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Did you know that Language Log has a comments policy? Have you read it? If not, go and read it now, and if so, refresh your memory; look at the bar at the top of the main page, where it says

Home   About   Comments policy

and click on "Comments policy". There you will find the instruction

Be relevant. As bloggers, we write about whatever we want to. As a commenter, you should comment on the contents of the post you're commenting on. If you want to write about something else, do it on your own blog.

Commenters have violated this injunction again and again (for reasons I think I understand). The comments policy goes on to say

Comments that violate these guidelines will be deleted. Repeat offenders may be banned.

but in fact we've been extraordinarily tolerant of errant comments, even allowing comments that explicitly introduce topics that have nothing to do with the topic of the original posting. These are the most flagrant violations, but there are more subtle ones.

The flagrant violations begin with something like "This is off topic, but…", sometimes adding that the writer didn't know where to post this observation. (The short answer is: NOT HERE.)

Then, unfortunately but understandably, people comment on this comment, and a completely irrelevant thread develops.

Then there are people who pick up on a topic connected in some way to the topic of the original posting, often a topic that the commenter is more interested in than they are in the original topic, and run with it. I suppose I should have realized that when I posted a critique of some science journalism about studies that were claimed to show that sexuality is determined at birth, things would quickly morph to the causes of homosexuality and the genetic basis of sexuality, topics more interesting to many people than the topic I actually posted about. In this case, I eventually disabled comments (a tactic I might use more in the future).

Somewhat subtler are comments that pick up on some phenomenon that is mentioned in passing in the original posting and run with that. And comments that note some usage that OCCURS IN the original posting, and run with that. So in a posting on obscenicons I said

You can view the cartoon on the New Yorker Store site by searching on {Chast "seven words"} in the Prints section of the store…

and a new thread quickly developed about my use of search on. Such threads can be especially dangerous, since they often focus on usages that we have posted on here on Language Log, but begin the discussion from the ground up, as if there were no history. The commenters cannot, of course, be expected to know what's been said on Language Log in the past on some subject, but there's no way for the bloggers to anticipate which usages readers are going to hijack into new threads, so we end up adding comments of our own with summaries of or links to these previous discussions. (I am certainly not going to link to Language Log discussions of "singular they" every time I use one.)

What goes wrong? Our comments policy was designed to keep focus on a particular topic, but Language Log is treated like any blog that allows comments, unmoderated mailing list, or unmoderated newsgroup: everything is open space. So discussion wanders all over the place. That's the way the net works, and there's probably not anything we can do about it. Asking commenters to be brief, relevant, informed, and polite (as our comments policy does) is asking them to behave in what is now an unnatural way on the net.

(Yes, some commenters are scrupulous about adhering to our comments policy; I'm not saying that all commenters behave badly, but a surprising number do.)


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