Our critique guidelines were recently changed to specify that proofreading and requests for mere grammar correction should be off-topic. We've had two recent critique questions requesting grammar changes: Help me to improve the grammar of this question and How can I improve this paragraph about the role of the internet.

The earlier discussion of whether or not to allow grammar questions settled on no, that such questions belonged on English.SE. However that question predates our critique guidelines and even more important predates the change in policy from SE headquarters with regards to critiques on Writing.SE. Plus proofreading a paragraph is explicitly disallowed on English.SE per their FAQ. So while someone may ask a grammar question there, full critiques would, I'm guessing, be referred here by the English.SE mods and 3K users unless we teach them not to. Which means if not writing, then where? Or is the proper answer nowhere.

There was another question on questions that say please restyle me that was related to homework but also touched on copy-editing where the accepted answer is that we should allow such questions if there is demonstrated work on the asker's part. That answer was upvoted 7 times. So there's some precedent for allowing questions that demonstrate work that ask about style, at least.

I'm actually inclined to allow these proofreading type questions if:

  1. They are a short paragraph or shorter, as we aren't a source for free copy editing
  2. They explicitly ask for improving grammar and punctuation rather than simply "Fix my paragraph and make it read well" as some general, now-closed critique questions have asked.

But this should obviously be up for community discussion and debate.

I just wanted to say that my votes to close weren't because they were grammar related, but because they didn't follow the guidelines we've set forward for critiques here: meta.writers.stackexchange.com/questions/181/… (Mostly not adding a critique tag and basically saying "please fix the grammar in this chunk of text") –  Ralph Gallagher Jun 9 '11 at 17:31
@Ralph - thanks for clarifying. My question is more about Standback's change to the guidelines and making sure we all agree that's the wording we want. As a side-note I would highly recommend editing to add the critique tag and, if you can tease out a question, editing to improve the question as opposed to closing where possible. –  justkt Jun 9 '11 at 17:57
Seconded - improving a question is much better than closing it; it shows the direction for others to ask better questions (and to ask questions better), and rescues some good content for the site. –  Standback Jun 10 '11 at 5:27
Somehow, we missed the earlier discussion of this; meta.writers.stackexchange.com/questions/4/… –  Standback Jul 6 '11 at 8:48
@Standback - it's linked in the question I posted. –  justkt Jul 7 '11 at 16:49
...GOOD point. Missed that. –  Standback Jul 7 '11 at 18:05
Can this question get a FAQ tag please? It's a handy one. –  Standback Aug 21 '11 at 15:58
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3 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The edit was mine; I think I thought it was agreed upon (cf. recently closed questions of precisely this format, rather than just adding the tag and the intro), sorry if it wasn't.

My position is that Writers.SE is not a proofreading service. Proofreading is a technical act of correcting obvious mistakes and no more, and furthermore, it has no relevance to anybody outside the original poster - there's no greater principle to be learned from proofreading a random paragraph; only from (a) learning good spelling and grammar in general, and (b) specific grammar questions (like on English.SE).

As far as I'm concerned, this is the equivalent of going to Math.SE and posting "Here are ten sums I've calculated, can you please check if I've done them right?". I can see why somebody might want an answer to that question, but I really don't think this is the place for that - partially based on the questions we've seen thus far.

I'm accepting this and planning on leaving the update to the guidelines in per the number of upvotes this answer received. –  justkt Jun 14 '11 at 19:31
Understandable point of view. However, to draw an analogy between StackOverflow and Code review, what resource exists to help writers improve their style ? Confirmed writers may know what question to ask but beginners won't. –  James Poulson Mar 3 '13 at 12:35
@JamesPoulson: Well, Writers.SE hasn't quite reached the size and scope of SO yet, so taking care of smaller niches isn't my biggest worry right now :P But I feel like you're asking a big question in a small comment. Can I invite you to flesh out what's bothering you more fully, as a new meta question or in the chat room? –  Standback Mar 4 '13 at 15:17
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I'm on the fence about this only because the last three or four I've seen have been from people who clearly do not speak/write English as a first language. That's a bigger hurdle than a native speaker who just wants to polish something.

I'll always lean more towards allowing a question from someone who isn't a native speaker because that person is lacking the tools, context, or experience to make the piece sound right. My Italian is reasonably good, but I simply don't know a lot of idioms and turns of phrase which a native Italian speaker learned by osmosis because s/he is in Italy, listening to other Italians. And I'm still translating mentally from English to Italian, and I'll circumlocute around a phrase or a verb when I don't know the right one in Italian or if I don't know if the exact translation exists. I don't think asking a group of native speakers for help should be discouraged.

On the other hand, I agree that this isn't a free editing service.

Just to complicate the issue, should there be two rules? one for native speakers and one for non-native? could non-native speakers use a non-native tag?

my gut instinct is with you - I'm more inclined to help a non-native English speaker. But then again I've met some English speakers whose grammar is worse than non-natives... –  justkt Jun 9 '11 at 15:20
yes, so have I. But they have less excuse. :) –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 9 '11 at 16:00
I appreciate the sentiment, but this seems to me overly complicated. I also don't think a question's merit should not depend on who is asking. There are other places to ask for help and favors; this is a public Q&A site. –  Standback Jun 10 '11 at 6:59
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Although I responded to How can I improve the grammar of this paragraph about the role of internet?, I must confess that the only reason I did so is because I'm quite sympathetic to Egyptian people's revolution, and I made a particular exception with that, not because he was a non-native English speaker.

I find these sorts of questions off-topic because more often than not their sole purpose is to get others to rewrite or edit the text in a better way. They may ask about grammar or errors, but ultimately that is what the individual really wants us to do.

Writers.SE is meant to improve people's writing skills, and I'm not convinced that we do that by rewriting their text for them. What did they ultimately learn?

Perhaps it's not so much the question that is the problem, but rather the way we're answering them. Maybe we should avoid simply rewriting the text, and rather point out errors we see, the reason why they're errors, and the tools or resources to help the person in question fix those errors themselves.

I completely appreciate that non-native English speakers struggle with writing in English, but perhaps the best way for us to help them is by showing them the right direction, rather than travelling the road for them.

Alternatively, adhering to a more hard-line stance wouldn't go amiss if we completely reject anything to do with grammar and punctuation, since that is more to do with the English language than just simply the art of Writing. This is not EnglishWriters.SE, after all.

I understand entirely where you're coming from. Can you pick a sentence or two from one of these posts at random and show me how you'd "point the person in the right direction" rather than fixing it? That's the problem I'm having: I have no idea how to guide someone when they're making errors of this volume and magnitude other than "This is the correct way to write it." I'd much rather teach these folks to fish, so to speak. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 10 '11 at 14:06
@Lauren - I agree, and I struggle to pick things out, too. The central problem really is that 99% of the time the problems are things that are completely second nature to most English speakers. "Help me to improve grammar of this question", for example, shows problems with regards to using "a" and "the", but I'd struggle as to how to explain its usage. Other things are more simple e.g. on the other example, I suggested "Facebook page" instead of "Face book" and "website". Interesting exercise tho, since it does show how much these questions are about language, not really about writing. –  Craig Sefton Jun 10 '11 at 14:43
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