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I came across the question titled, "Syntax trees for sentences". The asker wrote three specific sentences for which he wanted syntax trees (phrase structure trees, presumably).

The asker also asked for an explanation of how to draw them. From the question, it was not clear to me if he wanted to know about just these sentences, or if he was looking for good reference material to understand phrase structure trees. I got the impression that it was a "gimme teh codez" question.

I like the idea of helping beginners get started. Each one of us could be considered "beginners" in many fields, and we're still curious about some of them. I don't like the idea of answering home-work questions. I believe that people learn best when they learn the matter (with or without assistance) and apply themselves to the problem. I understand that some problems are particularly tough to solve, and some kind of group-effort would help solve it more quickly. I got the impression that this was not such a question. Quite apart from this, some lecturers prefer their assignments done independently, and some don't have any such preferences.

Alenanno indicated that it's better to discuss this on Meta. I want to ask the community if we should encourage such questions. Are there good reasons to encourage it? Besides what I wrote above, are there good reasons to discourage it?

  • I added the link to your comment there so people can directly come here. :) – Alenanno Mar 21 '12 at 10:20
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    These are coming in really frequently now... – curiousdannii Dec 6 '13 at 0:38
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Thanks for asking. I want to see more participation on Meta! :D I like people posting here, yes, even if they are complaints. Meta is not a Moderator-Announcement Board. It's one of the community tools to discuss about the Site and yes, also challenge some decisions. Not everything goes here, but questions like this one are good! :)


I'll kind of repeat what I said in the comments but I'd also like to add something more, now that I have the chance to write a full answer.

Regarding the specific question

While it's true that the OP didn't show any research effort in the question, I decided to leave the question. My thoughts are that in our case, unlike StackOverflow, questions about homeworks are different, they are kind of "harder". By this I mean that assignments in Linguistics are harder to understand because although Languages are quite definite systems (despite the general thinking), they are not as definite as code questions. So, it's not like asking for 1+1=2.

The user also just joined us. As you can see this is not only the OP's first question in Linguistics but also the user's first question across all the SE sites: he doesn't have the +100 given to you when you join second sites. Unless he decided not to associate accounts, of course. But given that he was new at least in our site, I think we could go easy on new users. Not only because they are just starting to understand how SE sites work (which are harder than regular forums), but also because if we just start scolding people and down-voting their questions, they will be scared away and we would lose a potential good user just for a single question.

While I'm glad to see that other users care about the rules and not just the "evil Mods" :D I think that in some cases we can close an eye and help beginners to make their way. I'm not saying they're justified to do anything. But in telling them what they should or shouldn't do, we could use a different approach.

Regarding the matter in general

I'd like to make it clear that my opinion is to keep homework questions and not ban them. Why ban a possible resource for more questions? They can still raise interesting points, and so I think we should keep them. That been said, I also think we need to set some minimum standards, to make sure we don't get "gimme teh codez" questions.

For example: Ask the OP to show some "tries". We don't care if they are totally wrong. We just want to see that the OP tried to do something so we can also help more effectively on the specific problems. And if it turns out that they didn't understand anything, then we could also explain the whole thing, but still encourage for research effort.

I don't know what other criteria we could use, but we can certainly discuss about this. I'm open to suggestions.

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I don't think we should keep homework questions like the case under discussion. Even with effort and documented attempts to draw the trees, the question ("how do I draw these") isn't particularly relevant or interesting, it's just rote computation, and such questions should be prohibited unless the user can demonstrate a broader connection or interest. If the student had asked why sentences were represented in trees, or why trees were binary, or had asked in general how to understand/decipher a syntactic tree, that would have been a SE question, in my opinion.

It would be nice, speaking as a student, for there to be more resources for beginning linguists. However, questions of this type seem to be designed not to help the asker learn "how" but just to find the answer without necessarily understanding why it works.

If nothing else, the question was too localized. It was asking about the syntax of a few sentences in one language, with no bigger connection.

  • Why do you think that the question isn't particularly relevant or interesting? The user wasn't asking how to use a program or service to do it, but the logic behind a syntax tree. – Alenanno Apr 3 '12 at 10:48
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    They explicitly DID NOT ask what the logic behind a syntax tree was. They asked "how do I draw these". In fact, when the answer came -- which amounted to just trees -- they also did not ask WHY the trees were the way they were. IMO it is not relevant because 1) we are hopefully not in the business of just giving out homework answers and 2) it is not interesting because it is just rote computation. If such questions are allowed I would prefer if we just directed the asker to a resource which would show them how to do it themselves -- for example the Penn online syntactic textbook. – user325 Apr 3 '12 at 14:25
  • The question was ambiguous and I think also the comment posted by the same OP was as well. At best, we could agree this particular question wasn't the best example for good homework questions. But I'm against banning them all just because they're homework questions. Like I said in my answer, if there is effort being shown (and possibly, collaboration too), the question is fine. – Alenanno Apr 3 '12 at 14:31
  • How is there "effort being shown"? The OP didn't even specify what syntactic framework he had in mind. Accepting these kinds of questions only lowers the standard further. – Fryie Aug 9 '13 at 5:24
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Here's a similar question

I think this one's a reasonable one to answer. It's not quite as give-me-the-answer as the other one, and additionally, probably the answer will not be in the exact same format as a student might need to answer. (There are lots of different ways of drawing trees, such as NP/DP, skipping intermediate nodes etc.)

  • I think that was a very good answer. And thanks for the link to physyntaxtree. – jlawler Oct 17 '13 at 17:04

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