Proposal: English Language Learners

Since the proposal has been re-opened and given the excitement its closure caused, I think it is appropriate to further discuss the delineation between ELL and EL&U.

Let us begin with the focus of the sites.

ELL is intended to be geared toward the needs of both people learning English and people teaching English. I feel these general topics (which are currently housed on EL&U) encompass many of those aspects:

  • article usage (a, an, the, no article)
  • preposition usage
  • verb tense
  • basic, common syntactical structures
  • meanings of slang terms and common idioms
  • single word requests in the vicinity of "how is this concept/idiom expressed in English?"
  • standard writing etiquette
  • methods for learning how to pronounce English sounds clearly

EL&U is geared toward expert and advanced level question about the English language and how it is used. I feel that these general topics represent the level of questions that are desired on that site:

  • complex syntax
  • unusual or academic structures
  • origin/history of words and idioms
  • meanings/usages of obscure or archaic words
  • interpretation of jokes/puns
  • analysis of dialects, pidgins, creoles
  • analysis of grammatical structures
  • evolution of spelling, pronunciation, etc.

I put this out for your review. I am interested to know what people think about this delineation. I offer it as a starting point and fully expect that it will evolve from here.

  • I'm all in favor of an ELL site. EL&U is too unfriendly to EFL/ESL students, has too many linguistics experts who don't understand how to talk to ELL, & isn't de facto restricted to advanced Qs about English. The topics proposed for ELL are, as far as they go, perfect. There certainly are more needed, but they can be added. One policy point I'd like to see is No downvotes without at least one specific reason, not one of the generic reasons now given for closing Qs on EL&U. I'd switch to ELL exclusively if it existed.
    – user70308
    Commented Nov 18, 2012 at 1:45

4 Answers 4


One thing that's off-topic on ELU but is frequently asked-for is interpretation of words in poems, songs, or literature. Currently this is deemed too subjective and argumentative and thus OT, but I'd argue that it's also a form of advanced word usage and thus of interest to our users.

  • 4
    Hmm, yes. Perhaps if we look as it as possible meanings of the phrases or here are some ways to put these phrases into non-poetic syntax rather than "this is what this poem means."
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 13:24
  • 2
    Yeah, it's difficult to draw a line between explaining words and drawing conclusions about an artists's intent. But sometimes there are ambiguities in prose. And metaphors are not off-topic. Well, sometimes they are. But considering how much existing ELU stuff gets pushed to ELL, I think there will be room for expanding the ELU topics a bit. Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 13:52
  • Yes @Mr. Shiny; it absolutely needs an open room where the people can talk about this matter; so, I hope Cantarino can create it. Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 20:00
  • 1
    I think it's pretty well established in practice that the interpretation of the language in works is on-topic, just not anything that crosses the line into interpretation of the works themselves. That distinction does need to be made explicit. Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 13:50

KitFox, I agree with you (+1) and appreciate your operative intent to delineate the boundary of the new proposal: yes, the two Q&A sites should be complementary, and, hence, there is no need to list both the kind of questions that will be better to ask on ELL rather than on EL&U, or vice versa.

ELL-list-question is sufficient for that purpose ["Is it correct to write 'ELL-list-question' ?"]

On the point, I would say as follow.

ELL, as its name suggest, should have practical purpose to give learners the most important information they need in order to deal with common language, instead EL&U should have to deal with all the details of complex structural points.

So I would add to your ELL list the following topic:

  • be, do, have and modal auxiliares ["Is it grammatical to add the auxiliary 'do' to the second verb in V+V structures?"];

  • infinitives and participles ["Is it grammatical to say 'I stopped to run'?  If not, why?"];

  • pronouns ["Is there difference between 'some-' and 'any-' prefixes?"];

  • determiners (article, possessives, demonstratives | other determiners on EL&U);

  • adverb position ( other adverb topics on EL&U);

  • spoken grammar ["Can he swim? 1) 'Yes, he can'. 2) 'Yes, he can swim': which one is more natural?"];

  • spelling & punctuation ["Is there any correlation between language and punctuation?"];

  • age & date.

I added some example questions with the only purpose to explain the limit of the associated topic, but incidentally I noticed that there is already an answer to these questions in EL&U. So another question arise in my brain (yes, I have a brain!): "Will EL&U be a general reference site respect to ELL?"

  • 2
    Some other topics you might want to consider (I defer to you): contractions. number/gender/person agreement. tense/aspect/voice/mood. conjunctions and coordination/subordination. Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 16:22
  • I'd say no, EL&U can't be a general reference site since it's not an extremely abundant resource like Wikipedia or a dictionary...plus ELL will almost certainly not get a General Reference close reason since that experiment sort of failed. It's too subjective and complex of a close reason
    – Ben Brocka
    Commented Dec 13, 2012 at 13:12

This is an important contribution to the discussion. Defining specific question topics moves us towards clear, and operationally very useful, distinctions between the two sites.

I think it also points towards another type of distinction: the two sites require very different sorts of answer. And here I think it may be useful to recall the prescriptivist/descriptivist distinction, which Cameron’s recent ELU blog post reminds us need be neither futile nor contentious.

  • In my opinion (subject to correction by people who actually know something about it), ELL should be expressly and unapologetically prescriptivist. Learners are not helped by finely discriminating subtleties; they need simple, easy-to-understand and easy-to-follow rules which will give them confidence to move upward to the next level. Give them no more than three registers to distinguish—say, Formal, Colloquial, and Vulgar—and draw firm lines between them. And put the emphasis on the Formal register. Test-Takers in particular need to be told, wherever possible,“Do it this way and you will never be wrong.

True story: In WWII my father’s CO asked how he, an honors graduate of one of the most prestigious English departments in the country, could possibly fail the exam for OCS. My father responded “Bad questions, and worse answers to choose from.” A lot of learning is in some circumstances a dangerous thing.

  • ELU, by contrast, should be descriptivist in its approach to grammatical matters, scholarly in its approach to historical and theoretical matters. They’re the same thing, really: resting arguments on the evidence for assertions and the descriptive adequacy of concepts.

So if OP wants a rule, the question goes to ELL; if she wants analysis, research, theory, the question goes to ELU.

I don’t put this forward as an alternative to KitFox’s approach, but as a supplement. I think that looking at both the subject-matter of the question posed and the kind of answer required will dissipate much of the fog and help draw the line between the two sites more clearly.

  • 4
    Yes, I think ELL should look at answers that help learners, in other words, what are the broad, general rules that will help us in most cases. In contrast, I think EL&U questions would examine the oddities, the exceptions, the nuances of English.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 17:11
  • "... the question goes to ELL"? Nice. Can I borrow that?
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:05
  • @Robusto Of course. You don't even have to give it back, I have a spare. Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 21:28
  • I understand your concern, and I agree with you up to a point, but I don't agree that answers must be simplistic. A simplistic answer ("don't use ain't") is fine on ELL, and a firm recommendation not to use it in anything (semi-)formal is absolutely required; that is, a subtle "this word is mostly found in informal contexts" is not enough. However, adding a bit more context about when you can use it, and various subtle shades of appropriateness, would make the answer better, not worse, as you seem to suggest—provided that basic and clear prescriptive advice as above is included.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 10, 2013 at 23:19
  • I mostly agree; but I do want to make sure we're helping students up the ladder rung-by-rung, not trying to show off our strength by throwing them straight onto the roof! Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 1:30
  • @StoneyB: Certainly, I agree about the roof: first a floor, then perhaps a roof. But a roof will still be a positive thing to have, once the floor has been firmly laid out.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 4:56

meanings/usages of obscure or archaic words

The problem is learners often don't know the word is obscure or archaic (and use it in common speech and sound like morons!). I think recommending a brief answer detailing "this is a very rarely used word" or "this word fell out of use and is archaic" with a single common synonym would be quite satisfactory type of answers to these. Alternatively, migrate to ELU but hammer it into their heads not to close that as general reference!

interpretation of jokes/puns

I strongly disagree. This is one of best ways of learning English and in particular of its caveats: avoiding misunderstandings. Of course it is dead boring and lame and nausea-inducing plus a crime against humor for advanced English users, so the motion to forbid it is understandable, but it's an invaluable learning resource for idioms, phrasal verbs and homophones.

analysis of grammatical structures

I wouldn't treat this point as a law. I mean, to perform a complete analysis or describe a complete set of tenses used in a sentence is too much, but pointing out if given word in a sentence should be understood as a noun or verb or adverb shouldn't be too bad - if they want to use the dictionary but don't know which of the entries to pick, they should be encouraged, not discouraged.

Other points:

  • I'd definitely request picking one of the sites (probably ELL because ELU seems to hate the idea, even though personally I believe it belongs there) as one allowing requests for references to resources: "Where can I learn more about?" "What should I read to understand this [far too broad and bound to be closed as "non-constructive"] topic?" because it appears .se becomes a site for "Answers for questions that have concise answers". In other words, close as non-constructive only if the answer is a subject to argument. Not when it's too broad to fit in an answer, but exists elsewhere as an article or a book.

  • On similar note, one of most frequently closed as "not constructive" ELU question types is "open word choice", where the asker asks "what word would fit a given bill" and will always get a list of words that do. The argument goes "Since there is no single correct answer, no answer is better than three different answers, all correct". I hope you see the fallacy here?

  • I wonder what about differences between close synonyms, as the dictionaries commonly fail to underline these and learners really follow (commonly wrong) hunch. You can recognize a learner by awkward word choice. I think this descriptive study should belong to ELU but it's currently quite unwelcome there.

  • A pretty frequent thing on ELU is questions of type "Is this sentence correct, and if not, what is wrong here?" The two intuitive answers to these two are "Yes, it is" and "no, here's why". The most common answers on ELU to these are "This is a general reference [close vote]" and "We are not a proofreading service [close vote]" I think the former should be more welcome on ELL.

  • I agree with most of your main points, but feel more strongly than you that "analysis of grammatical structures" is essential here. As for your four "other points": Resources, YES. The others, NO. Here especially the philosophy should be to demand answerable questions -- give askers every help you can, but make them invest and participate in the process, too, so they learn to use the language as a precision instrument. Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 4:41
  • Wait, where did I mention unanswerable questions? The closest I came to that is questions with more than one correct answer. The [differences] tag will survive the split, this is not a question. The question is which site it should belong to - I don't really have strong feelings either way. And for the last, I think it is better to encourage users to ask "Did I phrase it correctly?" than "How to phrase it?" (there will be abundance of both types, I can guarantee it!) - the latter has currently a much better survival chance on ELU than the former and I think ELL should prefer the opposite.
    – SF.
    Commented Dec 7, 2012 at 16:33
  • "Open word choice" asks the site to serve as a sequential thesaurus; if the asker has not consulted a thesaurus and is not prepared to explain in considerable detail why none of the answers there meets their need, then they're asking for a guess, not an answer. Synonyms are fine; but most words have a large penumbra, and we can't know what distinction is sought without context. Likewise "Is this sentence correct" is usually closed on ELU because insufficient context is provided--correct in what register, under what circumstances, to communicate what meaning? Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 0:19
  • @StoneyB: The problem with Thesaurus is not that "none fits", it's that "There are about 70 of them, do I really have to look through all 70 returned by the thesaurus to see which 3 fit?" - if the question narrows it down enough, it should be welcome. Likewise, you can clearly say "this sentence no verb." Thus, incorrect. Whether it fits a broader context is not what was asked and thus moot.
    – SF.
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 16:03

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