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Many of my edits fall into a few general areas; this seems to be true for edits made by other people as well. If people who ask questions on ELL would simply heed a few simple guidelines, the site would be a more enjoyable and useful place for everyone.


Proper capitalization

The words “I” and “English” always use a capital letter:

ELL is where i go to get help with my English. (incorrect)
ELL is where I go to get help with my english. (incorrect)
ELL is where I go to get help with my English. (correct)


How to punctuate with terminal punctuation (i.e., a period or question mark):

Put a single space after, but no space before, these punctuation marks:

This is the first sentence. This is the second sentence. (correct)
This is the first sentence . This is the second sentence. (incorrect)
What is my question? (correct)
What is my question ? (incorrect)


How to punctuate with commas and colons:

Put a single space after, but no space before, these punctuation marks:

This is the first part of the sentence, and this is the second part. (correct)
This is the first part of the sentence , and this is the second part. (incorrect)
That leads me to this question: How can this be? (correct)
That leads me to this question : How can this be? (incorrect)

Note: there are special uses for the colon that break this convention, such as time (7:30 PM), Scripture references (Matt. 7:12), mathematical odds and ratios (3:1). Some dictionaries also put a space before a colon to differentiate between the definition and the example usage:

word (noun) a message; news : I was afraid to leave town in case there was word from the office.


How to punctuate with quotation marks and parentheses:

Put a single space before the open quote, and after the close quote, but no space between the quotation marks and the words within the quotation:

Meaning of the phrase "on the radio" (correct)
Meaning of the phrase" on the radio " (incorrect)
Meaning of the phrase " on the radio" (incorrect)

These same rules apply to parentheses as well:

The radio is on (but I can't hear it) (correct)
The radio is on ( but I can't hear it) (incorrect)
The radio is on( but I can't hear it) (incorrect)


How to offset quoted material and example sentences from the rest of your question:

On Stack Exchange sites, use a ">" character at the beginning of a line to put material in a "quote box". Notice how, in the bad examples, it's harder to tell which part of the question is actually part of the question. In the improved examples, the quoted material looks like this:

This is how to offset quoted or example material.

Bad example:

A friend of mine said this, and another friend laughed, but I don't understand why this joke is funny.

I kept wondering why the train was getting bigger. Then it hit me.

Improved example:

A friend of mine said this, and another friend laughed, but I don't understand why this joke is funny.

I kept wondering why the train was getting bigger. Then it hit me.

Bad example:

He had a problem with me.
He had a problem over me.
Which preposition is the correct one to use?

Improved example:

He had a problem with me.
He had a problem over me.

Which preposition is the correct one to use?


Other helpful hints:

You can force a line break if you put two blank spaces at the end of a line:

Here is Line 1. Here is Line 2.

Here is Line 1.
Here is Line 2.

When typing, both of those look the same, except the second one has two blank spaces at the end of Line 1:

enter image description here

Also, when asking about a certain part of a long passage, it's also good to put the part you are asking about in bold print:

Poor example:

I'm wondering about why the author used a hyphen in cross-purposes:

Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.

Improved example:

I'm wondering about why the author used a hyphen in cross-purposes:

Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.


In short, the better you write your question, the more time people can spend writing a quality answer (as opposed to spending their time trying to figure out what you are trying to ask).

Also, we will have trouble attracting more people to ELL if the site is replete with sloppily-formatted questions.

If I've left out another commonly-encountered problem, feel free to add your example in an answer.

8

Use/mention distinction – talking about words, like the word “word”

When using English to discuss English, there can be confusion as to when a word is being used (as part of a the question itself or as part of the background) and when it is being mentioned (i.e. talked about, like in cases where someone has a question regarding the usage of a certain word).

Thankfully, English has some conventions in place that standardize the format of this distinction and make the difference easy to spot. If you learn them, your question will be easier to understand and will not require correction by another user.


Words and phrases

Quotation marks (“”)

This is the most reliable way to mark a word as a mention of itself. It works anywhere, including titles of questions. Here are some examples of question titles that use quotation marks well:

Most keyboards have a vertical double quote available ("). Mine is next to the Enter key and requires me to press Shift to type it.

If you want to get fancy with quotation marks in the body of a question you can type “ for left double quotation marks (“) and ” for right double quotation marks (”). You can then paste these from the preview into the title as needed.

Italics (example)

Because it is mentioned in the guide somewhere and because it is the chosen method of use/mention distinction of one of this communities’ most prestigious members, I will also mention italics. They don’t work in question titles, so you’ll still have to use quotation marks there, but in the body of a question it is possible to indicate mention of a word with italics. This is done by writing a _ or * character on either side of the word _like this_. <em></em> tags can also be used (<i></i> is deprecated on the mobile version of the site).

Things to avoid

To maximize clarity and consistency on this site, please don’t mark mentions of words or phrases with ‘single quotes’, code formatting, ALL CAPS, or bold.


A sentence or more of text

When quoting an entire section of text, or even just one full sentence from somewhere, it’s helpful to set that text off with some special formatting. Here’s an example, using > on a new line before a quotation:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.
Source: goodreads.com ― T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

You can also use <blockquote></blockquote> but be advised this may prevent you from using markdown formatting such as **this** or _this_ within the blockquote tag.

You may notice that I’ve also included a source link. This can be very helpful in giving people the context of where you found the text in the first place.

One thing to avoid

Some users come to ELL after already participating in a Stack Exchange that uses code formatting like this for similar purposes.

Please don’t use this formatting for your blockquotes.
  • 1
    I think you're wrong about tags. <em> tags are for emphasis. <i> tags are for setting something apart. For the use/mention distinction, <i> tags are probably to be preferred. – TRiG Apr 24 '14 at 14:27
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    W3: "The i element represents a span of text in an alternate voice or mood, or otherwise offset from the normal prose, such as a taxonomic designation, a technical term, an idiomatic phrase from another language, a thought, a ship name, or some other prose whose typical typographic presentation is italicized." – TRiG Apr 24 '14 at 14:31
  • <i></i> and <em></em> both make text look like this on this website, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at there. I agree with what you’ve cited, and in my own posts I use italics for foreign terms, etc. I don’t think this applies to use/mention. Your own comment is an example. You’re not mentioning the words “emphasis” and “preferred”, you’re using them in the sentence to fill their usual syntactic and semantic roles. – Tyler James Young Apr 24 '14 at 14:56
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    @TRiG Both <em> and <i> are styled the same way here (they both appear as italics), so they'll look the same to most users. But on the mobile site (click the link at the bottom), only <em> is styled. That means that <i> should never be used on Stack Exchange, unless they someday decide to fix the CSS bug or present another fix (like replacing <i> with <em> automatically). As an aside, if you use asterisks or underscores to create italics, the system replaces it with <em>. – snailboat Apr 24 '14 at 15:08
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    By the way, these tags are now styled on the mobile site, so it no longer matters whether you use <b> and <i> or the longer <em> and <strong>. – snailboat Aug 16 '14 at 13:14

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