Am I the only one who sees a problem with "Help me with this syntax tree" questions?

I think they don't work at all for the Stack Exchange Q&A format for several reasons:

  1. There's no intuitive way to title them so they all end up as variations of "Syntax tree problem".
  2. Stack Exchange does not permit the same question title to be reused.
  3. There's little chance that these questions will ever help anyone but the OP, and that's not what Stack Exchange is primarily for.
  4. The questions are not distinguishable in web searches, unless you already know the particular wording of a particle question, meaning you've seen it before.

Also, as I've learned from reading the comments and answers to a fair few of these questions, it often depends on too many factors, often the opinion of some professor who is destined to see it.

This is not to say that all syntax tree questions should be off-topic, just the "help me with this particular syntax tree" questions.

General questions about the hows and whys of syntax trees should still be OK.

Should we declare this "bad" type of syntax tree question off-topic?

  • 2
    Tagging this featured so it gets seen more. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Mar 25, 2014 at 8:25

2 Answers 2


Questions like "Make me a syntax tree" are from now on Off Topic.

If you think a particular case can be made On Topic by adding some requirements to the question, feel free to comment under this answer.


This only refers to questions asking the community to "do the homework for me". If you provide the tree yourself and ask questions about it (maybe you want a clarification or you have doubts about something), that is on topic. Also, as noted by curiousdanii in the comments, it'd be appropriate to identify which theory of syntax you're working under.

Please make sure your title is as specific as possible to your problem, in order to avoid a myriad of titles like "help with syntax tree".

You raise good points, I'm not too happy either. Especially the point about the titles, they always end up being very similar if not the same. If nothing reasonable comes up, I'm in favor of making them off topic.

Perhaps we can redirect them to our Chat Room (which is very underused) but that's it.

  • 1
    That's a pity! Where to ask alternatively those questions?
    – Quidam
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 16:33
  • 1
    @PERCE-NEIGE Note that questions about syntax trees are not off topic as long as your question is properly asked. What is off topic is "Make me a syntax tree", so providing a sentence and asking us to do it for you is off topic. But if you provide a sentence and the syntax tree you made and you ask us for help on it (maybe you're not sure about something you did), that is on topic. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 22:21
  • @PERCE-NEIGE See edit above.
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 22:24
  • 1
    Can you add that on-topic questions need to identify which theory of syntax they're using? Providing a full tree with a question is still close to unanswerable if we can't tell what theory/model they're working under.
    – curiousdannii Mod
    Commented May 13, 2017 at 23:02
  • @curiousdannii sure.
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 22:55

I do not believe that the guidelines on tree questions are clear enough. I'm inspired by a recent tree question, where the post proposes a tree and asks for specific correction (what "to" is). The question does not literally request people to make a tree, but it could be seen as a variant of such a request (such questions are sometimes closed, e.g. "Lucy reported that scientists wonder if the medicine will work"). The above-mentioned reasons are half about title problems, and I don't understand what the real issue is there. The statement There's no intuitive way to title them so they all end up as variations of "Syntax tree problem" is ambiguous. Does that mean "title them in such a way that they...", or "title them, and therefore they...". There's an underlying presupposition about titles that I'm not getting.

The main feature of tree-drawing questions which I find most useless is something that extends to various other questions not even about syntax, namely the class of "please do my homework" questions. That class of questions seem to really meet the objection of there being little chance that the question will ever help anyone but the OP, and it seems to me that "do my homework" questions themselves should be banned.

It seems to me that the third objection is a particularly relevant one, but it should be more general and also more explicit. In the case of "Lucy reported", there is no discernable general question, whereas in the question about the infinitive complementizer, there is, and the questions could even have been phrased as "what label immediately dominates infinitival 'to'?". Thus, on-topic questions should transparently generalize to some class of linguistic phenomena.

Obviously, closing vs. not closing questions about syntax trees depends on how some number of readers feel about a question, and the "Ginny thinks Harry is dreamy" question does in my opinion satisfy the desideratum of generality (it asks about the status of be-Adj phrases and whether be is a "verb").

My reason for posting this answer is to try to create a bit more guidance for posters, so that people will better understand what kinds of questions to not post, and why. The help center partially defines "on-topic" via 4 "and not" conditions, one of them being "Please make me a syntax tree" which points to this question. This therefore would be an appropriate place (if not the most appropriate place) to put clarificatory comments.

  • 1
    Great analysis. I think you should start a new Meta question on how specifically to improve the wording in the help centre. We can also rescue good questions hidden in what look to be off-topic by some, by editing them or by making suggestions in the comments for the OP to edit and change the focus. Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 3:38

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