An ELL user recently posted a meta question, but then deleted it within minutes after it was posted. Too bad, because it was addressing an issue I thought needed to be brought up.

The question surrounded a recent ELL answer (more specifically, the editorial comments within that answer):

I am sorry, but I don't understand all these questions and complicated answers. I can't imagine how a simple [issue] can raise such a grammatical discussion.

These comments were (rightfully, in my mind) edited out of the answer, but they reminded me of a couple other comments I saw just the day before:

Eye opening. It seems trivial to be answering such simple phrases with such an elaborate answer. It would seem to me, if you can understand this answer, you should already know the answer to the question. Gonna explore this stack some more, but so far, i [sic] don't see the point?


I seriously dont understand how people can understand EVERY answer I've seen on this site and still ahve [sic] the questions they do! Like I wouldn't even know how to answer a question, because I feel like I'd have to explain every other word I used. It just doesn't make sense to me. Point is, it appears useless, and in my mind, that doesn't make sense.

I'm surprised someone needs to say this, but let me say it: this Stack Exchange is for people who are learning English as a second (or third, or maybe even fourth) language.

Please, no more editorial comments about "Why is this such a big deal? This is trivial!" – not in answers, not in comments. Moreover, no, these questions not trivial. Puzzled native speaker, imagine that you had a question about Italian, or Korean, or Farsi: How easy would it be for you to get confused? How challenging might it be to pose your question in that language? And how appreciative would you be if a native speaker graciously took time to offer a detailed explanation?

This Stack Exchange was set up so a confused non-native could ask these questions without any condescending remarks. As an example, a simple English word like get can have dozens of meanings – formal and informal, common and uncommon, idiomatic and phrasal. I can get angry, I can get a disease, I can get a joke, I can get a ride home; I can get on a horse, I can get on the ball, I can get on the wagon. That can be a lot to digest, especially in a second or third language.

So, if you find yourself amazed at a detailed answer for a seemingly simple question, and you find yourself wondering, "I can't imagine how a simple issue can raise such a grammatical discussion," I have two recommendations:

  1. Imagine harder.
  2. Keep your incredulity to yourself. It isn't welcome here.

Now, I can get off my soapbox.

  • 2
    As a footnote, I realize only a very few users have made such uninformed comments. Most of the ELL regulars understand what we're all about, and function well together as a community. But if similar remarks get made in the future, feel free to flag the comment or edit the answer, and then point the user here. – J.R. Feb 23 '14 at 1:31
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    A salutary reminder indeed. Because I often flick between ELL/ELU, I might sometimes forget "where I am" (i.e. - who am I addressing, and in what context, when I post a comment). I will continue to be irked by querents on ELU who don't know/can't be bothered to capitalise "I", for example. But I must constantly bear in mind that cultural as well and language differences call for far greater tolerance on ELL. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 23 '14 at 2:32
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    Note that it is perfectly acceptable (and completely expected) that you just delete these off-color comments on sight with a thoughtful note that we simply do not do that here. See Summer of Love and Rudeness as a Defense Against Vampires. – Robert Cartaino Feb 25 '14 at 16:49
  • @Robert - I agree that would be the normal course of action. And this is not usually a problem on ELL, but three questionable comments in two days prompted me to write this reminder. Thanks for your support. – J.R. Feb 25 '14 at 20:01
  • The question may be posed by someone who is extremely knowledgeable about grammar but needs a tip on applying their knowledge to a new language. A detailed answer will not only fully address their question but also help with the framework for other matters; a simple answer would not bring that deeper understanding. – toandfro Feb 25 '14 at 20:43
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    Devil's advocate here: the way I interpret those comments is that they're complaining about the complex language used in the answers because the OP is not likely to understand such complex language. IOW, the problem isn't the bare fact that the answer is complex, the problem is that as a result, the answer is unlikely to help the person who is asking the question, because if the person asking the question were capable of understanding such complex language, they wouldn't have had their question in the first place. Make sense? – Martha Feb 27 '14 at 19:55
  • @Martha - You may be right. After all, English is hard enough to understand when you have the benefit of hearing added inflections and seeing added gestures. When all you get is Helvitica 12, there's plenty of room for misinterpretation. – J.R. Feb 27 '14 at 20:48
  • @Martha That's how I understood it as well. "if you can understand this answer, you should already know the answer to the question" sounds to me like a helpful suggestion to remind answerers of their audience (language learners) and to explain things as simply as possible. – starsplusplus Mar 7 '14 at 11:43

That was me. Here's a little background on that:

So I'll explain some of my ideas/concerns about this, yet with the caveat that I don't know the meta.ell.se or meta.se or se processes. (So anything I say could be "not even wrong", and I know that.) I'll start with an ell.se "mission statement":

  • "We're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about learning the English language." (From https://ell.stackexchange.com/tour)

    I don't see this as possible. Maybe this:

  • "We're working together to to build the best library of high quality answers to any question about learning the English language."

Since it's a "library of questions" it seems to me that nearly all question titles should be edited to represent the best {question, answer} pair in terms of what an average person would ask in order to find the corresponding answer. (Otherwise, it's less of a library and more like a room full of post-its.) The hope is that each {question, answer} 2-tuple will (statistically) serve far greater value over the long term than the immediate term.

This leads into a lot of topics, one of which is "editing out rude answers" in order to make the answers "high quality". (If "detailed answers" were the goal, then rude comments could add lots of detail!)

While removing criticism from answers is generally good, there are also some practical and philosophical issues to address. How does one insure quality in such edits? "Hey, I know that any such edits of mine would be high quality, but I'm not so sure some other people could do the same!</end_tongue_in_cheek>" Text mediums are notorious for conveying a critical tone when there is none. Also, there may be valid points of view embedded within critical tone. Here's one sentence from the original post that started this thread:

  • "I am sorry, but I don't understand all these questions and complicated answers. I can't imagine how a simple [issue] can raise such a grammatical discussion."

Should I cut this out? (I did.) But there's also a (possible) value concept behind the "bad attitude". Should we not strive to assist the budding Answerists to identify the "wheat from the chaff"? I considered rewording or commenting roughly like this:

  • I think this question/answer is on the level of EL&U. There's absolutely no problem with this question, especially if you want to become an English grammar expert. But that's not necessarily the best path to language fluency; many ESL learners can complicate their path to English fluency by focusing on minute, specialized grammatical details.

The gruff point had some validity if one looked deep enough. I felt a little bad about removing it: not regret about making this a nicer place, but a sense of loss at removing a tiny gem within a spoonful of dirt. Had I more time or patience, I might have commented instead of removing it. But it was causing problems so I removed it.

  • 1
    Well said! For a relative newcomer, you sure have a lot of Stack Exchange wisdom. As for your "should I cut this out?" question, one option you have available is to simply flag the post. (Both answers and comments can be flagged.) Once flagged, a moderator will take a look at it, and make a determination. It's a good strategy to use when you find yourself sitting on the fence, unsure if something should be edited, deleted, or left alone. – J.R. Feb 27 '14 at 9:13

I certainly agree that comments that do nothing except insult the asker or the answerer are inappropriate. A comment like, "Only a moron would ask such a stupid question" serves no purpose except to insult. And I heartily agree that, "This question is too simple to deserve an answer" also adds no value. If the answer is obvious to you, then fine, don't bother reading it. Every answer on here must be known to SOMEBODY, or how did someone post an answer? No doubt many answers are known to many people. So what? No one is claiming that this forum is about new discoveries that will shock the world. It's about helping people who are not native speakers to learn to speak and write more like native speakers. Arguably many answers will be known to hundreds of millions of people.

My one caveat is that we should distinguish comments that are purely insults from those that critique an answer. "No, this answer is incorrect because ..." or "is incomplete because ..." can be valuable additions. I suppose there may be comments out there that give useful critique or additional information but that are worded in a way that is unnecessarily rude. I can't think of any I've seen off the top of my head, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it. And I suppose this is subjective. To some people even the most politely worded criticism is seen as a stunning rebuke. Others, you can call them names and swear at them and make death threats and they don't particularly care. (On another forum I recently posted a comment disagreeing with a post, in what I thought was a completely polite and respectful tone, and the person I disagreed with promptly ran to the site admins to complain.)

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