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TL;DR: Our wording is complex, and hard for people from other languages to read. Let's make it simpler.

Seriously, though, at least read my example at the bottom.

For a long time, I've noticed a trend: People from certain countries (which I will refer to, collectively, as Elbonia) seem to 'ignore the rules' more than people from other countries. I've never been content just blaming the people, or putting a broad blanket on it.

That's an easy way to put the blame on someone else - a group of people, actually. "Those Elbonians just can't get it."

While writing my nomination for the election, this finally clicked:

I'm going to propose something radical: It's our fault. Yes, they should read the rules - but let's do a little thought experiment here:

  1. You were born and raised in Elbonia, and thus were only exposed to the native language from birth. Furthermore, Elbonian has a vastly different structure than English does.

  2. One day, you decide you want to start programming. You find Stack Overflow, but discover everything is in English. So you start taking English classes (or just try to pick it up as you go). This is probably very hard for you - you're trying to learn a whole different language, with a different structure.

  3. Now, you want to ask a question on Stack Overflow. You make an account, press the 'ask' button... and get this:

Welcome to Stack Overflow!

We’d love to help you, but the reality is that not every question gets answered. To improve your chances, here are some tips:

Search, and research

Have you thoroughly searched for an answer before asking your question? Sharing your research helps everyone. Tell us what you found (on this site or elsewhere) and why it didn’t meet your needs. This demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to try to help yourself, it saves us from reiterating obvious answers, and above all, it helps you get a more specific and relevant answer!

Remember, you have a month of English experience. If you happen to have a three year old handy, read them that and have them explain to you what it means.

Luckily for you, you know what "proceed »" means. That sounds like what you want to do. You check the box and then type your question into the box. You haven't read any of the help text. You just want to get your question answered.

If this isn't making sense, I challenge you to take a month of Portuguese and then read https://pt.stackoverflow.com/questions/ask/advice. Actually - try Russian. That's what it's like for these people.

Turns out, there's a standard test for 'how hard something is to read'. Actually, a whole bunch of them*. Let's take the how-to-ask page and run it through that website:

Readability Formula          Grade
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level   5.9
Gunning-Fog Score            8.7
Coleman-Liau Index           9
SMOG Index                   6.4
Automated Readability Index  5
Average Grade Level          7.0

You might have a shot at reading that - but why would you? You have nothing invested in Stack Overflow, you just want to get your question answered. You're probably on a schedule. So you click continue and type your thing into the box, where it gets immediately downvoted and closed and deleted and whatever other bad things we do to questions.

And we wonder why these folks often write 'bad' questions.

Now, let's run some other text around the site through the readability score calculator:

I didn't leave anything I tried out of this list. There is no cherry-picking going on here. Our rules are simply hard to read.

We've expected new English speakers to read 8th grade stuff - and that takes effort.

What if we were to simplify these rules down to a 5th or 6th grade level? I'm serious - these countries are developing very rapidly, and they're going to be our primary audience shortly. Something like this for the answer box:

Your Answer

Thank you for writing on Stack Overflow!

  • You must answer the question. Explain how you found the answer!

  • You must not ask for help. There is another place you can do that

  • You must not post your thoughts without facts. All answers must be based on facts.

To learn more, see our tips on writing great answers.

See a diff between the two versions.

That's an average grade level of 3.9. Down from 8.3. (Note that this is my 60-second attempt, if we implemented this I would want better wording. This is just a proof-of-concept.)

If we make our rules easy to read, people will be more likely to read them. This is a net benefit for everyone. To get yourself in the mood necessary for writing these, spend about 20 minutes reading Simple Wikipedia.

I realize, of course, that we're a professional site. People in the US/UK/EU and other places are proficient at English. The current text is much more accurate and information-dense. I do think, though, that it's possible to write simple text in a professional way.

If we have to, we could even geolocate based on IP and show different versions to different users.

What are your thoughts? Is this a good idea?


* These scores are not perfect. They're only intended to give a relative indication of roughly how hard something is to read. We all know how accurate machines are at natural language, so take this with a grain of salt.

migrated from meta.stackoverflow.com Nov 12 '15 at 20:52

This question came from our discussion, support, and feature requests site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

  • 31
    Sesquipedalian directives? A most exigent missive. – C8H10N4O2 Nov 12 '15 at 19:24
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    Something I've observed... We tend to be terse in most of our initial wording. This is perceived as blunt / rude / uncaring, and the easy solution is to pad it out with lots of pleasantries. The proper solution is to re-work the text such that it is friendly but still concise... but that's hard. All specific suggestions welcome. – Shog9 Nov 12 '15 at 19:34
  • 14
    Instead of dragging everybody down to the same level, the people from Antarctica would be well ahead when they have their own site where they can converse in, erm, Antarcticees. Or continue to spend time at an English site if they so choose to uplift their foreign language skills of course. – Uphill Luge Nov 12 '15 at 19:35
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    A month of foreign language experience is not enough to visit a specialized site written in that language. It's barely enough time to learn how to say you have to go to the bathroom and want to eat steak for dinner. – TylerH Nov 12 '15 at 19:37
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    We'd absolutely need to have some folks who speak English as a second (or third) language involved with this but must be people for whom writing English for non-English speakers is their thing. Having those folks would help too. Perhaps some power users from the English Language Learners Stack Exchange or http://english.stackexchange.com/ ? – BSMP Nov 12 '15 at 19:37
  • 4
    @TylerH ouch, imagine mixing that up. "Yah, I want steak in toilet please". No no, spend more time learning English in that case too. – Gimby Nov 12 '15 at 19:40
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    I don't think that the questions from Americans are all that bad. OK, they have lost a lot of vowels, but I can cope OK with that. – Martin James Nov 12 '15 at 19:48
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    A page containing a translation of 'What did you find out when you ran your code under a debugger and ran through line-by-line, inspecting the variable values at each step?' in, say, the 20 most common languages would be useful. – Martin James Nov 12 '15 at 19:58
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    I think a lot of it might just be excessive wordiness. The more words you put on a page, the less of them people will read. For example, "We’d love to help you, but the reality is that not every question gets answered. To improve your chances, here are some tips:" can probably even be removed entirely. It seems like it might serve as an incentive for people to actually read, but more than likely there are people ignoring the entire page simply due to the volume of text. (Which could be especially daunting to non-native speakers.) – Doorknob Nov 12 '15 at 20:31
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    @Shog9 Context is important. "I am asking you for information and you give me terse canned replies" is seen as rude. But "I'm trying to do something and you are interrupting my workflow with a wordy text" is also seen as rude. By all means, give nice explanations with lots of rationale to users - where they ask for them. – rumtscho Nov 12 '15 at 20:43
  • 7
    @LightnessRacesinOrbit that's a dangerous assumption. Even if Elbonians are who you think they are the percentage who are proficient in English is probably less than you'd think. Check it on Wikipedia. – ChrisF Nov 12 '15 at 23:56
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    @ChrisF: I do find it amusing that we are all confidently talking about the same group of people without ever having named them :D To respond to your comment, I never said anything about proficiency. But surely you cannot deny that English is widely and commonly used alongside and interspersed with Elbonian, throughout Elbonia. It's one of the nation's official languages, for frak's sake.. :P I did "check it on Wikipedia", and they are restricting their data to English as a First Language. That's not of much use when it's a Second Language commonly used almost as proficiently as Elbonian. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 13 '15 at 1:15
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    Simplifying the wording helps native speakers too. I read some things at what is probably a 10th grade level, and some things at a ~15th grade level, and some things (research papers) at a 20th grade level or higher, and it's definitely more pleasant and less mentally taxing to read the simpler texts - which means I'm more likely to absorb the point of what I'm reading when the text is easy. So there's a whole separate motivation out there for this idea, which applies even if we don't care about making the site accessible for foreigners. (No, I have not attempted to simplify this comment.) – David Z Nov 13 '15 at 6:25
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    P.S. of course there is a point at which simplifying text further does make it harder to read. I'm not suggesting we go as far as Up-Goer Five-ese. But my guess is that point is somewhere around the 5th-7th grade level (as defined by these reading tests) rather than a fully "adult" level, even for native English speaking adults. – David Z Nov 13 '15 at 6:30
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    On using simple wikipedia as an example: did you notice that their "how to write" article was not written in the style it recommends? – WGroleau Nov 13 '15 at 13:49
64

tl;dr

Cultural differences are more of a problem than specific words (that no one reads anyways).

Don't fix symptoms while ignoring the root problem.

And work with international teams. You will be a better person for it.


The rules - who needs em anyways? Who are they for?

I didn't leave anything I tried out of this list. There is no cherry-picking going on here. Our rules are simply hard to And we wonder why these folks often write 'bad' questions.

This only matters if people read the rules.

How many people who have ever posted to Stack Exchange have read and understand the rules as written anyways? Maybe 1% could say they've read them?

The primary audience of those pages are not new users, it is the established user base. It's the guideline to be used to manage the site, guide established users, etc. It's not for new users.

Until you show me statistics that more than a fraction of regular users let alone new users read the help pages I am going to assume they don't get read, nearly ever.

Frankly, even as a moderator, I rarely read the pages you listed and am pretty sure that if you could look at what percentage of users end up even clicking on those links (not to mention actually reading) it would be a very, very small portion.

Faulty Assumptions

I could probably end this post there but... I am fairly passionate about cultural differences.

I think your entire post is based on the false premises that:

  1. People read the rules/about pages/etc before posting
  2. People read them after posting
  3. Fewer words is better (ugh)
  4. If only the words were more clear, people would change behavior (including cultural impacts that are significant)

There are more problems than this. The cultural difference between most of the world and USA/Europe is huge. Shog pointed this out in his comment, but I want to show you how your "good example" is more problematic than you realize to many Elbonians. I work with non-native English speakers 100% (not from Europe) and this is my perspective on what you wrote.

I briefly talked about #1/2 above. Let's look at faulty premise #3 next using your example.

Specific wordings - why simple isn't more effective

Your Answer

This isn't clear to me what you mean. "Your answer" - what answer? I haven't written one yet.

Thank you for writing on Stack Overflow!

Again, not clear. This implies that my contribution is great simply for answering. You are literally thanking them for writing afterall. This also uses "on" ambiguously.

  • You must answer the question. Explain how you found the answer!

This misses a cultural gap for much of the world, where the "why/how" part of an answer is irrelevant. You know as well as I do that many people around the world want an answer and don't care about how/why.

  • You must not ask for help. There is another place you can do that

I barely understand what you mean by this as a native English speaker. This isn't a clear sentence at all and if I am not a native English speaker it will be quite confusing.

  • You must not post your thoughts without facts. All answers must be based on facts.

... imagine reading this as a non-native English speaker, with limited English skills, and as someone not familiar with the Stack Exchange model. What you are saying here is... not clear and not informative. "You must not post" is very strong wording specifically here, though also throughout all this, which is a turnoff to most of the world, who care about things like this.

  • To learn more, see our tips on writing great answers.

This is also badly written. You don't want to write incomplete thoughts where much of the action/verb are implied. As a native English speaker - no problem. But for non-native English speakers this can be confusing as heck. Think about this. "to learn" is an infinitive verb. "to learn more" means what exactly? why is there a comma?

My point in all this is that what you are describing as the core problem is not relevant. Reducing the number of words might increase the "readability" or other useless metrics but if you start using implied phrases and "slang-like" wordings you might pass that metric test but completely fail the "how easy is it to actually read when you are a non-English speaker?" test.

If you want all that to be more relevant to people in "Elbonia" start using words like "we" and more community based words. Have those from Elbonia write them instead.

Also, just a note, people generally can read/understand English at a better level than speak and certainly than write. More of an observation, but important to realize. If someone is writing in mostly-broken-but-understandable English they can probably read English that is considerably more advanced than you realize. Writing fluent second languages is really hard compared to reading it.

Most people posting questions to this site have considerably more English capability than your 1 month estimate.


Cultural differences

And now onto assumption (4).

I had an interesting conversation with my international colleagues yesterday that relates to this and frankly is a perfect example. Several of them talked about how one really nice thing abut the USA is because people here actually obey laws.

... really? Most Americans would find this highly amusing, probably laugh and roll their eyes, but think about it. In spite of all the problems/whatever here people in other countries still feel Americans respect the law more than them. In both their countries, blatant bribery is part of their culture.

You aren't going to change this cultural difference by writing nicer words that are easier to understand. Your assumption here is a fundamentally individualistic assumption. If I grow up in a country where bribery is a daily part of life and I have no respect for authority because culturally we don't respect our police and it's ok to beat them, how is some nicely worded on-off topic page going to fix that? It won't.

We also talked about how in America culturally it is not expected for you to immediately ask for help or give or wait for help. Elsewhere in the world societal pressures that Westerners are completely oblivious to and ignore completely cause problems like this. This is the result of completely different cultures. I had discussions this week about how hard this is to change for employees even with a boss mandating it - better wordings will never change it.

How about let's think about reputation. I had a conversation with an international colleague about the idea of reputation - how he doesn't like contributing to sites like Stack Overflow because it's not fair that it is not possible to catch people who have been here longer. This might seem like a silly reason to a Westerner, but this person does not contribute because of this. It's that meaningful to them.

I could write at length about this sort of thing with example after example. Culture is different. In some cases very different.

This causes us to have different expectations about how everything in the world and on the Internet works.

This is where the problem lies. People dropping "need answer ASAP help plz" rather than a well formed question are not doing it because the rules are too complicated, it's because of a culture difference.

Stack Exchange can make the Internet a better place. But it certainly t can't change an entire culture simply by making the about/help/how-to pages better.

My last comments here before I finish this novel relate to:

Something I've observed... We tend to be terse in most of our initial wording. This is perceived as blunt / rude / uncaring, and the easy solution is to pad it out with lots of pleasantries. The proper solution is to re-work the text such that it is friendly but still concise... but that's hard. All specific suggestions welcome. – Shog9♦ 8 hours ago

I don't know if there is any way I can make people realize how true this is. Westerners tend to believe that the most effective communication is clear, direct, and concise. You can see it even in your proposed solutions. But those wordings are not friendly or nice to people who are outside Western culture and are probably worse overall because of this.

I strongly encourage any of you who work with colleagues across the world other than Western Europe to have this sort of discussion (assuming you have a strong relationship with them). Ask them how some of your emails sound. Have a conversation about this. You will find that optimized Western communication is really harsh/rude to much of the world.

Stack Exchange is optimized to be an efficient, lean, impersonal, machine.

But have you noticed, many posts from Elbonian posters have greetings, thank you's, things that acknowledge the [site] as individuals, lots of "unnecessary details and context" in them? This is part of culture for them. It's how their entire world works. It's.... at odds with the entire premise of Stack Exchange which basically says, "HAHAHA screw you! I don't care about you as a person at all, we're doing things our way and you are going to have to do the same."

If we want to "fix" the difficulties faced by Elbonians and make it more friendly/engaging/encouraging for them, changes fairly fundamental to how Stack Exchange works are required. The entire model just... isn't designed in such a way to be an easy culture fit for a large percentage of the world. It's never going to seem relational. It's never going to feel like a welcoming community for a first time poster.

And that's perfectly ok.

  • 1
    Re: people don't read the rules; I'm most focused on the just-in-time things we show when posting a question/answer for the first time. I do think we could get the wording right, but your fourth point is wonderful. What if we took some of your cultural points and applied them to (some) text? – Undo - Reinstate Monica Nov 13 '15 at 5:08
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    In Elbonia, it's considered rude to read things all the way through before judging their worth.... – Nathan Tuggy Nov 13 '15 at 5:08
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    Oh, so Elbonia is Usenet (or Facebook). Thanks, Nathan for the revelation. – WGroleau Nov 13 '15 at 7:08
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    While the points you make about cultural differences are interesting, I dislike the "solution" for the "problem of rudeness" or whatever it is you're exactly criticising about the culture of Stack Exchange. As a regular user of multiple sites on the network I find it very helpful to have these cultural common in between sites, namely: "It's not about 'being polite', it's about being clear". I feel that pleasantries are unnecessary for questions and answers and as such I can only agree with Ian Kemp's answer: "In Rome, do as the Romans do"... This network cannot be a cultural melting pot – Vogel612's Shadow Nov 13 '15 at 11:26
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    @Vogel612'sShadow And that's perfectly ok. <-- I agree. – enderland Nov 13 '15 at 14:04
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    @enderland (yet another blatant example) Excuse me, but are you really a native English speaker? 'Cuz many of your phrases look grammatically broken and plain bizarre to me! (I've never seen anything like this with my ~20 years of exposure to English of all sorts. And I'm taking pride in my level of English that highly exceeds that of most of my peers here.) – ivan_pozdeev Nov 17 '15 at 8:37
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit "anyways", plural verbs after "audience" (while calling it "it" right in the next part) & "percentage" (Longman says this is actually correct, but in the 1st case, it's especially perplexing), "...actually reading (what?)", "end this post there" (expected "here"), "including cultural impacts" (not in agreement with prev. part), "This isn't clear to me what you mean" (expected "It"), "which is a turnoff"/"who care about"/"how hard this is to change for employees..." (misinterpreted gr. links & "for" & was confused)... There are bits here and there that look... off. – ivan_pozdeev Dec 4 '15 at 18:01
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    @ivan_pozdeev: Goodness gracious me. However will you cope? This are at worst extremely minor irritations, and at best localisations. Your comment "I've never seen anything like this with my ~20 years of exposure to English of all sorts" was completely out of line is this is all you have to go on. – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 4 '15 at 18:05
  • @ivan_pozdeev: They are perfectly normal English phrases. Look to yourself, first. It's particularly vexing to me that you appear to have commented on this thread purely to make yourself look like some sort of linguistic professor?! – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 4 '15 at 18:06
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit Sigh. Didn't I make the disclaimer "(yet another blatant example)" prominent enough? The point was, perfectly good English by a native speaker may, and often does, still sound odd to a foreigner. – ivan_pozdeev Dec 4 '15 at 18:23
  • @ivan_pozdeev: Really not seeing your point or understanding why you commented. Oh well. – Lightness Races with Monica Dec 4 '15 at 18:26
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit Okay, putting it bluntly. I commented to: 1)contribute yet another surprising example (by an unrelated person from another culture to show it's genuine) to the OP's list of cultural differences; 2)drive yet another nail into the coffin of the proponents' arguments that "one style fits all". – ivan_pozdeev Dec 4 '15 at 18:34
  • Guys, seriously... xkcd.com/386 – enderland Dec 4 '15 at 21:10
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    "...because it's not fair that it is not possible to catch people who have been here longer." -- What is the meaning of "catch" here? – Wayne Conrad Jan 10 '16 at 15:32
  • @WayneConrad catch in reputation. If you have 500k reputation, hard for someone starting now to get more than you ever :-) – enderland Jan 10 '16 at 21:46
47

I love the suggestion. And I want to address one of the concerns you mention: that it will look unprofessional to people with a good command of English.

There was a great article on Smashing magazine once (sadly, I couldn't find it now) about dividing features into simple ones for new users and complicated ones for power users. Their conclusion: don't do it. Why?

A user who has just encountered the application will be overwhelmed by a complicated interface, they said. So obviously, they need a simple interface. But does the power user have the time to deal with the more complex one? Usually, no. The power user may have the ability to work with it. But when he sits down to use the application, he does not want to invest the time needed for doing so. He has thousands of other things on his mind, and a deadline.

Now, that's oversimplified, as it leaves out the situations in which an advanced interface is advantageous (hint: when flexibility increases the application's value). But this is not one of those situations. What we have here is users who need help, and will click away whatever stands in their way. They're not going to read a wall of text even when it's not hard for them.

Sure, the current text looks more polished, and contains more information. But it does not convey more information, because I bet most users don't read it. At least many of them act like they did not.

My vote: Turn the simple text on. Without geolocation.

  • 4
    Though I don't agree with the proposition, the specific observation (situations in which an advanced interface is advantageous (hint: when flexibility increases the application's value).) is a gem. This is a serious problem in today's culture with everything being dumbed down - exactly because no-one knows when this is justified. – ivan_pozdeev Nov 17 '15 at 9:12
36

This is an interesting idea. It's well-formed, well-presented and well-argued.

You almost had me.

But after thinking long and hard, I couldn't support it. If someone can't read our rules, then how are they going to post a well-written question? How are they going to understand a well-written answer? One might argue that a post, simple enough to be understood by someone with no better grasp of English than that of a Year 4 schoolchild, is extremely unlikely to be interesting, novel or useful.

If it is, don't we still want it? Yes, I suppose; the OP's broken, child-like grammar could be improved by others through editing. That's fine. But is "allowing" this really worth dumbing down all of the site's meta-content, especially when you consider that we're not actually talking about "allowing" anything: we are talking about actively encouraging it.

I don't think that sends the right message about our quality standards, and I don't think it sends the right message about why we're all here. For instance, this whole thing you mention of "you just want to get your question answered. You're probably on a schedule" is often true, but is completely not how we want people approaching their community contributions here. It's not a helpdesk. A well-curated repository of Q&A, generated by real-world need but constructed with that particular end goal in mind, is ultimately far more helpful in general than some message board with reams of "hi i hav problm code wont compile i did try trning comp on n off but no luck plz help". And part of a well-explained, well-thought-out problem description is that it has been presented in mature, technical language.

Are we potentially turning away people because their English isn't that good yet? Either because they decide not to bother when faced with all that meta-content of warnings and requirements, or because their question was closed within seconds? Yes, we are. Is that a problem? No. Their urgency isn't our problem. They may come back in a few months' time with a better grasp of the language. They'll then also find that they are far more effective developers anyway, both in their coding and in their interactions with the wider industry.

If we dumb down the Stack Overflow meta-content, we're saying that none of this matters. And I think that's the wrong message to send.

Not to mention, it looks more Fisher Price than professional Q&A!

Incidentally, I do think there is actually a logical flaw buried in the reasoning behind your proposal, which is where you equate "adult who doesn't know much English yet" to "3 year old child". Being new at one language and being new to the entire world are not the same thing. Life experience gives you unimaginably useful pointers and context when trying to learn a new language (or to understand a passage of text in a language you don't yet know very well) as an adult (or, perhaps, a teenager). For example, just knowing how internet communities tend to work, or being aware of basic social etiquette. A three year old does not have any of this, so the comparison is entirely unfair.

I do think that your general point is pretty reasonable and it might not hurt to lose some of the longer words where they are simply unnecessary. I mean, that would just be polite to an international audience. But let's not bend over backwards is all I'm saying.

  • Having more sophisticated language in the instructions doesn't seem to be an effective gatekeeper, though. – 200_success Nov 12 '15 at 23:33
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    @200_success: No, I agree with that. But that's fine. Even ignoring the fact that I think gatekeeping has been proven to be ultimately pretty ineffectual anyway, I wasn't suggesting that the mode of this meta-text needs to be the gatekeeper. But it's still a part of the site and I think it should give the right impression of what our expectations are. Or, rather, I don't think we should go out of our way to make it give the wrong impression of what our expectations are. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 12 '15 at 23:43
  • Hopefully, someone answering a question penned by someone who seems not to know English would write with that in mind, so your concern "How are they going to understand a well-written answer?" will be mitigated. Anyway, see also my answer, which (like yours) thinks we should cater not to a low-age-level English but to an EFL-level English. – msh210 Nov 12 '15 at 23:45
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    @msh210: Answers are not just for the person who originally wrote the question. They are for all future visitors to that question. People with the same problem. This is core to SE. So we shall not and cannot tailor individual answers to individual question-askers! Anyway, your answer's pretty good. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 13 '15 at 1:13
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    Clearer and simpler does not equal "dumbing down" – WGroleau Nov 13 '15 at 7:02
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    @WGroleau: The suggested text given in the OP ... kind of really is dumbing down, though. Almost as much as Up-Goer Five. – Nathan Tuggy Nov 13 '15 at 9:02
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    @WGroleau: The last paragraph in my answer shows that I support "clearer and simpler". But I do not support changing SE to use baby language. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 13 '15 at 11:32
  • FWIW, you're not first to think of this as "dumbing down" the language - so do I. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Nov 13 '15 at 16:27
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    @WGroleau "clearer and simpler" indeed does not equal "dumbing down", but strongly correlates with it if pushed too far. And if this is made a goal, it's very likely to be pushed too far - regular followers always tend to be overzealous about whatever the teachings dictate. The point here is, clarification is important, but is not a goal in and on itself. Thus promoting it as such would give a wrong message on the site's focus. – ivan_pozdeev Nov 17 '15 at 8:24
  • @ivan_pozdeev said it better than I did :) – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 17 '15 at 18:22
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    What if a Flesch-Kincaid score of eight were a goal? We were not allowed to exceed that in Navy tech manuals when I was writing them in 1984. And OP did say his hasty example needed to be better. My first draft was typically nine or ten, and getting it down to eight was a chore. I'm sure glad I got a different job before they changed the limit to FIVE! – WGroleau Nov 18 '15 at 8:42
  • @WGroleau: lol. Which Navy? – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 18 '15 at 13:00
  • 1
    The Yew-Knighted Stakes O‘Murrica – WGroleau Nov 29 '15 at 20:04
24

It sounds like a good idea to me. I'm just posting to point out that, as you note, "we're a professional site. People in the US/UK/EU and other places are proficient at English" — and people elsewhere are proficient at other languages. That is, we're not aiming our text at children; thus, we don't need to pay attention to age/grade level specifically. The things that confuse foreigners are different from the things that confuse children.

Fortunately, there's a measure of readability specifically for those (adults) learning English as a foreign language: the EFLAW. See that page for more about what confuses English-as-a-foreign-language folks, and general tips for writing for them. If we're rewriting our on-site text, then we should take those tips into account — not just the EFLAW score. But as for the EFLAW score, here's how you score a passage of text:

  • Let A be the number of words in the passage.
  • Let B be the number of common, short words ("miniwords") in the passage. "Short" means it has no more than three letters. "Common" means… I don't know what it means. But examples given are get, go, lot, by, for, it, he, the, a, and of.
  • Let C be the number of sentences in the passage.

The score is (A+B)/C and is interpreted as follows:

 1−20 very easy to understand
21−25 quite easy to understand
26−29 a little difficult
30+   very confusing

For example, the two passages in the question above would score as follows:

Welcome to Stack Overflow!

We’d love to help you, but the reality is that not every question gets answered. To improve your chances, here are some tips:

Search, and research

Have you thoroughly searched for an answer before asking your question? Sharing your research helps everyone. Tell us what you found (on this site or elsewhere) and why it didn’t meet your needs. This demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to try to help yourself, it saves us from reiterating obvious answers, and above all, it helps you get a more specific and relevant answer!

That has 95 words, 33 miniwords, and eight sentences, for a score of 16. According to the EFLAW score, this is good enough. (That doesn't mean it follows the other advice on the Web page I linked to above.)

Your Answer

Thank you for writing on Stack Overflow!

  • You must answer the question. Explain how you found the answer!
  • You must not ask for help. There is another place you can do that
  • You must not post your thoughts without facts. All answers must be based on facts. To learn more, see our tips on writing great answers.

That has 59 words, 25 miniwords, and nine sentences, for a score of 9.3, an improvement on the original (in EFLAW score, anyway).

Here's another passage:

I accidentally created two accounts; how do I merge them?

If you have two accounts that you would like to join together, please sign into either account, visit the contact form and select ‘I need to merge user profiles’. After you contact us, the Stack Exchange Team will reach out to verify that you own both accounts. If we can confirm your ownership, we will initiate a merge.

If you can't remember how to log in, go here and enter the email address you used to create the account you are trying to sign into.

It has 95 words, 41 miniwords, and five sentences, for a score of 27.2, "a little difficult".

  • Well, not exactly. I would say that Indians are also proficient at English. – Sid Oct 30 at 9:34
21

I'm not sure why this question was migrated to meta.SE because it feels extremely specific to Stack Overflow and the challenges faced there. Stack Exchange's diaspora of sites will have different rules and requirements per site and as such, I will be responding as if this question was on meta.SO.


It's our fault.

No.

The very fact you think that is part of the problem. If there is any fault, it's shared. Blaming only the creators and curators of Stack Exchange sites for the hordes of poor-quality content is offensive and, to put it bluntly, takes a massive dump on our efforts.

Stack Overflow is a site about computer programming. The lingua franca of programming is English. Ergo, competency in the English language is a fundamental requirement for participating in Stack Overflow. I'm not talking about 3rd-grade English competency; I'm talking about the type of competency required to read and comprehend technical articles and examples and API references.

Stack Overflow is a question and answer site for professional and enthusiast programmers. A professional and/or enthusiast programmer is, to my mind, the kind of person who, regardless of language barriers, will take the time and effort to learn English well enough so that s/he can be competent in her/his field. That we have a significant number of high-reputation, well-respected users on SO whose first language is not English lends credence to this theory.

The problem that you are obliquely trying to address here - hordes of low-quality questions from "Elbonians" - is not one that can be solved by Stack Overflow. Because the problem is not the language barrier, but a clear and present lack of effort and basic understanding on the part of said Elbonian questioners.

You have nothing invested in Stack Overflow, you just want to get your question answered. You're probably on a schedule.

That is the exact opposite of a professional and/or enthusiast programmer. That is a person who doesn't give two s**ts about anything except getting a solution to their current problem. That is a help vampire.

That is not the type of person we want on Stack Overflow. Because they will inevitably ask poor questions, which will inevitably receive poor answers, or just get closed. All of which lowers the site's overall quality and helps nobody in the long run.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Stack Overflow Romans are ones that make a conscious effort to ask high-quality questions and provide detailed answers. Elbonians... generally don't. That's a culture difference, and Stack Overflow can't hope to change the culture of an entire country.

19

I agree that making things simpler is a good thing. However, one thing to take into account is what the English is like in the things we write on this site (i.e., our questions and answers). As an experiment, I opened up a Meta tab in my browser and took the body of the first 4 questions plus this one, for a total of 5, and put them into the readability site. This is what I got (showing the average grade level for each post).

  1. Appropriate use of Very Low Quality flag - 7.3
  2. Fall 2015 Moderator Election Q&A - Question Collection - 11.0
  3. Stack Overflow - Serving Programmers Even Better - 9.4
  4. Don't show (partial) comments from nominations I can't view - 11.3
  5. This question (with the quoted problem text taken out) - 6.0

I realize that some of these are featured posts that tend to wax eloquent sometimes. I also realize that this is Meta. But the point still stands that we don't write at a 5th grade level. Those 5 posts average out to be a ninth grade reading level. I know that the Antarcticans just want their questions answered and anything we can do to help them is good. I think we just need to be aware that the answers they get may not be at a 5th grade level and that they will need some command of the English language to understand the help we give them.

It would be interesting to run this against a sampling of answers from the main site.

  • 9
    I'd say the situation is a bit different once they get an answer - they're motivated to read that, it's worth it to them. But there's no incentive for them to read the help text along the way. I'm going to look at how to run a bulk sample of SO answers through this, that's a good idea! – Undo - Reinstate Monica Nov 12 '15 at 20:16
  • @Undo: You might want to make separate runs according to post-score, accept-mark and length. That might lead to additional interesting data. – Deduplicator Nov 12 '15 at 20:24
  • 5
    I think there's a difference between the information provided by the site to users and the user generated content. When I'm answering, I tend to tailor my answer to an appropriate level based on the question. A more complex question yields a more complex answers. However, I think that site documentation needs to be accessible to the least knowledgeable user. I'm not saying that users of SE sites aren't smart, but they may not all speak English at the 8th and 9th grade levels. If they can't understand the system, they can't use the system effectively. – Thomas Owens Nov 12 '15 at 20:24
  • 2
    If your argument is "All content around here requires good English, so the people with bad English should take a look around and leave" - despite of the ethics of this, it is not what is happening. These people are our users, they aren't going anywhere, and they're using the site as best as they can. When they make the inevitable mistakes, it costs others effort to clean up for them. If we have a way to reduce this problem, I say do it. "We can't fix everything, so we won't fix the one part we can" is not a good argument. – rumtscho Nov 12 '15 at 20:48
  • 1
    @rumtscho: That's not what he said at all. Just that there's a point beyond which there's no use to it. If someone won't understand the answer (and thus cannot use the site), it doesn't matter whether they can understand the help-texts. And he didn't say or hint that we might be there yet. – Deduplicator Nov 12 '15 at 21:06
  • Hopefully, someone answering a question penned by someone who seems not to know English would write with that in mind. – msh210 Nov 12 '15 at 21:19
  • 1
    @rumtscho I'm not saying that at all. What I am merely pointing out is that to get anything out of the site some level of English comprehension is necessary. Where on the spectrum that lies, I don't know. I'm just saying that it is something important to consider when working on this. – Becuzz Nov 12 '15 at 21:20
  • 1
    You've also got to account for people like me running around the site tidying people's grammar for them. Not all posts appear as they were originally written. – TRiG Nov 12 '15 at 22:12
  • @Becuzz it seems I read too much into your post, ssorry – rumtscho Nov 13 '15 at 11:20
9

First thing, I am not a native English speaker. And even though I hear/read English a lot, my command over the language is average at best.

I can understand the reasoning behind this idea. But I don’t think it is good.

Let’s forget Stackoverflow for the moment. You are a programmer. You will have to read official documentations, blog posts, articles written in exemplary English to earn your bread. And there is no better way to improve your language than to use it. If Stackoverflow makes me read good English, then I am all for it.

More importantly, Stackoverflow is a site for programmers and only need to be accessible to programmers. And a programmer who is good enough to read Official documentations can read the texts on Stackoverflow.

The solution is to make user read the texts, that most people don’t do.

See, I had to write all this, in English.

0

How about:

Put that pop-up text in the help pages, and do simplify it some—not quite as drastic as the example offered.

Instead of a one-time pop-up, a one-liner above the text field for every question, something like

Some kinds of questions will not be answered. Maybe even removed. To avoid that, read: (link)

0

There are a lot of native English speakers that have on par, or less, of a grasp of English than Elbonians. The problem is not just restricted to nonnative English speakers.

I work in a pseudo-technical field (supposed to be technical) and find that many people reading what I write (emails, technical documents, etc.) have low literary skills, don't care to read, and/or find it offensive if they have to read more than a few lines. It's quite challenging. It seems that ultimately, I have to figure out if I want to be right or be effective.

A former boss told me that my communications with our clients was too complicated, and to dumb it down to about 6th grade level. That's the 6th grade level of what the OP is asking/pointing out.

I think dumbing down any of the SEs down too much will defeat the purpose and value of the individual SE. Maybe SEs could implement some sort of accessibility feature that explains the reading level required for each Q or A as a sidebar to let people know what they are getting in to?

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