A comment on a recent question contained the following text:

This is not an example of text which learners should be interested in - it's just fatuous drivel written in non-standard English.

This is troubling to me. I can divide this into three points:

  1. Learners shouldn't be interested in this text
  2. This text is fatuous drivel
  3. This text is non-standard English

I don't think it's appropriate for commenters or answerers to decide point 1 on behalf of askers. As language learners, we find things we're interested in so we can stay motivated and keep making progress. Learning a language takes years upon years of effort, and staying motivated is one of the key challenges facing ELLs. I think learners should decide for themselves what they're interested in.

I don't think point 2 is appropriate, either. It's needlessly judgmental and could discourage the asker from participating further in the site.

Point 3 is the only one I feel is appropriate. Comments like these would be better written in a neutral fashion:

This is a question about non-standard English, which I don't believe should be the focus of this site.

  • +1 Completely agree! Commented May 16, 2013 at 21:04

1 Answer 1


It was my comment, so I'd better try to defend it...

1: Learners shouldn't be interested in this text

By that, I don't mean to imply that no people trying to learn English should ever read such texts. But (see point #3) it's poor quality English - and a mish-mash of styles. There are many sloppy phrasings that are common in spoken English (and hence at least potentially useful for those wishing to learn how native speakers actually speak informally). But the overall tone is verbose, literary, and "pseudointellectual". Those who don't recognise this may end up learning bad habits before they know what good English is.

2: This text is fatuous drivel

Okay, that was inflamatory. It was directed at the original (blogger?), rather than anyone here on ELL, but in retrospect I'm not going to defend myself too strongly there.

3: This text is non-standard English

Per #1, I don't automatically assume it's inappropriate for people to ask about "non-standard English" usages on ELL. However, in this case we weren't being asked about some specific word or phrasing which would be easily understood by native speakers, but impenetrable to learners (for example, an "idiomatic" usage). We were being asked to interpret a lengthy and deliberately obscure passage by a writer who demonstrates limited command of "correct" English in the first place.

It's difficult for me to imagine the profile of a "typical" learner asking questions on ELL, since there's a wide range of abilities and areas of interest. But rightly or wrongly, I generally assume that people ask questions here because they want to learn and improve their English, rather than because they want specific answers to specific questions.

In that spirit, it seems to me a good question is one where a good answer will help both the OP and future visitors learn generally-applicable principles of modern English usage (both formal written, and colloquial spoken). I saw little scope for that in the question presently under consideration.

  • Just to clarify a little bit: I don't mean to say that your comment was entirely wrong, or that the question was a very good one. In retrospect, it's probably best that it's closed, though I didn't think about that before I answered it.
    – user230
    Commented May 16, 2013 at 21:54
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    @snailboat: I rarely object to the fact of questions being asked. And even if they're blatantly offtopic or should be closed for some other reason, I see nothing wrong in people answering - as an actual Answer if they get it in before the Q is closed, otherwise as a comment. Indeed, I've often answered a question with a comment whilst closevoting. My thinking is simply that if a future learner wants to browse through past questions, he should be able to assume he'll learn more about English from open questions, if he hasn't the time or inclination to look at everything. Commented May 16, 2013 at 22:07
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    +1 for "people ask questions here because they want to learn and improve their English, rather than because they want specific answers to specific questions". And this is the reason why I think most questions on ELL should, really, be either about "Standard English" or a specific major regional or idiomatic form of English (minor dialects are probably better suited to ELU). Trying to divine meaning out of badly written or unstructured English has limited long term utility both to the OP, and to the site as a whole.
    – Matt
    Commented May 16, 2013 at 23:26
  • @Matt♦: The trouble is that many people think the site should be equally welcoming to all questions that might be asked by people who don't already have high competence in English. And of course it often seems "rude" to discriminate, even if all we're trying to do is establish some focus to the site (which shouldn't be an etymological dictionary supplement, imho). Commented May 17, 2013 at 2:26
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    @FumbleFingers: I totally agree. ELL questions are never off-topic because the questioner's English is a little poor. But they can certainly be off-topic because they are asking about the meaning of English that is not useful to learners. Part of what makes us StackExchange and not Yahoo Answers is that we aren't a luxury personal answering service where you type your question and we jump to it. ELL questions should still be high quality, specific, researched and have utility to future learners. And until we start closing bad questions, we'll never graduate from beta.
    – Matt
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 9:20
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    I'm glad you clarified what you meant by your comment. More than once, I've seen you make comments here that seemed to say, "Oh, the English learner wouldn't be interested in that" in what seemed a rather condescending and short-sighted way. Maybe I was misunderstanding your intent, but you might want to be more careful when putting such comments on the site in the future. People may be here to learn, but good instruction often comes with the whys as well as the whats – those set the facts in a context where they can be remembered and recalled more easily.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 9:58
  • @J.R.: I fully accept that my comment style isn't always ideal (I'm inconsistent, and sometimes crabby and/or thoughtless). Partly it's because I flick between thinking I'm addressing the OP, and "the world at large". And within that second category, between people likely to agree with me, and people I think are mistaken. But to the extent that I do have a relatively consistent position in this general area, I couldn't put it better than Matt's second comment above - we aren't a luxury personal answering service (only questions relevant to other learners are worth keeping open). Commented May 17, 2013 at 13:53
  • @Fumble: Over time, I've learned that you and I agree on 90% of the issues, and we politely agree to disagree on the other minor ones. Take Matt's comment, for example: I, too liked how he worded "luxury personal answering service."
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented May 17, 2013 at 15:29
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    @J.R.: ELL is still "finding its feet", so to speak, but I'm certainly glad we've got Matt here as a mod for the beta. So far as I'm concerned, all the mods are good, but I feel that Matt in particular has a clearer concept of what the site should be encouraging. One of his first answers on meta said This site isn't about English Learners (who are people), it's about the act of learning English. I think that's a very useful distinction to bear in mind, and I thoroughly endorse it as a cornerstone of the site's raison d'etre. Commented May 17, 2013 at 16:09
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    @Matt The problem is that non native speakers don't always know what is Standard English, and what not. Considering the differences between American English and British English (for example), the confusion is understandable. I agree about asking a question to learn English. That is why I don't understand when consecutive questions about what said in a book are asked. If the OP is not going to use the expression read in a book in everyday conversations, what is the purpose of the question?
    – apaderno
    Commented May 19, 2013 at 3:16
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    @kiamlaluno: I very much agree that - interesting as some of these "textual analysis" questions may be - they're not really relevant to the needs of people trying to gain some fluency in everyday conversational English. Which surely should be at least the starting point for the vast majority of learners. Commented May 19, 2013 at 13:40

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