by "the whole passage" Kate Bunting seems to refer to the first example while conveniently ignoring the second example I gave, which happens to be from a published book. The comment reads partial if not downright dismissive of the effort I demonstrate in my question.

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    Have you noticed that the community doesn't like questions that seem like they're asking for writing advice? You were cut some slack when you first joined, especially since your "make a friend" vs "make a girlfriend" question might be useful for a learner. Questions that have answers helpful to learners tend to be better received than questions about specific phrasing in a specific context.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 20, 2023 at 19:05
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    @ColleenV It doesn't seem to me that way at all, if I may be so bold. A lot of the highest scoring questions have little to no practical value to learners. These are the top scoring questions: convention, joke, joke, joke/cultural reference. Potentially useful questions especially collocation questions and idiomatic use of language questions, on the other hand, such as my "make a boyfriend/girlfriend" questions are underappreciated
    – desmo
    Apr 20, 2023 at 23:37
  • Collocation questions are among the most deserving questions on English Learners and English Language and Usage, in my opinion, which is clearly shown in the comments under my "make a girlfriend/boyfriend" question. A user who seems to have set themself up as mostly an answerer of English questions declared in their comment that usage idiomatic and common. And that comment has been liked and supported by at least one other person. So at least two people must have learned something from my question, I guess
    – desmo
    Apr 20, 2023 at 23:43
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    I apologise for assuming that you were a non-native speaker, as most posters on ELL are. Apr 21, 2023 at 11:07
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    Your questions are phrased like they're asking for writing advice that doesn't seem like it would be helpful for EFL learners. Everyone is welcome to participate, but the site is focused on learners and some topics don't inspire people to put in the effort they might for other sorts of questions. I'm not saying the comments were OK, but the appropriate response when you're getting negative feedback on a post is to look it over and see if there is any way you could clarify it. Kate's assumption was perfectly reasonable given the mission of ELL. We have users who are fluent non-native speakers.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 21, 2023 at 12:58

2 Answers 2

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Hello desmo and welcome to ELL Meta. Thanks for being curious too. I understand your frustration with not getting the responses you want and I hope I can shine some light on why it's happening. I don't often ask questions here, so I can't speak to how common it is on ELL to get dismissive answers, but as a frequent answerer, I can tell you why I understand the responses you're getting in this case.

First, Astralbee's comment is almost certainly only a reaction to part 2 of your question, and not a dismissal of the first part of your question:

  1. What are some better ways to rephrase it? ...

It's strictly off-topic here to ask for rephrasing, so what Astralbee said is appropriate, and a comment and/or close-vote is the right way to deliver that message.

Specifically:

Questions asking for someone to find and correct errors or improve the phrasing are considered requests for proofreading and are off-topic on our site.

That's why it has all the upvotes, and why there's currently 3 votes to close your question. You could edit your question to remove that part, and then flag Astralbee's comment as "It's no longer needed", and it will probably get deleted.

Second, about your question "Where did I ever say I am learning how to write in English?" When someone asks for correct or natural ways of rephrasing something, it very strongly implies that they want to know how to write or speak better. Why else ask? It's a fair assumption that someone asking that question is trying to improve their language abilities, regardless of how well written the rest of their question is.

Third, if you're asking about a quote from a native speaker, you should directly use that quote, and mention that you've seen two native speakers use that structure. On this site, there's no need to provide links to quotations you're curious about, so your question would be greatly improved if you replaced the quotes you found online with the original text from the private messages you're actually asking about. The quotes you did use are badly written otherwise, and on this site we don't spend a lot of energy discussing whether English produced by low-skill English speakers is correct. But if you provided examples of your native speakers using these odd structures, you'd get much more serious engagement from us answerers.

So overall, it's not that your questions are unintelligible, but that there's issues with this one at least (I didn't look through your other questions), and users here are less likely to answer a question with issues than one without.

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    I appreciate your answer, but let's delve deeper into the discussion. I disagree with your point about a question being off-topic if it does so much as mention words such as "rephrase" or "change the wording" because that is not the spirit of the policy. The policy was put in place by the community with regard to proofreading requests, questions whose posters just dump a passage on the site, having no clue about the overall grammar and word use of the passage. I may have invoked such words if anyone reading the questions carefully enough can see that's not what's going on.
    – desmo
    Apr 20, 2023 at 16:36
  • As a matter of fact, most questions could be asked in a way that invokes such words as "rephrase". What tense is correct questions such as this one could be put forth without changing the nature of the question as "How should I rephrase this sentence so it is grammatical?" What does this mean questions can be asked "what word would you rephrase this with so I can understand?" and it's basically the same question, which is why the real nature of the question is more important than playing with words here.
    – desmo
    Apr 20, 2023 at 16:40
  • As regards your second point, let me give you an example. So last night I was having dinner with my friend and their dad, and their dad says, "hey what do kids these days say when they agree with you?" And would you say to him, a monolingual native speaker of American English who has never lived outside of the US: "Oh so you are learning English vocabulary! You shouldn't use Tiktok slang to learn English!" Just because someone is curious about a word doesn't mean they are learning how to write in English or the vocabulary of the language. Native speakers learn new words and grammar too.
    – desmo
    Apr 20, 2023 at 16:47
  • The point here is "English learners" should be an inclusive concept. And ELL should not be a place where native speakers can't even ask questions.
    – desmo
    Apr 20, 2023 at 16:48
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    @desmo ELL has never had a policy that excludes native speakers. Quite the opposite: see ell.meta.stackexchange.com/q/3345/9161 and ell.meta.stackexchange.com/q/5802/9161 I'm sorry you had a bad posting experience, but yes, it is the way you're communicating that's causing a lot of the issues. Some of the issue is people reading hastily and making assumptions, but I wonder if you spent any time looking to see what sorts of questions are well-received here.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 20, 2023 at 18:50
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TL/DR: For questions with less straightforward answers, you might have better success on the ELU site.

As someone who very recently joined this site, I can relate to your experience @desmo. But, I have been reading others' posts for a much longer time than I've been an active contributor, and might be able to offer an alternative perspective.

@gotube has already pointed out one possible issue that could be attracting the wrong kind of attention, and it's very similar to the situation on Stack Overflow. On that site, new users without a good understanding of the 'questions should have value to the community as a whole' aspect often post 'write this code for me' questions, analogous to the kind of 'edit-my-sentence-for-me' question that sometimes gets posted here. Anyone who has read your post and the first answer already knows that your question does not fall into this category, but might be perceived so by a veteran answerer who has seen (and probably downvoted :D) many of these before. BUT, I don't believe that this is the only issue here.

Despite the fact that "ELL has never had a policy that excludes native speakers" (credit to ColleenV for the source, see her comment on the first answer), it does seem that the majority of questions and answers on this site are geared towards helping learners understand concepts they find confusing. That's great: it is the site's primary purpose after all! But, I believe this means that when a question is posted, not by someone who's having difficulty with something in particular, but rather out of curiosity/academic interest, answerers might not know how to respond.

This isn't meant as a criticism of the answerers, but instead to point out what I believe may be the center of the misunderstanding: a difference in expectations. When so many users are looking for straightforward practical advice to solve a definite problem, the more conceptual kind of question looking for a 'deep-dive' kind of answer might be misinterpreted as a question of the former kind. Starting from the assumption that you have a problem that you want solved, and (also a likely assumption) that English isn't your native language, the answerer might just believe that you weren't able to state your problem clearly, and attempt to do so for you.

This happened to me on my first question here, which I really wasn't sure that I should post on this site (the alternative would have been the ELU site, which I don't currently have an account on). That site tends to attract more academic-interest type questions, which tend to be more abstract and to get longer and more in-depth answers, compared to the ELL site. But, I decided to post it here after all, believing that the question, although asked out of curiosity and not because I was having difficulty understanding something, might also be relevant to non-native learners who could be genuinely confused about the same topic. (The topic, for clarity's sake, concerned whether a feature found in some other languages could technically be said to apply to English in a very "niche" case.)

Instead of an answer addressing the etymology and semantics of the word under discussion, and an analysis of how it's similar or dissimilar to the same situation in languages which actually do have this feature, I got many, many comments (and even one answer!) from experienced users of the site which seemed to imply that I wasn't aware of elementary grammar rules. Also, and this was a surprise, some of the comments were suggesting that I should basically swap out one set of standard textbook definitions for another, although both are valid. I don't know whether you're into computer programming at all, but if you are, this is like if you were to ask a question about the nuances of some feature of object-oriented design, and people start telling you to just switch to functional programming instead.

The point is that

  1. I wasn't actually asking about the correctness of my example sentence or the usage of specific words within that sentence

  2. Which of the two competing frameworks you prefer has no bearing whatsoever on the actual content of the question

  3. Out of all the interactions the question received, only one comment (the very first) was actually on-topic

  4. The other feedback I received was all high quality content from very frequent positive contributors to this site, but just wasn't what I was looking for with this question

Based on all the above, I would suggest the same solution to your problem as to mine:


If you have a theoretical, hypothetical, or abstract kind of question that you suspect doesn't have a straightforward answer, and isn't necessarily a matter of 'right' or 'wrong' usage, do seriously consider whether it might be a better fit for ELU than for ELL.


(As matter of fact, I have requested to have my own question migrated there, but nothing has come of it so far. (Edit: another user identified a duplicate there) This meta site seems to get much less traffic than the Stack Overflow meta does!)

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