Reading a bit about recent Monica Cellio related posts, I am afraid that I may be using a language that is a lot like English, but might not be the Stack-Exchange-approved version of English. For example, my English has had a certain gender-neutral pronoun in living use for centuries. That pronoun is used throughout the literature written in this version of English. It is used in the English I was taught as a grammar school student and later as a graduate student working on a master's thesis. I believe that this English is good enough to communicate about topics relevant to the various Stack Exchange sites.

The last thing I want from Stack Exchange is to be booted out because I slip up and accidentally use the language that has served me so well for a lifetime.

The topics discussed on Stack Overflow (I almost referred to it as a "sister site;" would that have been allowed? "mother site?" Good thing I didn't?) are often centered on languages which have formal descriptions.

Where is the formal description of the language that is to be used on Stack Exchange?

Strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm.

He shall die without instruction; and in the greatness of his folly he shall go astray.

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    There's interesting & relevant material about following the spirit of the law, rather than a mechanical adherence to the letter of the law in the podcast Unicorn Meta Zoo #9: How do we handle problem users?. I didn't listen to the podcast myself, but a transcript has been made available.
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 12:49
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    @rjzii From a practical standpoint, that is not what we have observed recently. Quite the opposite, in fact. Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 12:50
  • @rjzii Are you suggesting that having no idea about CoC changes somehow makes you less likely to trip over them? That sounds backwards to me. Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 17:12
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    You can use "sibling site" and "parent site". For meta sites: "lowly Meta site" and "Über Meta site". Or just the full (official) names: "Meta Stack Overflow" and "Meta Stack Exchange". Abbr. are to be avoided (MSO and MSE) - as most casual readers will have absolutely no idea what they mean (though there is in fact a glossary here on this very site). Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 20:57
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    “For example, my English has had a certain gender-neutral pronoun in living use for centuries.” What are you trying to refer to in this sentence? I’m confused Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 22:19
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    @rjzii I guess you have missed recent events. It is possible to be penalised for violating CoC terms that not only are you unaware of, but that do not even exist yet. Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 1:03
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    @Stormblessed re "pronoun:" "He/him/his." E.g, the closing quotes of my post. As I said, "I may be using a language that... might not be the Stack-Exchange-approved version of English." I would say that the language of the quotations overlaps with my own. Seems like we all understand each other here, for the most part, though---and we have editing and comments and third parties to help us. Agreement is optional. By the way, check out 2012 FS 1.02(2): "Gender-specific language includes the other gender and neuter."
    – Ana Nimbus
    Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 3:32

2 Answers 2


English is a living language; it changes slowly but constantly. Old words take new meanings, new words replace old, and sometimes old uses resurface in new contexts. Also, sometimes there are emoji.

We gather together here from across the earth, bringing with us myriad notions of language and meaning. Our purpose is to share knowledge with one another; language can both facilitate this and get in the way. The English of one is not always the English of another.

Our Code of Conduct states,

We don’t tolerate any language likely to offend or alienate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — and those are just a few examples. When in doubt, just don’t.

In other words: if we know the recipient of our message will likely be offended by what we write, then we know not to write it. If we're unsure, we should still not write. But how can we be sure?

We each know of some language that is almost guaranteed to offend. But many things are offensive to those of one particular culture or background and yet innocuous to others. It is natural then to wonder how we can ever hope not to offend... And, per that Code, we should thus never write at all, preferring to remain idle, locked in a prison of our own doubt.

Years ago, one of my colleagues wrote some useful advice on unlocking this prison:

one of the most important things is that language is not something you bring to the table yourself, but it's something you share with your audience

Every post, every sentence, is a stab into the dark, an effort to communicate without knowing how what we write will be understood. To communicate successfully then, we must do more than just write - we must also be willing to listen!

If we're writing for an unknown audience - say, posting a PHP question on Stack Overflow - then we should read other PHP posts first, to see how those authors prefer to communicate. They may not represent our actual audience, but they show us how others have been successful in what we are about to attempt.

If we're writing for a known audience - say, a reply to a comment - then we should pay attention to how that author prefers to communicate.

And if such an author expresses discomfort with something we say, or the way in which we say it... Then we should adjust how we write for them going forward.

Surely we can apply these guides to anything, from pronouns to cuss words!

If each of us can do this, then we can get along, work together, and enjoy the benefits of each others' knowledge... Even as the language which is the foundation of our work continues to change beneath our feet.

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour.

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    I find it odd that, in the context of the current brouhaha, you have chosen to end your answer with a biblical quote using exclusionary language. Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 5:41
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    Have a look at the question I'm answering, @the - I'm showing respect to the person with whom I'm conversing.
    – Shog9
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 6:01
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    Not some dumb rule-making or marketing gimmick, but deeply thoughtful moral guidelines to live by. Man, these are the kinds of posts from Stack Exchange that I miss these days. Thanks, Shog.
    – user437611
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 6:20
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    @thethesaurussaurus the biblical quote is spot-on. And it is not exclusionary: it includes all Homo sapiens who have ever lived or shall live. What could be less alienating / more inclusive? I appreciate the fact that Shog9 brought up listening (reading). I have listened to quotes such as these in context for years. Let's have a dose of tolerance---that was a thing once. I commend Shog9 for answering the question in the language of the questioner.
    – Ana Nimbus
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 6:32
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    In the comments of the post quoted, @MadScientist includes the phrase, "if I didn't know the context I probably would have supported the short suspension." Shog9 reminds us here that, without context, meaning is absent. And that, if one finds no context, one must seek it out---and find it---before any meaning may be interpreted.
    – Ana Nimbus
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 7:03
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    This is a remarkable answer; cutting through the fog, using language as it is meant to be used. There is no corporate double-speak, it reads as if a human wrote it. It respects the OP and answers the question - by acknowledging the apparent challenge caused by the CoC. @SaraChipps this is the answer we are looking for. It is not easy, but if communication were easy, it would not be useful.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 11:01
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    I'm not certain how you can reconcile "if such an author expresses discomfort with something we say, or the way in which we say it then we should adjust" with "we dont't tolerate any language". If we "don't tolerate" there is no scope for adjustment.
    – AlexP
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 12:07
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    "If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'" Solomon's words are describing hopelessness in the face of inevitable death without resurrection. The verse preceding is proof on it's own. Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 12:56
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    Actually, in the context of the current situation I find it simply nice that Shog would pick a text from קֹהֶלֶת which would have been read recently on Shemini Atzeret (don't know if that was intentional, but it is personal). I don't disagree with anything in this post, nor do I completely agree but if all the staff were responding so personally I know I would be hanging around more. So thank you for this Shog but its just not enough anymore for it just to be you, Tim, Jon, and Catija trying to point us away from the fact that the room is on fire. I cannot trust SE's response if I follow this Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 13:16
  • @LinkBerest: What is "קֹהֶלֶת"? Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 21:11
  • Should be rephrased as "There is nothing better for a person, than that they should eat and drink, and that they should make their soul enjoy good in their labour." Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 0:23
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    @thethesaurussaurus What alternative do you propose to including this biblical quote? Do you think that Shog9 should have edited the quote and written something like "There is nothing better for a [person], than that [they] should eat and drink"? Or do you think that they shouldn't have attempted to use this quote at all due to the language in it? Or something else? Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 20:43
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    @VictorS - I can't tell if that's brilliant sarcasm or if that's how you genuinely feel. If it's the latter, though, I suppose that's what we get when we start a War on Pronouns. "For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal 6:7, KJV). Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 9:07
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    @J.R. It is the former. But anyway, that is what we get from the war on pronouns. Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 9:18
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    @VictorS - I haven't smiled on Meta for well over a week. I can't thank you enough. Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 9:21

Where is the formal description of the language that is to be used on Stack Exchange?

I don't think there is one. There is only the Code of Conduct, which does not contain a formal description and there are moderator actions, which are probably based on these guidelines and their personal threshold. I would also say, that a formal description would be too difficult to create as it would have to deal with all the subtle properties of the Language like irony, sarcasm, metaphors, ..

If you are concerned about the way how to say something I would say that writing in a descent, civil manner should be sufficient, i.e. no swearing, no rude or derogatory terms, ...

But that's not everything. What you say matters even more than how you say it. Otherwise "Sorry to see you go" would be a fine, satisfactory response in all cases.

Even with the best words, one can inflict harassment or personal attacks. It's kind of difficult to collect all the cases that are not nice and even the Code of Conduct doesn't try that, but the general idea boils down to being nice or something similar.

I guess that moderators who are kind of the guardians of the Language used on the site, have implicitly some kind of internal, probabilistic model of what shouldn't be said. It is probably very complex but it's probably also centered around extreme cases. Most users won't fall in this category.

I always imagine that we are all sitting around a campfire with some drinks in our hands and casually chat about this and that among friends. Of course in real life that's not the case. That's why the common denominator and base of everything is civility, decency and the call to be nice. Most people know by themselves what's right or wrong and mostly they should simply ask themselves: "How do I want to be treated?".

Thankfully, rumored important changes of the Code of Conduct have not yet entered into force or have even been publicized, so I don't need to include them here, but if it happens, I might need to update this answer.

To summarize: If you say something be nice and when you say it, say it in a decent, civil manner. That should guarantee you a high chance of not being booted.

It seems to be custom in this question to end a contribution with a quote. Let me put something showing that language is more than the subject of Codes of Conducts. It's beauty and art and when I was finally able to fully appreciate it in my English lessons, I was blown away.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

  • @thethesaurussaurus What other one-syllable word would have the same meaning as "men" in the closing quote? Each of the words of the quote have only one syllable. I suppose one might have transcribed it as "So long as [folk] can breathe,..." or "So long as [guys] can breathe,..." "We" and "one" don't work, because these two words do not necessarily refer to humans. Also, if it were transcribed with any substitution, the very thing that its author is so loved for---his language---is obscured.
    – Ana Nimbus
    Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 3:55
  • @victorstafusa re my comment above ("What other one-syllable word..."): any thoughts?
    – Ana Nimbus
    Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 4:00

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