Deciding on the meaning of isolated sentences

Almost daily, we read posts by people asking if a certain sentence is correct. And we answer those posts, saying whether the sentence in question is grammatically correct or not.
That’s ok, and hopefully it helps people understand and learn the English language from the point of view of the system, the grammar.
We do something else: we tend to say what the sentence posted means. That is also ok, as long as we provide all the possible meanings of the sentence, or as many meanings as we can when more than one make sense. But we seldom do that; we usually assign a ‘unique’ meaning to a decontextualised sentence when we don’t know what situation or context the person who asked had in mind when they posted their question. I don’t think that’s helpful.
Most people come back to say “thank you” and they won’t usually ask any further questions. Now, how can we be sure we have actually been of help? Perhaps the person who posted the question is still thinking about the context they originally thought of for the sentence/construction in question, and our answer may not have considered that context in particular. Perhaps the person will start looking for an alternative construction, since their context was not even implied in our response. I’m not saying we have to guess what each person who asks a question is thinking, but perhaps we could be a bit less ‘absolutist’ in our responses.
The same happens – this also happens very often- when people ask which sentence/construction out of a pair or a group they should use. Again, no context is given; yet we decide for them… again.
The same sentence may have several different meanings, according to the situation in which it is used. Perhaps it would be a god idea for us to ask –before posting a response- for a context. Or we could provide a few ourselves.

“I didn’t think she was going” doesn’t necessarily mean that I was wrong and that she is going, after all. Perhaps that’s the first impression we get from the sentence in isolation, but that does not mean we’re right. Here’s a situation where she is NOT going, even when the sentence might suggest the opposite:
A: “I’m going shopping. Ann has just called, she’ll be here in 10 minutes.”
B: “But, I didn’t think she was going (with you).”
A: “And she isn’t! She will only stop by for a moment before going to the club to pick up her kids.”

Someone is going to a party, and they call a taxi because it’s raining. That person would like to know which of these sentences would be correct:
1. “The taxi will arrive by 4 pm. “
2. “The taxi will have arrived by 4 pm.”
Sentence 1 is said to be a better choice than sentence 2. But, can we really say that? We are not given much in terms of context; so, on what grounds do we decide that sentence 1 is better? Is it actually *** better, in every possible situation?

Another post:
I want to know what tense to use. Very confusing.
“The weather this week HAS been somewhat better.”
What does this mean?
Answer given: It means that, during the week, the weather was better than it was before.
Now, I say, the weather “has been” is not exactly the same as the weather “was” better. The response doesn’t answer the question, which was about tense. Why “has been”? Perhaps because the week hasn’t finished yet?

Question: “You would need to be a superb amazon in order to tame her. She has this wild character.”
Is this sentence correct?
Answer: This is a question of style rather than grammar. The sentence is correct so long as you immediately go on to explain what it is that makes her character so wild. For example:
“She has this wild character. She's a crazy person at parties. She drinks, smokes, and dances like a maniac.”
My comment: Why “so long as you immediately go on to explain…”? Perhaps the wild character was explained earlier in the text and “this” has anaphoric reference.

My point: perhaps it’s our own eagerness to help which sometimes makes us give partial or incomplete explanations. We don’t usually ask for a context, and we seldom provide one ourselves in our answers. Perhaps we want to try and help everyone and answer every single question, so we don’t always take the time needed to give each question a complete, detailed answer?
I don’t know the answer to that myself, but I’ve been wondering about it lately. Should we be more careful? Or I'm being my usual fussy self here?
I know I'll try to be more careful myself in the future. Emotion: smile


P.S. I'm not posting this as a moderator, but as just another happy user of these forums. What I've written here is my personal opinion.
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I agree with what you are saying. Though I'm just a new user, I do have some thoughts to contribute to this topic.

The forum is a valuable resource because it brings a collective mind to bear on questions posted. Working as a team, we should be able to spot gaps or omissions in what one person has written and contribute additional ideas or information accordingly.

Having only recently joined this forum, I certainly don't feel as though I should be making all sorts of suggestions about how things should be done. But I do think that no one should hesitate to contribute a differing or conflicting opinion, in particular as pertains to varying interpretations of context.

You've mentioned a couple of my posts where a different interpretation was possible. I wish that you had posted your comments to the original threads, and hope that you'll do so in future. My satisfaction -- and I suspect that we all feel the same way on this -- derives from seeing users getting the help they need, not one-upmanship.

Partial, incomplete, or downright incorrect explanations may at times be the result of over-eagerness to help. But often they are simply due to incomplete knowledge or flawed thinking. When I've posted erroneous material, it wasn't because I hadn't taken the time needed for a proper response. I didn't know it was wrong -- at the time, I thought it was right! That's why I think it's so important that other users step in with comments when they see something that is misleading or wrong.

Another point you've made is that guessing at context can lead to narrowly-focused answers that exclude valid possibilities. In future, I'll try to state clearly any contextual assumptions I'm making. But one often overlooks the different ways that context can be construed. So there will continue to be instances in which sufficiently-detailed answers will necessarily be an amalgam of opinions from multiple sources. I don't think that's such a bad thing. The ability to get help from so many people is the very thing that makes the forum such a powerful tool.
May I chime in?

I am a learner. I just registered this forum a couple of hours ago. I think it's good but I haven't had gone through all of it. I just read EFL/ESL part. No doubt, grammatical rules and rrelated analysis are rather important for learners. I just happend to read some of taiwandave's posts, very impressive. How do you like it here?

Miriam, that's very thoughful of you. Indeed, we are not able to express our questions precisely and teachers here often jump into conclusion that the answer should be this or that, without considering more detailed or related context. In my humble opinion, your any prompt answer can make any learner's day at that moment. If they don't understand, they'll keep asking unflaggingly untill they see the light. Don't you agree?

Dave, you just hit the nail on the head. No one should hesitate to contribute any conflicting idea due to different interpretation of the context. To my knowledge, your language has zillions of exceptions that i have accept it as it is. But I must say offering some confusing examples could be a good idea that help learners build more complete linguistic competence.
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Great thread Miriam, can't agree more. I think this is a great forum to put our heads together. As a side point, I notice that some posters have indicated that they are proficient users of English. I am a native speaker and hobbie grammarian, do I qualify? I just want to show this so that noone is afraid to challenge what I post with the appropriate level of 'harshness'.

All the Best, Johnno.
I am a new member but only occasionally posting. Let me make some random comments coming from my ESL perspective.

It depends completely on the poster's language skills and how far he/she wants to get. It's a fair assumption that folks posting on a forum like this are eager to improve their skills and are aware of ambiguity of a language with out-ofcontext quotes.

I have been running myself very often into sentences where a straight answer was almost imposible. But any help is better than none. In explaining where the differences are and how the meaning of a sentence might change by using different grammar are extremely helpful

thus I enjoy reading the questions and answers given.
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People when start to learn English don't understand that some expressions, depending on the context, can vary of meaning. Instead of answer in doubts, people, in this forum, can ask for further information about the context; but it can bring some difficults; sometimes the person is in a hurry for any explanation, them he/she can get bored from it and doesn't return a new post.

I think the best way is try to answer it; if the question presents more that one answer, we can explain it.
Miriam's postings are so informative, as always.
Finally someone speaks exactly my view; a very profound thread indeed. Since my short time here being part of this forum, I’ve come across English of all levels. I hope I am not taken as a critic but rather someone speaking his mind. I have been talking about emphasis on “context” in more than one occasion in my reply posts to the questions. You are absolutely correct. Most of us rushed to answer the questions but we didn't really know if the learner posting the question truly understood the answers we gave because their questions were usually short without a clearly defined context to adhere to. I think our effort may be more beneficial to learners if they would understand the importance of having the ability to ask questions in the proper context. I believe that’s the key to understand and improve English. I am speaking from personal experience for I didn’t start learning English until I was 17 years old. I think the hardest part was not learning the rules of grammar or doing English exercise but rather learning how to apply words I’d learned in context in which I tried to communicate my point across. I guess that’s more than 2 cents
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