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We were having a titillating discussion in the Teacher's Lounge about toxic comments when it came up that "imperatives" could indicate rude comments. I won't defend this, but I'll explain the background...

Take this made-up comment:

Edit your post so it has sources.

That's "imperative", instructing someone what to do. To new users, that may seem bossy. We mods on BH.SE use comments that sound more like suggestions. Albeit, different sites have different cultures... tl;dr

Then, we discuss more...

Adding "please" doesn't make it less bossy, but seems more friendly. Is it?

Please edit your post so it has sources.

Then, we discuss more...

Adding conditionals appeals to logic and feels less bossy. Consider what I've seen others post, and myself:

Please edit your post to include sources so that others don't vote to delete it.

...The imperative alone (first example) may be perceived differently than the imperative with the conditional (third example)...

Maybe you don't agree. Great! Maybe you do agree, but before we get married...

tl;dr

Using pure grammar in our considerations, alongside other considerations, could be very helpful. We could look at meaning, buzz words, et cetera. But, also step back and take a look at the pure grammar itself.

That could be useful because:

  1. Grammar is objective and thus is a better reason for flagging, voting, deleting, taking action, et cetera.
  2. Grammar could work with AI to more easily auto-flag possible abusive comments.

I don't want to argue whether asking a user to edit a comment is abusive. I want input on using pure grammar itself as a possible way be more objective, both for community human decisions and for AI helping out with the grunt work.

We are discussing this because we want to be more welcoming to new users, in the minds of high-reps on more than one site, as the network can be perceived as toxic. Perhaps running grammar through AI algorithms might help identify trends from comments in the past that were deemed abusive. This presumes that we are looking for ways to be more welcoming.

Albeit, comments would be easier to implement, but once refined it could prove useful for flagging posts and beyond.

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    My personal catch phrase when commenting with the aim to improve a question is "This question should ...". But it rarely does really afterwards, so I'm not doing it often.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 16 at 17:09
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    I'm actually not sure that grammar alone is sufficient to determine the helpfulness of a comment. My guess is that even with the perfect manners and grammar there could be pretty annoying comments or conversely helpful comments that only lack the right grammar. So I'm a bit skeptical, but I don't want to dismiss the idea either. I would rather see it in action (the company should have a really large dataset of millions of friendly and unfriendly comments annotated by mods to test every possible hypothesis) before judging it. Maybe somebody like Kevin Montrose could run something there.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 16 at 17:46
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    Anyone who believes that tone in English can be deduced from grammar without context is probably wrong.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 16 at 17:53
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    For example, I could post Do. Or do not. There is no try. as a joke based on comments that have gone before. I could post Yes, please do tell me how I can improve. I do truly enjoy it when experts on the Internet correct me. as rude sarcasm based on what went before. Also, do we have AI that can effectively parse English grammar written by random people of mixed levels of fluency? You could probably catch some folks' canned comments that could use some softening, but you don't need to parse grammar for that.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 16 at 18:09
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    I don't see a problem with the imperative in general. I use it a lot in sentences like "see [link]", "note that Y", or "sign into X" (as an instruction). There is something more going on when you ask someone to edit (no idea how to describe it... is "bossy" the right word?). For the record, I don't see "adding conditionals" as improving the sentence. It feels too much like a threat to me. Ultimately, the specifics of what a person finds rude or not is highly culturally dependent.
    – Laurel
    Mar 16 at 18:16
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    Terse does not imply rude.
    – VLAZ
    Mar 16 at 18:25
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    Having moderated on ELL for several years, I agree with @Laurel about the subjectivity of rudeness. The language barrier has often caused some misunderstandings about whether someone is being rude. The only cure for that is an engaged community where people feel free to ask "Hey, did you mean to call me an idiot, or did I misunderstand?" and where other users will try to help explain things when comments seem be misunderstood because they are too terse. Removing marginally/potentially unwelcoming content is not as effective as adding friendly content.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 16 at 18:26
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    I didn't downvote your suggestion, but I still don't understand why you think grammatical structure can be used to assess tone "objectively". I can say "Watch it buddy, or you'll get what's coming to you." and adding the conditional actually makes it more unfriendly. I think we can use AI to help screen comments. I think grammar is not the right metric for this environment.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 16 at 19:16
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    @Laurel Wow! Loaded with truth. Adding conditionals wouldn't always make it better, it would just be one more factor to explore as programmers build out the AI's processors. It would be nothing like, "User X used an imperative; ban for life." But, really... Do we consider how many imperatives vs subjunctives we use in a repartee? When we kerfuffle, we aren't even thinking much at all, just reacting. AI aside, if we humans considered not just our tone, but mood of verbs, that might have a stronger calming effect than "counting to 10". Feel me? Mar 16 at 19:37
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    English grammar does not convey tone. It's a framework we hang our meaning on to try to get it across to another person more easily, but we don't really need it. Just look at textspeak or doge. Most people can understand doge without knowing the grammar of it, but the tone may elude them if they don't understand the context. Also, you're a hopeless optimist if you think most of the comments here are grammatical ;)
    – ColleenV
    Mar 16 at 19:48
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    Also you need to consider culture. To me as a Dutch person a direct comment like your first example isn't "wrong" at all. While in other cultures it might be perceived as problematic.
    – Luuklag
    Mar 16 at 19:59
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    @Luuklag I strongly agree, having lived in Taiwan 13 years. So, any AI algorithms should look for indications that the writer is not a native speaker—and we moderators should also. Mar 16 at 20:11
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    Seems more clear. But also not sure what is there to discuss, really. Let's say the community says "Yes" or a "No". It doesn't matter since such a system doesn't exist. And if such a system is made, the creator does not need to abide by what the community said anyway.
    – VLAZ
    Mar 16 at 20:33
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    Grammar carries meaning not tone. Any grammatical structure can be used to be rude or welcoming, and because we are a global community, we can't rely on the "most people understand this to mean this", or for a good baseline of what is considered unfriendly.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 17 at 12:44
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    Yeah, and all you need is one to prove I'm full of crap. That you can't think of one doesn't support my point, but it doesn't disprove it either. This isn't a trial, I'm just sharing what I know to be true in a discussion. I'm not saying your idea is dumb, I'm just saying that I think you're heading down a path that isn't productive.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 17 at 12:55

2 Answers 2

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You use three imperatives in this very post:

Take this made-up comment

Consider what I've seen [...]

Step back and take a look [...]

That no-one would consider these examples rude in the least must already cast considerable doubt on the notion that the use of the imperative mood might provide a purely syntactical indicator of rudeness without regard to semantics.

A cursory survey of comments on the site I moderate suggests these kind of what you might call rhetorical imperatives are very common. Most other occurrences of imperatives aren't in instructions to do something or other on the site, and many of those that are appear in implicitly or explicitly solicited advice (e.g. how to get a certain symbol with MathJax).

Here's an example where someone is being instructed to take a particular action:

Please do not give new information only in comments, edit your question to add the new information. We want posts to be self-contained, comments can be deleted, and anyhow, information in comments are not well organized. Also, many people do not read comments.

Even if there were only the first, imperative, sentence, it'd hardly be rude; & it wouldn't be more polite when recast as a question ("Would you please not [...]"): what makes it considerate, though, is taking the trouble to explain the reason in the following sentence. You allude to something like this, I think, in your discussion of conditionals, but again the grammatical form employed to this end seems barely relevant.

Not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: there are cases where using the more direct imperative rather than a more indirect form can seem rather bossy, but they're very context- (& culture-) dependent. And directness is sometimes called for: it's not a desirable outcome that someone ends with up their question closed/account suspended for ignoring "If you ask me, it might be a good idea if you were perhaps to [...]".

For someone already set up for training M.L. models on S.E. comments labelled as rude or not, I don't suppose it'd be all that much effort to investigate a little, if there's an off-the-shelf P.O.S. tagger that can identify imperatives. I don't know if there is or not: the one in OpenNLP, for example, uses the Penn English Treebank, & would tag an imperative as a "base form" of a verb, along with infinitives. If there isn't, it's a question of whether this looks a promising enough avenue of investigation to develop one specially—in view of what I've written above, I don't think so.


† Your example, however, comes over more as a threat or a warning than an explanation:

Please edit your post to include sources so that others don't vote to delete it.

More welcoming is:—

Please edit your post to include sources so that interested readers have something to follow up (or skeptical ones can verify your claims!).

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    It's about comments, not questions or answers, right there in the title. Applying it to questions or answers is a later possibility, described in the closing sentence. Mar 17 at 2:36
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    I don't say this to be rude because I have done the same thing. I'm looking for ways to improve. My above comment could have been written by an AI and delivered before the Answer was posted. Such a feature would have saved me from many great embarrassments in the past. Mar 17 at 3:21
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    I understand, but such phrases are of the kind people commonly write in comments too. I just didn't have to search too far for examples of what you might call rhetorical imperatives - that aren't exactly issuing orders. Mar 17 at 6:43
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    My point exactly! So, as AI writers work to take the grunt work load off of mods, they could identify which may need moderator attention by grammatical patterns, not just a list of "unfriendly phrases". Research might reveal something there we could learn from. Mar 17 at 6:47
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    I don't understand the thinking that the statement "Let's explore space" could mean "Everyone burn your houses if you don't live on the USS Enterprise D". I think questions about possible progress inherently make us imagine the worst, then we react as if our imaginations aren't imaginary. Mar 17 at 6:48
  • "Let's explore space" - "Er ... do you have a rocket-ship?" - "I have a trampoline" - "Let's go to the pub". It's more like that. I don't believe you've made a good prima facie case that grammatical features would be of much use for auto-flagging comments, compared to obvious ones like vocabulary, for the reasons I give - which are of course themselves only prima facie reasons. I don't contest that "research might reveal something there we could learn from"; but that's not a strong claim. Mar 17 at 14:46
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This is not snark. I'm flat serious.

Easy-to-misunderstand Questions may be a greater priority

This Question may be off-topic since it presumes what some might call "hyper-geek" knowledge, or specialized knowledge, which is why I put out a feeler for asking on AI.

As a writer, I'm supposed to make sure others understand my words. By that standard, this is a terribly written OP because it gives some readers the wrong impression that:

  • it proposes applying rules with a heavy hand (it doesn't)
  • it would exclude all other considerations (it wouldn't)
  • it is about Questions and Answers (it isn't, that's possible future)

For example, this comment probably should have been inside the OP:

So, in preparing the AI algorithms and telling an AI what to look for, throwing grammar into that mix would give AI programmers a lot of very useful things to focus on building out. In their programming work, it would never be the only consideration at all, nor would it be right for any kind of first and final decision; it would simply be a useful factor for them to explore over years and decades.

The system could have picked up that I talk about AI, but that is a technical industry that not everyone understands. So, a post for people who are experienced in fields other than AI would benefit from this explanation on a site that is not about programming, (like Meta, Worldbuilding, and Writing.) But, it might be patronizing on sites about programming (like Stack Overflow, Server Fault, Unix & Linux, and especially the AI site).

That might have been really great to have the pre-question system give me a notice like

"Some users might not understand your Question because it assumes specialized knowledge from another field. Consider providing a brief explanation."

The proposed OP may still have some priority

The proper answer from a researcher might be that AI should search "deemed-abusive" comments for grammatical patterns, looking for any trends, only then could we know whether it is useful.

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    I don't want to edit the OP too much because I think my bad example makes for great research. Hanging myself out to dry for the team. Mar 17 at 3:10
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    It may be considered that "OP" in these quarters is normally only used for "original poster" (not "original post" as in some other online cultures). Mar 17 at 12:13
  • @This_is_NOT_a_forum Yep, for sure. I've seen it to be coterminous both ways. Mar 20 at 3:44

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