12

I've looked at other questions on ELL vs ELU and asked a related question over on ELU. I've often seen what appear to be reasonable questions on ELU get the "You should look at the ELL site" treatment. However, the by-line on the ELL site is that it is a site for "for speakers of other languages learning English". Is the ESL aspect a key to whether to use ELL? If so, where is a non-linguist who has 50 year of speaking under his belt to ask a question about usage? :) The ELU folk mostly seem to think it should be on ELL, but if that's the case, shouldn't the by-line be broadened?

17

All right, I've been trying to compose this answer for quite some time now. I'm not sure if it's going to come out the way I intend, but here goes! (Note: this answer is in part a response to the original question, and in part a response to other answers' suggestion that we change our scope to be about "everyday English." So if there is any confusion, you might first read other answers.)

Why is (and should) ELL be aimed at non-native speakers?

The simplest answer to the OP's question is "ELL has non-native speakers in the byline because that was the purpose of creating the site." ELL was originally created to answer questions non-native speakers encounter while learning English as a second language.

ELL exists for the purpose of helping non-native speakers learn English. We would not have a site today at all if ELL hadn't begun with this goal in mind. It's the unique perspective that a non-native speaker has when learning a new language that has built the foundation of intriguing questions and answers we've collected so far. We should be embracing this perspective, and continuing to tailor our answers to it, not dismissing it.

We're about answering questions that come from a non-native point of view. These questions are not by nature "easy" or "everyday". They're just from another perspective, and the answers are as well. ELL is not about "questions any native speaker could answer" or "basic questions" or "questions about common everday English."

  • If the questions were easily answerable by any native speaker, we wouldn't have expert answerers, which is half the foundation of any SE site (the other half is curious askers; the non-native speakers that make our site possible).

  • The questions are not about everyday English because non-native speakers aren't just looking to learn everyday English. Some people learn a foreign language to communicate socially or at work. Others so they can read, or write, or watch movies in a foreign language. If a non-native speaker wants to learn English so they can read books written in old-fashioned (non-everyday) English, who are we to say that isn't a valid reason to learn (and refuse to answer their questions)? (There is of course a fine line between and English question and Lit-Crit, but the distinction between native and non-native speakers is irrelevant there.)

I think that the unique perspective of non-native speakers' questions (and tailoring answers to this perspective) is what makes answering on ELL so interesting. Not only would eliminating this make discerning an "expert" pool of answerers difficult, but I think it would cause disinterest among some of our current top answerers. (I don't claim to be a top answerer, but I know I would lose interest.)

This is a major scope change

Changing the focus of ELL from being a site for people who are learning or teaching English as a foreign language to a site for questions about everyday English is a huge scope change. Really, really big. And I just can't come up with a rationale to justify it. Perhaps I could see a reason for the change if ELL were really struggling—if all our stats were down, we weren't getting many questions and the ones we were getting weren't getting answered, and everyone was losing interest—if we really thought the site was failing, the writing was on the wall, and we had to do something to stay open, then maybe I could see making a scope change as big as this one.

But that's not where we're at. We're doing pretty great. Are we ready to graduate? No, not yet. That takes time. But we're chugging along at a respectable pace, and hashing things out on meta to get us there. And honestly, if we were in dire straits, I'm not sure I could advocate for this scope change even then. If our basic scope were so flawed as to be unsustainable, I'd say "Okay... Let's head on over to area51 and try again, then." This scope change is so large that it seems like a fundamentally different proposal to me. It's like if instead of creating Programmers, Stack Overflow had turned itself into Programmers (and Stack Overflow had disappeared.) It just doesn't make sense to me.

We need to focus on ourselves, not ELU

The most recurring arguments I've heard in favor of this scope change involve ELU in some way. The two big ones are "Look at all these questions on ELU that could fit here!" and "But people are still getting confused about whether they should post their question on ELL or ELU, and that needs to stop." There's far too much emphasis here on defining ELL's scope based on ELU's.

Obviously we have to coexist with ELU; since we have some areas of overlapping subject matter, we can't pretend they don't exist. But ELL needs to be able to exist viably on its own in a bubble universe... If ELU disappeared tomorrow, we'd still have to be able to reasonably justify all our policies without its existence. Obviously two sites that do exactly the same thing is bad, but we don't do the same thing. We are focused on answering the questions of non-native speakers learning English. That's what we are here for, not what ELU is here for. And we need to focus on us.

  1. "But look at this great question on ELU! I wish that had been posted here!"

    We need to stop thinking like this. We are not ELU, we are our own site. There are indeed great questions posted on ELU that could have done equally well here. But you know what? We get great questions too. We need to focus on what we've already got, and answering those questions to the best of our ability. For the cases where a great question is off-topic on ELU and on-topic on ELL, it will get migrated to us. But if not, just be happy that you found a great question on ELU for its own sake; don't start wishing every ELU question that's on-topic on both sites were posted here. It's not productive, and it isn't going to happen (especially since ELU is the more established site, so it's more likely that overlap-area questions will end up there.)

  2. "But users are getting confused about where to post their question (ELL or ELU)!"

    Yep. This is going to happen. There is always going to be overlap. There are a lot of sites in the network with overlapping areas of topicality (Programmers and Stack Overflow, Math and Mathematica, Sever Fault and Webmasters, Freelancing and The Workplace, Science Fiction & Fantasy and Movies & TV and Anime & Manga, and many, many more; just about every site in the network has another that they overlap with in some fashion, just maybe not quite as obviously as the ELU/ELL overlap is to us).

    More importantly, this is okay. People are going to get confused and post their question to the wrong site. And if it's a good question it'll get migrated, and they'll learn (or not). Either way, this really isn't a huge problem (and SE sites deal with it every day). People still post questions that belong on Programmers to Stack Overflow. No one is suggesting a scope change for either of those sites because of that (at least as far as I'm aware!). It's part of being a member of the SE network. Keep the great on-topic questions, close the bad ones, migrate the good off-topic ones. This is a feature, not a bug! We don't need to solve the problem of people posting a question on the wrong site, because SE has already done it for us. Topic overlap is okay.

But you don't have to take my word for it that topic overlap is common and expected—you can read this great Stack Exchange blog post called "Respect the community—your own and others'. The whole post is worth reading, and explains what I'm trying to say better than I ever could, but here are some key excerpts (emphasis mine):

Before you can decide where to ask, you need to know who to ask. And who you ask will depend (at least in part) on who you are*

That’s the philosophy. Putting it into practice creates a few wrinkles: some sites have overlapping communities; some sites are named after their audience, but the name doesn’t quite match up to how the community actually sees themselves; in some cases, the community is defined purely by a topic of interest and not any particular occupation or field. These ambiguities lead to some undesirable behaviors:

Scope Gerrymandering: attempting to micromanage what’s on-topic in order to avoid overlap with other sites or simply drive away users seen as undesirable.

As members of a community, your first loyalty should be to that community. When evaluating a question, you shouldn’t be looking to push it off on some other site; instead, ask if it could be appropriate and on-topic for you, the experts who the author decided to ask. Be a bit jealous of your site – don’t blithely turn askers away simply because their question could be asked somewhere else. Don’t hit them over the head with your scope, help them tailor their question to fit into it – and if that means your site’s scope overlaps a bit with another site’s, so be it.

Don’t attempt to scavenge on-topic questions from other sites by asking the moderators there to migrate them to yours. Again, there’s no harm in leaving a comment suggesting that a question would be a better fit somewhere else. But focus on the questions that aren’t on-topic, or aren’t getting answered – snatching someone’s question (or answer) away without any forewarning is a slap in their face.

Conclusion

I think I've said all that needed to be said, and if you've gotten this far I don't want to press my luck by adding too many more words! In a nutshell, I think we're doing great, I think that being a site for non-native speakers learning English is the point of our existence, and I really don't feel we have a problem here. We're going to have growing pains, and it's going to take hard work and serious reflection to get where we need to be. But we're going to make it, and we can do it based on what we set out to be: a site for people who are learning or teaching English as a foreign language. And if the road to graduation is more challenging than we thought it would be and we sometimes struggle along the way, hey; at least we're in good company. :)

  • 5
    How can I not like an answer that quotes so many of my own words? This is exactly how I feel about ELL: y'all found an audience that wasn't being well-served in any existing community and built a site to give them a home; be proud of that, embrace your strengths and strive to do even better. – Shog9 Oct 3 '13 at 22:37
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    Brava! bis! Brava! – StoneyB Oct 3 '13 at 23:32
  • I agree with 98% of this. As for Look at this great question on ELU! I wish that had been posted here! We need to stop thinking like this. I don't know if I ever "wish" like that, but there are ELL questions that get asked on ELU – mostly because the O.P. is not yet aware of ELL. In such cases, newer users deserve to know there may be a better place to ask their future questions; I think that is productive. Also, I'm not so sure this was ever really meant to be a huge change in scope, but rather an attempt to phrase what we've always been about in a way others could better understand. – J.R. Oct 4 '13 at 0:42
  • @J.R. Oh absolutely--and that's fair. Since ELU is far more established than we are, commenting and suggesting that they might be interested in asking here is a great idea :) I suppose what I meant to say was, if the question could go either way, we should try and focus on what we have? Eh, I'm still not sure I phrased this all right. (It's taken me weeks to get this far!) If it wasn't meant to be a scope change then I take 100% responsibility for misunderstanding; I've been trying to sort out my thoughts on this, and maybe part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the proposal. Clarify? – WendiKidd Oct 4 '13 at 1:05
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    And, as Robert Cartaino wrote: "If the dividing line becomes easy questions versus hard questions, the site will fail." (link) And he also wrote: "If the dividing line was predominantly "simple" vs. "advanced" questions, this proposal would not likely have been allowed to continue. But a weighty argument was made that non-native ESL students have inherently different needs that are falling through the cracks of our current English site." (link) – snailboat Oct 4 '13 at 4:16
  • Clarify? I can try. Much of the O.P.'s question seemed to stem from a native speaker who wanted to ask what I'll call an "ELL question," but wondered, "Well, I'm not a non-native speaker, so maybe I shouldn't ask there?" We can leave our mission statement as-is, but I still think it's okay for a non-native to ask a question on ELL, especially when it makes more sense to ask it on ELL (as a matter of fact, I asked one yesterday). My point was, whether we reword our purpose or not, a native speaker is welcome to ask a question here, just like a non-native is permitted to ask a question on ELU. – J.R. Oct 4 '13 at 8:12
7

This was in fact the first question raised in the Area 51 Discussion which led to opening the site:

It was also debated in this question the same day:

It was raised again after SE had closed the Proposal and then reopened it; again as the Proposal gained steam; and once more after the Proposal was promoted to Beta:

It is still controversial; but since the SE Guardians appear to have set their collective face against any acknowledgment that Standard English is a foreign language to many native speakers, too, I foresee little likelihood of the rubric being withdrawn.

I suggest you poke around on both sites and post wherever you see questions that resemble what you want to ask being usefully answered. No opprobrium attaches to being active on both sites.

  • +1 for "it's still controversial" :) For my part, at least, I couldn't care less if your first language was Welsh or English or Mandarin or Spanish; if you've a good question for ELL, it's welcome here. – Matt Sep 16 '13 at 3:52
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    @Matt But if your first language is English and you've continued speaking English all your life, you're not going to have an English learner's question. I know we've exhausted the subject in chat, but I can't find a way to express my point of view properly in an answer, so I'll just leave this comment. ELL questions are not "basic" or "easy" or even "every day" questions; they are questions that come from the POV of a non-native speaker. A native speaker isn't going to have that kind of question. But even I have realized I'm bad at explaining my thoughts on this, so... I'll leave it at that. – WendiKidd Sep 16 '13 at 18:01
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    @WendiKidd An example of the sort of question that is categorically different is one based on phonology. When learning English, you have to learn to make and recognize the sounds of English, and you may have to learn to make phonemic distinctions that your native tongue doesn't make. (It depends on which language is your L1.) It's true that native speakers can need to work on their pronunciation, enunciation, and so forth, but it's categorically different--we learn to make the phonemic distinctions in our L1 languages before we're eighteen months old! – snailboat Sep 17 '13 at 8:51
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    @WendiKidd Here's another example. In English, we have do and make. But do and make are expressed by the same verb in many languages! In fact, although some other languages do draw a distinction, I'm not sure there are any that draw it in the same way as English. Yet, for native speakers, the choice is relatively effortless. – snailboat Sep 17 '13 at 8:58
  • @snailboat Yes, definitely. You need to look at the question from a different perspective. I'm sure there are exceptions, but the only question I would think a native English speaker would need to ask on ELL are questions about another dialect of English with which they are less familiar. For example, I speak American English and have asked a question about the British English terms for something (since we do cover those subjects here.) Agree with your comments completely :) – WendiKidd Sep 17 '13 at 13:50
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    @WendiKidd: I'm starting to think practically all questions asking for the "correct" wording, spelling, punctuation, etc., should be ELL, regardless of whether they're from native speakers. – FumbleFingers Sep 18 '13 at 16:25
  • @FumbleFingers I know it's several weeks late, but I've finally managed to put into words why I disagree; it's an answer on this same question, but here's the link anyway if you care to read! – WendiKidd Oct 3 '13 at 23:07
  • @WendiKidd: Fair enough. I agree with everything in your linked answer. Plus I'll freely admit that even as I was writing my preceding comment, I knew perfectly well it was OTT. But to a considerable extent, I still think that when "native speakers" ask about "correct usage" on ELU, they are in effect "learners" within the specific context of whatever they're asking. Anyway, this is ELL, not ELU. My down on elementary questions being asked on ELU is "self-contained". I'm not trying to route them here - I just find them boring, and I lament the loss of our General Reference closevote reason. – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '13 at 17:34
7

First of all, see also:

You'll also note that in the question you asked over on ELU's meta, the top rated answer is from J.R. who is not only one of our most active members over on ELU, but also is a moderator here, and one of the people who really fought for ELL to come into existence. It's certainly worth paying some attention to what he says.


Disclaimer: This is my opinion. It is not official ELL policy

To give my 2c, my personal view is that ELL isn't just for non-native speakers of English - I personally don't like the notion that one SE site is for one group of people, rather than for one group of questions. Making an SE about the questioners rather than the questions is bad for the SE format, IMO, because not all native English speakers want to study English academically; sometimes they just have a mental block and want a word to write in their email). Also, sometimes a foreign learner really does want to know the etymology of a word, even though that is off-topic on ELL.

And if we stick to the mantra that ELL is for foreign speakers and ELU for natives, and then end up with non-natives asking questions about study-of-English here and natives asking everyday English questions on ELU, then my honest belief is that the two should be re-merged, because there'd be no good reason to have both.

So in brief, behind the scenes I'm already campaigning to have that part of our strap-line removed. Although I think ELL will primarily serve non-native learners of English, I do not want it to do so exclusively.

To answer your next question, ("where is a non-linguist who has 50 year of speaking under his belt to ask a question about usage?"), we need to ask the question "How does ELL differ from ELU, if it's not about the nationality of the asker?"

My opinion is that since ELL shouldn't be about questions asked by a non-native learner, it should be about questions that a non-native learner might ask. The distinction there is that if you're a native speaker and you're asking questions about everyday English, ask them here; don't ask them at ELU even though you are a native speaker of English.

Now admittedly, that's a little bit of a messy strap-line, since it requires us to all agree on who this hypothetical non-native learner of English is, so if we dig a little deeper into what that means, I think it means that ELL is for questions about everyday English. ELU on the other-hand has always preferred questions about the study of English, and questions that are non-academic and about everyday English should really be asked here instead.

I should point out that there is by no means a consensus that this is the direction ELL should take. It is merely my guiding principle for whether questions are on-topic on ELL or deserve me putting an "This should probably be on ELL" comment on ELU questions, and it also fits pretty nicely with some established norms between ELL and ELU. For example all of the following norms can be trivially deduced from a mission statement stating that ELL is about everyday English, and that ELU is about study of English:

Questions that (IMO) belong on ELL and not on ELU:

  • Most questions about using grammar, forming sentences or punctuation that you encountered in ordinary modern writing, or that you are planning to use yourself.

  • Help understanding English words, sentences and grammatical structure in context from media (including books, websites, newspapers, songs etc) that you encounter in normal, everyday life.

  • Help finding words or idioms for use in communicating with English people around you.

  • "Rules of thumb" that make learning English easier (even if ELU would normally dismiss those rules as "not a 'real' rule").

  • Questions that relate to pronunciation in the primary dialects of English, such as American English, British English, Australian English are also normally better on ELL (e.g. "Why does this person in this audio clip pronounce 'tomato' as /təˈmɑːtəʊ/ ?")

Questions that (IMO) belong on ELU and not on ELL:

  • Any "meta" question English (eg "Why do [British/American] people say [X] instead of [Y]?")

  • Any question about very old English, or how things came to be in English (e.g. etymology and history of grammar).

  • Any question that begins "Why does/did [GroupX] say/write"

  • Any question that begins "What is the origin of"

  • Any question about words and sentences that are not in normal everyday usage (e.g. "Is the antonym of 'doth' 'doth not' or "doesn't" ?").

  • Any question about very specific regional dialects (such as "What does the East-End rhyming slang 'apples and pears' mean?")

Questions that belong on neither ELL nor ELU:

  • Any question asking for someone to proofread a block of text you have written.

  • Any question with no context that asks for a dictionary definition of a word.

So, if we get back to your original question "where is a non-linguist who has 50 year of speaking under his belt to ask a question about usage?", my answer is ask it on ELL if it's about helping you communicate in modern, everyday English. If it's about studying English from a more academic perspective, post it on ELU.

5

I'm not sure our input is really needed here, as I think the community discussion has been great, and already hit all the key considerations. But, the team had some internal debate ourselves, and are big fans of this site, so wanted to share our quick thoughts:

Summary: Our ultimate conclusion was basically that @WendiKidd nailed it in her answer here.

Yes, this site should continue to target the kind of questions that people learning English as a second language need answered.

but...

  1. Note that we're talking about questions, not people. If a question is the type that a non-native speaker might ask, it's on-topic even if the asker is a native speaker.
  2. Questions needn't only be relevant to non-native speakers. There are TONS of on-topic questions here that I personally find helpful, because while they meet the requirement that a non-native might ask them, they're extremely helpful for those of us who still have to think hard about which "its" to use. This one, for example:

Is there any difference between “which” and “that”?

You're growing. You're gelling. You have enough real community to have productive debates like this one. Keep doing what you're doing. It's working.

2

No, I don't believe that ESL is a requisite factor for asking an ELL question. The ESL focus got put into some of our initial verbiage because many of the ELU questions that inspired this site were coming from non-natives. But maybe we need to rethink how some of our taglines are phrased, lest they create the wrong impression, particularly for those who don't know some of our history.

I've always thought we are ALL learners in one way or another, so we needn't work under the assumption that only non-native speakers have questions to ask here.

Where is a non-linguist who has 50 year of speaking under his belt to ask a question about usage?

I would say that depends on the nature of the usage question, and what kind of answer you are hoping to get.

Sure, a 50-year-old native speaker might wonder about some everyday language issue that wouldn't require a grammarian, linguist, or etymologist to explain. Feel free to ask that question on ELL.

When I was in college, I had a lot of friends who were not native speakers. They were very intelligent people, but, when it came to English, they sometimes got puzzled by some pretty basic things. There were two I remember well:

  • When we were getting ready to leave, a friend of ours would often say, "Let's make like a bakery truck, and haul buns." Another friend of ours (a non-native) would wonder, "What the heck does that mean?"

  • When we were very hungry, and headed to a donut shop, a friend of mine exclaimed, "I can hear the donuts screaming my name." Another friend of ours (a non-native) asked, "How can you hear the donuts?"

Both friends eventually saw the light. In the first case, I remember my friend chuckling quite heartily when he finally connected "let's depart" with the actions of a morning bakery truck. In the second, our friend eventually got to the point where she, too, could hear donuts in the distance screaming her name, once she was hungry enough.

I don't think those would make good ELU questions, but that's not because they happened to be questions posed by a non-native. (It just so happens that non-natives seem to have a lot of questions about everyday usage like that). Still, native speakers might have similar questions. For example: What were Happy Days characters referring to when they said, "Sit on it"? What does Sheldon mean when he says "Bazinga!" on The Big Bang Theory, and where does that word come from? Is it a good thing to be caught in a "Bad Romance"? I don't have to be a non-native to wonder about such things, but I wouldn't ask those questions on ELU just because I happen to be a fluent speaker. I'd put those kinds of questions on ELL.

Sometimes it's confusing, but only if we're overanalyzing it, I think. If it's the kind of question that would make an English professor smile and flex his parsing prowess, ask it on ELU. If it's the kind of question that's perplexing to you, but you have this underlying suspicion that many native speakers would say, "Oh, that's an easy one, I can handle this," then feel free to ask it on ELL, even if you're a 50-year-old Canadian. Provided that it's not so basic that it couldn't be answered on Google in five seconds, chances are that natives and non-natives will find the question and its answers interesting.

0

When the site was in Beta, the subject was risen, and generally met widespread approval. Then, in early beta, when I tried to address the change, it was waved away "we'll have time for that later, let's focus on answering questions and we'll define FAQ and scope when the site proves viable at all."

Now, when it's "later" suddenly it's "too late". The plea and consensus from Commitment time is forgotten and the change meets opposition.

You know, SE mods, there was this joke.

"Dad", says little Jimmy, "Buy me a tricycle!"
"Wait some two years, son, and I'll get you a real bicycle!"
So, Jimmy waited. In two years he comes to dad, "Dad, buy me a bicycle!"
"Why won't you wait a few year, when I'd get you a motorbike?"
Teen Jimmy comes, "Dad, buy me a motorbike!"
"Wait some two-three years and you'll get a Harley!"
Jim enters adulthood and asks dad "Can I get that Harley?"
"Are you insane? You can't even ride a tricycle! Why would you want a Harley?!"

Reading Wendikidd's answer here, I'm feeling like that Jimmy.

Per request, a quote from my original question that underlines whom would this serve:

My basic issue is that ELU is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts.

ELL is supposed to be for English learners

And we still have no site for the most common kind of visitors: For English users:

  • Engineers striving for a good word to describe given situation in documentation.
  • Aspiring writers who are not sure about a correctness of their grammar in given sentence.
  • Students, whose work has been turned in with an error underlined, and they can't guess the nature of the error.
  • Managers worried about using jargon in their formal documents.
  • Researchers stumbling upon a sentence that contains ambiguity or an error, trying to untangle and understand it.

In other words, the people for whom the language is not a hobby, nor the subject of their job, and simultaneously not a new, steep mountain they must scale. Common people for whom the language is a daily tool.

Edit: (because the "comment" box format is quite restricting)

@dcaswell: Pretty much what was outlined in the linked Area51 plea: English for Language Users.

Let's see at the FAQ:

English Language Learners Stack Exchange is for people who are learning or teaching English as a foreign language, and common-day English users.

(...)

  • Word choice and usage
  • Grammar
  • Dialect differences; Formality of expressions
  • Spelling and punctuation
  • Understanding English expressions and idioms.
  • Practical problems you encounter while learning or using English

The changes to the points are very small and pretty much overlap with Learners scope. The essential change is in the tagline. I've already seen outraged and stupefied question on ELU meta of a person who is a native speaker, asked a usage question and got referred to ELL.

  • I don't think it's that "English users" don't have a site. Both sites are available to them. If they want to know how to get some particular aspect of usage "correct", they can ask on ELL (assuming it's not so trivial they could easily have looked it up elsewhere). If they want the backstory on why/when/where one usage is favoured over another, it's more likely to be suitable for ELU. – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '13 at 17:52
  • @FumbleFingers: Yes, except the tagline chases them away. – SF. Oct 4 '13 at 19:38

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