Proposal: English Language Learners

The question of “General Reference” raised by Cool Elf at Bottom Falling Out will be especially knotty with regard to grammar questions on this site.

Grammar questions are going to be a very large part of our work. And we will be directing that work to an audience which is by definition unlikely to possess a sophisticated command of core concepts (subject, predicate, noun, verb, adjective, number, tense and the like) — an audience, indeed, to whom the concepts may be not merely unfamiliar but positively alien.

It’s virtually impossible to explain grammatical matters if the questioner doesn’t already command those basic concepts. Equally, it’s very tedious (and possibly counterproductive) to conscientiously define one or more of these terms afresh with each answer.

I think for most native speakers it’s “intuitively obvious” that these are General Reference matters. But as far as I know, there’s really no suitable online reference work for English grammar: a work, that is, which provides not only the authority but also the ease of lookup which a good dictionary provides in lexical matters.

It seems to me we are going to need to do two things:

  • develop a list of core grammatical terms we expect a questioner to understand, so our answers can focus on the particular issue the questioner brings to the table.
  • provide definitions of those terms—definitions which are intelligible to our audience and adequate to the issues we expect to be raised. Not just ‘dictionary’ definitions: concise but (gently) developed essays.

I ask, then, two questions:

  1. What terms do we need to define? — Along the way we’ll have to decide whether we restrict ourselves to ‘traditional’ grammar, extend our lexicon to terms employed in ‘neo-traditional’ grammars like CGEL, or go even farther afield and address the terminology of, for instance, functional and phrase-structure grammars. But I think we need a basic list.
  2. How shall we define them? —We might select an existing online grammar and provide an index of links to specific topics, we might construct a catalogue of links to a variety of sources — we might even write our own grammar. But I think we need some central source in which the definitions may be found with a minimum of effort and guesswork.
StoneyB, I'll leave this question because it addresses the core of why this proposal/site was created, but I would urge to you raise the question again when the (meta) site is created, so it can be discussed by the actual community using the site. – Robert Cartaino Dec 20 '12 at 16:49
@RobertCartaino Thank you. I certainly intend to pound away at it at every opportunity. – StoneyB Dec 20 '12 at 17:34

1) It should be definitely something a language learner can absorb whole in one sitting. (not learn/remember but get enough to know "I saw this in that resource page; I can re-visit that entry and read about this.") I think we should get all bare essentials here, and provide references with only briefest summaries to the rest. I think we really ought to outsource all the fancier topics to ELU.

2) I think something a'la a blog post with the essentials would be best. For now, I guess one of the very first questions on Beta should be "Could you give me a brief run-down of essentials of English grammar?" (which would be obviously far too broad later on, but doing it just once would resolve that problem once and for all.)

On top of that, another question to be posted as Important Resource should be "How do I use the English Dictionary?" - while an invaluable resource, the dictionary is NOT newbie-friendly. It uses shortcuts that are often hard to understand, it is split into sections that require fair understanding of English to understand, sometimes the definition is really only good for starting the chase towards the core word (disambiguate - remove or clarify ambiguities, ambiguity - a quality of being ambiguous; an ambiguous part of an entity...) In essence, providing an instruction manual to using the dictionary...

+1 A series of blogpost-sized (ca. 800 words) essays is pretty much what I saw, too, with a similar essay to introduce the whole shebang. And I love the idea of a user's guide to the dictionary. I've seen at least three questions in the last week that left me wondering "You say you consulted a dictionary, but did you actually read the entry?" Perhaps a how-to introducing a list of recommended dictionaries? That's what I would like to have been able to do with my recent ELU blog post. – StoneyB Dec 23 '12 at 0:39
By the way, not a single Grammar question should ever be General Reference of ELL. These that might qualify should only be Exact Duplicates. – SF. Dec 23 '12 at 0:46
Mmm ... I'd have to draw the line at morphology. If somebody asks for the plural of cockroach I'm gonna comment "Welcome to ELL [or whatever we end up]. cockroaches ...You can find the plural of any word in an ordinary dictionary, like [these] (link to your how-to). And take a look at our article on [Number]", and then vote to close. But anything above that one-word line, yeah, I'm with you. – StoneyB Dec 23 '12 at 0:59
@StoneyB: Conceding. – SF. Dec 23 '12 at 1:56

I think that the problem you've mention will solve itself withing one or two months.

There will be a lot of basic questions about grammar, why not answer them? When they are answered, most of new trivial grammar questions will be duplicates of existing questions, so they will be dealt with like on StackOverflow, for example.

The grammar questions being not duplicates will be then mostly non-trivial questions.


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