5

One of the 3 custom reasons for closing a question is the “Language-specific” property, expressed in the check-box item “Language-specific grammar and usage questions are off-topic unless primarily concerned with linguistics rather than usage”. IMO closing questions on this grounds is “unfair” because it is not enumerated in the “and is not about” list (advice or help on learning a foreign language; translation requests; trees; things not about linguistics). Nor do I think that you can reasonably infer that language-specific grammar and usage questions are “not about linguistics”, based on the “is about” list. One can conclude that Language-specific grammar and usage questions are off-topic if one has enough reputation to close questions and have actually tried to close a question and encounter this reason; or if you keep track of currently-visible closed questions and see this reason. But I don’t think that is a reasonable requirement for knowing what is off-topic, given that we could simply fix the help center to mention this basis.

A dozen questions were closed over the past 90 days on this grounds. An example of a question closed on this basis is the 2-verbs question, which asks if having 2 consecutive verbs (in English) means that the first is an auxiliary. The question does not ask about a causal linguistic explanation, it just asks if this is a correct generalization, and it is only about English.

One inference you could make about the “Language-specific” restriction is that questions about a specific language are off-topic. If that is the intent, then we do a poor job of closing questions, because very many questions that don’t get closed are about single languages. Some recent examples (I’m not proposing that these should be closed) are this, this and this. These questions do not clearly invoke a scientific linguistic issue (whereas the Malay copula question is more clearly “concerned with linguistics”). Based on actual patterns of question non-closure, I surmise that a question about a single language which does not have a discernible theoretical linguistic agenda is not per se off topic. I do not know what a ban on language-specific grammar questions is supposed to achieve, and I don’t see how the targeted question-askers could understand what they are not supposed to do.

The “unless” clause (“unless primarily concerned with linguistics rather than usage”) of this closure-ground is also puzzling, since “linguistics” vs. “usage” is a false dichotomy. Not everything is either “about linguistics” or “about usage”, and I do not see what “rather than usage” contributes. The 2-verbs question is basically about a grammatical generalization, though not expressed in terms of any theory of syntax, but it is not about “usage”, at least in any meaning of “usage” that I have ever encountered. I have no idea what kinds of bad things are supposed to be excluded by not allowing questions about usage. Is this code for questions with prescriptive presuppositions (and if so, why do we not simply make clear what our ideological stance is regarding normative topics, even scientific (sociolinguistic) ones?).

Another example of a “language-specific” question is the "productivity" question which basically asks whether the semantics of “productivity” and “creativity” are the same. In this case, I can see a connection between the question and “usage”, since this is a referential question about semantics, asking whether the extension of the terms is identical (though not using such a fancy term as “extension”). A dumb way to ask whether “cat” and “dog” have the same semantic properties is to ask if they can be felicitously used the same way. I would not have assumed that a question asking about the referential properties of two words is about “usage”, and this is certainly not a violation of any anti-normativity question.

The closure of the "yet-history" question about the historical semantics of English “yet” is likewise puzzling, since it asks about multiple languages (I don’t speak Old English or Middle English but I do speak Modern English, therefore these are not the same language).

Now the question part. First, can someone explain the intent of the sentence “Language-specific grammar and usage questions are off-topic unless primarily concerned with linguistics rather than usage”. Second, can we make the help center accurately reflect that intent?

[Addendum]

Regarding questions of the type "Do I use on or in with verb X?", there are a number of ways such a question might be posed (applied to "stand ___ line", in English). Specifically:

  • Should I say 'Stand in line' or 'Stand on line'?
  • In Standard English, do you say 'Stand in line' or 'Stand on line'?
  • Do English speakers usually say 'Stand in line' or 'Stand on line'?
  • In English, does the verb "stand" select "in" or "on" before "line" as a complement?

The first phrasing is explicitly normative, and the other three are descriptive, thus in some minimal way linguistic. Is it just the first version that should be avoided, or all three? Also, note that I'm only asking about questions that are to be closed, not ones that can be migrated to a different SE site. A valid dichotomy would be between descriptive questions and normative questions. Does it accomplish the intent of the "Language-specific" restriction to say that all normative questions are off-topic? The first version of the question would be OT given that. The other versions of the question ask for factual information. Since "Standard English" is not a well-defined object, the second version of the question would really run afoul of the opinion-based restriction, though applied to some other language with an actual codified standard, there could be such a thing as a correct answer.

  • 2
    All four of those example questions should be off-topic. – curiousdannii Aug 17 '15 at 7:53
5

explain the intent of the sentence “Language-specific grammar and usage questions are off-topic unless primarily concerned with linguistics rather than usage”

Regarding questions of the type "Do I use on or in with verb X?", there are a number of ways such a question might be posed (applied to "stand ___ line", in English).

There are already several language-specific Stackexchange sites that cater to questions of that kind. Each of the four examples would have been migrated to ELL.

A valid dichotomy would be between descriptive questions and normative questions.

Personally, I am not really interested in this dichotomy. As you explained, questions of one of those kinds can be rephrased into questions of the other kind.

This rule gives us a basis for migrating questions to other Stackexchange sites. Not all such questions can be migrated, for instance, when the language-specific question is about meaning or usage, but the language is not currently served by a Stackexchange site. We sometimes get questions about the meaning of phrases in Latin, Sanskrit, etc. This rule gives us a basis for closing the question in such cases.

Regarding the question on "creativity" vs "productivity", I understand "productivity" in linguistics, but haven't come across "creativity". I would have closed the question for being unclear. However, I faulted my own limited expertise in linguistics, and gave the question the benefit of the doubt. To some extent, the questioner is at fault too. He asked about some terms, but did not explain how he currently understands them. And regarding the question on "yet", all I saw was a bunch of largely related meanings. As with the previous question, my own preference is to close this question for being unclear. Instead, I deferred to other users to decide on these.

  • Not all such questions can be migrated, for instance, when the language-specific question is about meaning or usage, but the language is not currently served by a Stackexchange site. Are you implying that a language-specific question about meaning or usage may be kept open if there is not a language-specific stackexchange site, or that the question may simply be closed without migrating? I would love to ask some questions about the Turkish language here, but I don't see a language-specific site on Area51 – David Kaczynski Jun 5 '17 at 16:01
  • 1
    @DavidKaczynski That would depend on what kind of question you'd want to ask about Turkish. If it's not on-topic here, you could try languagelearning.stackexchange.com – prash Jun 7 '17 at 13:44
4

One inference you could make about the “Language-specific” restriction is that questions about a specific language are off-topic.

They're not. And that's why those questions are not closed. That close reason refers to asking about usage, such as "Do I use on or in with verb X?". That's a question that should be posted on EL&U.

The “unless” clause (“unless primarily concerned with linguistics rather than usage”) of this closure-ground is also puzzling, since “linguistics” vs. “usage” is a false dichotomy.

It's not intended to be a dichotomy. It's only a mention of two spheres of interest, where one is on topic, and the other is not.

The closure of the "yet-history" question ...

I'd like to hear the rationale behind the closing of that question.

First, can someone explain the intent of the sentence “Language-specific grammar and usage questions are off-topic unless primarily concerned with linguistics rather than usage”. Second, can we make the help center accurately reflect that intent?

Sure (although I don't remember who wrote it).

  1. Questions that concern grammar and usage are off topic and should be asked on the relevant sites. However if these questions are approached from a Linguistics perspective, then they're fine. For example, the first example is not about Linguistics, the second is, even if it's only about one language (despite the comparison with other languages).

  2. Yes, of course. Feel free to suggest a wording that you think would work better.

1

Here's how I'd approach these questions:

If a question could be answered solely through looking up a dictionary or corpus then it's off-topic

If a question could simply and uncontroversially be answered by looking up a popular grammar of a language, then it's off-topic

If a question asks about a grammatical issue which is debated, such that different grammars explain it in different ways, or such that different linguistic frameworks (e.g. generative vs functional) give different answers, then it is on-topic

Regardless of the source of the answer, if it can be answered in a sentence or two then it should almost always be off-topic. There are lots of ways your stand-X-line questions could be answered: personal native speaker intuition, NGrams, phrase dictionaries, possibly the CGEL. But all of them are going to say "The usage evidence is clear: English speakers say 'stand in line'", and other than a link to the evidence, that's all they can say. All four of your example questions are off-topic.

0

The way I understand it is that "usage" involves inquiry into the what, while linguistics questions involve inquiry into how or why. For example,

Usage questions

  • What is the first person past tense for this verb?
  • Does the plural of this noun have a silent letter splat?
  • Do adverbs in Floogese belong before the verb or after the verb?

Linguistics questions

  • Why do Floogese three-syllable verbs tend to have an irregular first person past tense?
  • How did the silent letter splat develop in so many plurals? Do we know when or why people may have stopped pronouncing it?
  • Why do adverbs go before the verb in Floogese? All of the other Realmian languages spoken throughout the Ten Lands put adverbs after the verb. Could this be related to influence from Margorian?
  • 1
    If you review the comments (on Q's, across the years), you will see that "why" questions are generally denounced, and people are urged to turn them into "what" questions. So that poses a problem. E.g. the adverb ordering question should be something like "what is the rule for adverb ordering in Floogese". – user6726 Nov 4 at 15:37
  • Yeah, why questions aren't great too. The real difference is that your linguistic questions concern observable language change of a whole system. – curiousdannii Nov 5 at 23:26

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .