Assuming context for use (style) when answering English Only questions

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Senior Member
English - US
Hello everyone,

I would like some guidance on answering questions within the English Only forum. Should we assume the person asking for help will be using the answers provided in written or in spoken English? Should we assume the person asking for help will be using the answers provided in formal situations (an academic paper or business correspondence) or in informal situations (informal dialogue within fiction or emailing a pen pal)? Should we not assume anything and provide all possible answers for all possible situations? Should we ask the OP to clarify when they would use the word or sentence in order to provide the most specific answer possible for their situation?

I have been answering questions with the assumption that the answer will be used in writing. I have also been erring on the side of "correct" according to grammar and dictionary sources rather than idiomatic or colloquial usage, since I cannot know for sure what the OP's comfort with English is (a beginning student is still focusing on the basics while a more advanced student will be able to add more nuance to things already learned).

Have I misunderstood my responsibility as a person answering a question in this forum? I was given some feedback from a veteran user that I should assume the OP is fairly comfortable with English and that I should focus on what "sounds" better to a native ear, but I think answers that say things like, "A sounds better than B to me because that's how we say it in my country," with no explanation of why A works better in terms of grammar, syntax, punctuation, or semantics, aren't going to be as helpful, especially if the OP is a beginner. I want to be as helpful as possible, but I don't want to be misusing the forum, either.

Thank you for your help.
  • DonnyB

    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    Short answer: Don't assume anything. :D

    Long answer: You can often tell from the way the question is phrased what the intended purpose is: some members will make this reasonably clear while others won't. You can ask for additional context such as the proposed use, if that influences how you answer the question. A reasonably safe bet is often to post a reply along the lines of "It's something you'll hear a lot in casual conversation but it's a bad idea to use it in a test or exam as you're liable to lose marks" or something similar.

    There are questions to which you can answer that whatever they've proposed is grammatically incorrect, but there are others where it's just so hideously awkward and stilted that no-one would use it. If you can pinpoint a reason so much the better, but there are occasionally questions, especially with the use of prepositions and articles, where the only honest answer is that something is just not idiomatic.

    There's generally a bit of a correlation between their post count (displayed by mousing over their avatar on the left) and their experience/proficiency but don't set too much store by that. If they don't understand an answer, most of them will have the good sense to ask for clarification.

    Hope that helps! :)


    Senior Member
    English - US
    Thank you for your reply, DonnyB. Nothing you said contradicted my thinking. The feedback I mentioned in my question seemed to be telling me that I should assume the people who ask questions are fairly advanced English users and that they are more likely to want information on idiomatic usage than on grammar. I think either I misunderstood the point the senior user was trying to make or that particular user holds a minority opinion.


    Senior Member
    Ireland: English-speaking ♂
    Hello Darlingpurslane,
    Welcome to the forums. As DonnyB said never assume. But also don’t be put off by « senior » members, these are public forums, your opinion and contribution is as valid as that of anyone else. Often the OP won’t provide full context until later in the discussion unfortunately.


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Looking back on my experience learning Spanish I think anybody who is able to ask a coherent question in the English Only forum is fairly advanced in English. I couldn't do the same in the Spanish forum at this point in my life. This isn't a forum for absolute beginners who probably wouldn't be able to understand the forum guidelines anyway.

    I think the best guide of what to do is the question itself. How is it written? What is the speaker's command of English? What are they askng? Give simple answers to simple questions and more sophisticated answers to more sophisticated questions. I think it's especially important to answer the question asked, whatever level it's at. It's easy to pre-read a question and answer a question that wasn't actually asked. Case in point, sometimes people ask a question about the grammar of a question and get multiple people answering the question itself when the real question is about how to ask the question properly.

    Finally, there are non-native speakers on here that obviously have a very high-level command of grammar as an academic subject, including all the special terminology. They know more about that than I ever will even though I know English better than they do. They are not looking for simple, rote answers and it would be a waste of time to give them that. If I can give a helpful answer I do, but if the grammar terminology is over my head then I back away. We all have our strengths. I do think it's unfair to tell people "that's a grammatical sentence, it's fine to say that" if it will make them sound like a 19th century butler talking to his employer in a dusty old mansion. Many of the posters here are past the point of focusing exclusively on grammar. If they want to know what sounds "natural" there is no reason not to give them real answers about what sounds natural. (If they aren't ready for that you can usually tell.) If they are sophisticated enough to ask about it I think they are sophisticated enough to handle the answers - including "No, we have no idea what those lyrics mean."
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