I’ve been spending a lot of time (confession: too much time!) on Quora.com. For a language addict like me, the questions and discussions on Quora are so exhilarating that it’s sometimes hard to go back to my (sigh) To Do list.
Luckily there’s a hidden benefit – the insights I’m getting into the ways we think about language. Here are some thoughts, based on the questions I’ve been reading and answering:
- Many questions come from speakers of other languages who are eager to learn English. Unfortunately they tend to focus exclusively on grammar – an approach that doesn’t always work well.
For example, one recent question concerned the. It was answered by an overseas student of English who dutifully wrote a long essay about grammar points related to the. Unfortunately the answer failed to mention that the is often a usage issue. Practices can be arbitrary and regional.
So, in the US, we say that someone is “in the hospital.” The UK version is “in hospital.” And both nations say that someone is “in school.”
I’ve seen similar answers again and again on Quora: too much grammar theory, and not enough attention to the living language.
- Some questioners have unrealistic (even unreasonable) expectations. I’ve seen questions like “explain would” or “tell me how the future tense works in English.” You should use Google to find some reliable websites or visit a library.
Anyone who’s ever written an English textbook (I’ve done two of them!) knows that grammar explanations are time-consuming and hard to write. Don’t ask a Quora volunteer to do that work free!
- I’m surprised (and dismayed) that Quora is the first choice for many issues that require a credible, professional resource. For example, someone recently asked why so many English speakers continue to use the archaic words amongst and whilst. A reliable dictionary would have explained that a) amongst and whilst aren’t archaic at all, and b) they’re common usages in the United Kingdom.
Quora is fun, and you can learn a lot from the open discussions you find there. But it’s important to remember that often you’re getting opinions, not the result of careful research done by lexicographers and other experts with many years of training and experience.