One big issue with conlangs is that usually, only very few people are knowledgable of their structure, and even fewer know a lot of vocabulary. As such, when being presented with an example sentence in a conlang, the average reader on this site sees exactly gibberish. There are two questions here:

1. Is this a problem?

Given a question on Toki Pona or Lojban, the person who is asking a question is likely at least somewhat familiar with the language and may not require extended explanations or direct translations of features unrelated to the question at hand. For example, in this question here, as of me writing this question, the accepted answer simply features two example sentences in Toki Pona, which the OP presumably understood (or they wouldn’t have accepted the answer). To me as someone who is not familiar with the language’s grammar however, it is unintelligible. I would have been interested in seing the answer stated in a way that I can learn something as well, however. Whether this is a) necessary and b) even desired is in the air.

It can however become an indesputable problem if someone requires help with a feature of their own constructed language. To showcase the context, they will likely require to give some form of examples, and people capable of answering will need to be able to parse those examples, preferrably without much trouble.

Another thing that has to be considered is that examples will not always be about the grammatical structure. Sometimes the focus may be on phonology, in which case the meanings of individual words might be interesting, but not relevant.

The question then is, in what cases do we consider bare example sentences problematic?

2. In cases where we consider it to be a problem, what can we do about it?

Probably the easier question to answer: How do we want people to present example sentences? Do we require glosses, explanations? Do we require a romanization if the language is not written in the latin script? If a question is about phonology, do we require a transcription in a phonetic alphabet, and if yes, does it necessarily have to be IPA or would alternative systems such as Americanist notation be acceptable as well?


1. Is this a problem?

I believe (and I wouldn’t have made this post otherwise) this to be a problem in general. In my opinion, while the main focus of an answer should be answering the question at hand, to the person who asked it, sharing knowledge with other people who might read it is always valuable and can set apart a decent answer from a great one. As such, I would consider an absolutely bare sentence in a conlang to never be good practice. Thus, not like this:

Pes qune wasi lxelxasac p’eknuim nuk’gojet.

2. In cases where we consider it to be a problem, what can we do about it?

As alluded to in the actual question, a primary distinction ought to be made between sentences where the meaning is relevant (grammar or semantics questions) and those where it’s not (phonology questions). In the former, I would suggest that at a minimum, a literal as well as an idiomatic translation should be provided, like this:

Pes qune wasi lxelxasac p’eknuim nuk’gojet.
What that I in-lxelxe say you-don’t-understand
“You can’t understand what I say in Lxelxe.”

This can often already be enough to get a good feeling of the grammar involved without much additional effort. Especially when wanting to highlight morphology however, a gloss is extremely useful. Ideally some implementation to easily create pretty glosses would be amazing, lacking that however they can be created somewhat okayishly using code blocks:

Pes qune wasi lxelxasac p’eknuim nuk’gojet.

pes  qune wasi lxelxa-sac     p’eknu-im nuk’-goj-et
what COMP 1    lxelxe.OBL-INE say-1s    understand-NEG-2s

“You can’t understand what I say in Lxelxe.”

To anyone with some experience in linguistics, regardless of what languages they are familiar with, this form of presentation gives a clear idea of the morphological structure. Depending on the goals, this may be overkill or actually obfuscate the relevant information - the fact that Lxelxe has an inessive case affix -sac which attaches to the oblique stem might not be relevant at all if the discussion was about relative clauses in that language. In such a case, glosses may be made more “informal”, mixing the structures presented in the two examples above, as appropriate. Additional information such as a clause grouping might also be indicated to further highlight the issue at hand:

Pes qune wasi lxelxasac p’eknuim nuk’gojet.

pes  [qune wasi lxelxa-sac p’eknu-im] nuk’-goj-et
what [COMP 1    lxelxe-in  say-1s]    understand-NEG-2s

“You can’t understand what I say in Lxelxe.”

Now on the other hand if the question was about pronunciation, all of this would be unnecessary. If the question for example was “How do relative clauses affect intonation in Lxelxe?”, then perhaps a good example illustrating this might look more like this:

Pes qune wasi lxelxasac p’eknuim nuk’gojet.
↑ˈpεs ˈqunɛ ˈwasi l̩ˈxεl̩ˌxε p’ɛknuˈim | nuk̚ˈ↑k’ɔjɛt

This would then accompanied with some explanation, perhaps something along the lines of As you can see, there is a pause after the end of the relative clause. The intonation rises sharply on the head of the relative clause and then stays relatively flat, tapering off slowly, over the duration of the clause. Intionation is essentially reset after the pause.

Conclusion / TL;DR

In my opinion, example sentences should always be provided with enough information that a reader can make sense of it, even if they don’t speak the language very well. However, this can easily be overdone as well. Information should not be added to the point where the actual answer is hidden behind it, but be supplementary information to the post. Often, examples aren’t needed at all, but if there are any, then they should be expanded upon enough that they are not just random strings of characters to the reader. Of course, this also implies that examples given in another script will probably benefit from a romanization under some circumstances, but only if this would help the understanding of the problem at hand.

  • 2
    If only the markdown here supported tables. It's been requested for so long, I really don't understand why they haven't added it. So many sites would make good use of tables, and for us they'd make aligning glosses super easy.
    – curiousdannii Mod
    Mar 4 '18 at 21:51
  • math.se (at least) allows something like TeX, which has syntax for column alignment; is that close enough? (I haven't learned to use columns.) Oct 15 '18 at 0:24

You know, this example sort of reminds me of code-only answers on Stack Overflow and certain other sites (1, 2, 3). The comparison isn't perfect, but there are several similarities between code-only answers and sentence-only answers:

  • They're both blocks of content without explanation.
  • They solve the immediate problem without showing the askers how to solve similar problems in the future (giving someone a fish instead of teaching them how to fish).
  • They're not fantastic, and I'd be inclined to downvote - although they do answer the question asked.
  • For all we know, the content could crash the OP's program . . . or their conversation.

Are they a problem? I'd argue that any answer that doesn't teach the OP something significant - and these, quite frankly, don't - is problematic insofar as it's probably not good. It might be downvoteable. Deleteable? I'd argue it's not; it does answer the question. It shouldn't be flagged as Not An Answer or deleted (1, 2).

There are some specific details I'd want to see, in general:

  • A translation of the sentence into English, and an explanation of said translation.
  • An explanation of why this works - in other words, why it makes sense.
  • Perhaps a more general discussion of the OP's problem. For instance, in the linked question, addressing why the OP's attempts don't work would be nice.

So, what do we do? Downvote? Sure, if you want. Flag or vote to delete? Probably not? Write a constructive comment explaining how the answer could be improved? Sure. I like what you did in this comment:

While I assume OP does not require it, I personally would appreciate it if you could add some form of gloss to the answer so someone not familiar with the language can appreciate the structure as well and learn something from this question.

I think the key point to emphasize is that this answer doesn't do a good job of teaching anyone. It gives content without context - and that's not good. I'd write something like

This sentence does answer the OP's question. However, it doesn't teach them anything - it doesn't explain why the content makes sense, or how it should be constructed. Basically, it won't help the OP in the future. It would be nice if you could add some explanation about the structure of this sentence so people can learn something from this answer.

That's just an example, but I think you get what I mean.

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