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Ambiguous use of second-person pronouns

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1251512.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 3:52 am Reply with quote

Can I possibly clear up an issue of forum etiquette that may have been the cause of a couple of misunderstandings recently?

This forum has a "flat" thread structure, rather than a "tree" structure (as on Usenet and elsewhere). In a "tree" structure, follow-up posts directly reference the post that the poster is replying to, which may or may not be the previous post in the thread. It's possible to have multiple sub-threads on the same topic. Whereas in a "flat" structure, posts are simply added to the end of the thread irrespective of their position in the logical structure of the thread. The only way of indicating which post the poster is replying to is by directly quoting the referenced post.

This probably doesn't matter very much in the majority of "chat"-style threads. But in a "debate"-style thread it can make a crucial difference, especially when posters use second-person pronouns. If a poster refers to "you" in a post, and no previous post is referenced, then it can be unclear who that poster is referring to, and can lead to serious misunderstandings on occasion.

My default assumption has always been that, if no previous post is quoted, then "you" refers to the person who made the post that immediately precedes. Am I wrong in this assumption? There have been a couple of occasions recently where I thought that "you" in someone else's post referred to me, because their post came straight after mine, and it turned out that I was mistaken. How does one ascertain who "you" refers to otherwise?

Personally, I try to avoid using "you" in a post that doesn't directly quote a previous post, in order to avoid such misunderstandings.

Alfred E Neuman
1251557.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 5:56 am Reply with quote

GuyBarry wrote:
My default assumption has always been that, if no previous post is quoted, then "you" refers to the person who made the post that immediately precedes. Am I wrong in this assumption?

Well, you’re not always going to be right. Quite often the context makes it clear. And if it’s not a simple “were you addressing me?” is preferable to going on an all-assault. It’s also shorter to type.

1251637.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 9:49 am Reply with quote

^ What Alf said. We don't always want to quote previous posts unless we can just do a snippet, as Alf did, or it leads to a lot of cluttering.

1251640.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 9:58 am Reply with quote

Which Bondee and I have said numerous times - it's annoying to see posts appear twice, for no reason at all. If I see that there's 'heavy traffic' and my direct reply might get trumped by another poster who may well refer to something entirely different, I will f.i. say:

@ bem: what a preposterous thing to say! :-)

1251701.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 12:00 pm Reply with quote

I have never known bem say anything preposterous.
Filthy, yes, preposterous no.

1251707.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 12:11 pm Reply with quote

You're right.
@'yorz: that was preposterous.


1251708.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 12:12 pm Reply with quote

tetsabb - time for a holiday, methinks.

1251743.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 3:25 pm Reply with quote

@GuyBarry: Here is an appraisal of the downsides of nested comments - the ones I believe you refer to as being in tree structure:

Vanilla* wrote:
There are a few problems with nested comments. The first is they encourage the comments to split into several unrelated discussions. This is bad for many reasons—mostly it reduces user participation. The second is that it doesn’t look good and can break your page design. Finally, nested comments can encourage bad behaviour where people that just have to get the last word in will argue endlessly because the comment structure encourages it.

Early forum software used nested replies and some people still prefer this format. These are probably the same people who think you should still be able to buy leaded gasoline.

Obviously the flat comment structure doesn't always prevent some of these issues from arising, but might diminish their dominance.


1251744.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 3:34 pm Reply with quote

Indeed. Just a healthy attack of doffcocking has never harmed anybody and tends to spontaneously circle back to the OP.

1251745.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 3:39 pm Reply with quote

I'm just doing a bit of further reading to see if I'm right to equate 'tree' and 'nested' threading.

1251749.  Fri Sep 29, 2017 4:03 pm Reply with quote

This blog is 5 years old and refers to threading as a relic even then :)

I still haven't answered my question about tree/nested threading, but I found the blog an interesting read.

In 2012 Flat by Design wrote:
A part of me says this is software Darwinism in action: threaded discussion is ultimately too complex to survive on the public Internet.

1251783.  Sat Sep 30, 2017 2:23 am Reply with quote

monzac wrote:
@GuyBarry: Here is an appraisal of the downsides of nested comments - the ones I believe you refer to as being in tree structure:

No, I'm not talking about nested comments.[*] I'm talking about threads that actually split.

Let's say that A makes a post, and B replies to it. Then C replies to A's post. With a "flat" structure (as on this forum), C's post will appear directly after B's post, even though it's not directly related to it. With a "tree" structure, both B's and C's posts will appear as "children" of A's post - rather as though they were siblings in a family tree. It makes the logical structure of the thread much clearer, and means that you can have separate sub-threads on the same topic that don't interfere with each other.

It's standard on Usenet, where each post is in a separate file. It's not so common on Web forums, but I've certainly seen some forums that display a "tree" diagram for posts. You click on an individual node in the tree in order to read the post.

[*]EDIT: I've now read monzac's original link. I misunderstood the phrase "nested comments" as meaning including one quote inside another one - which is usually allowed in forums with both "flat" and "tree" structures. It seems that the author of the Vanilla site was using "nested comments" synonymously with "threaded comments", which confused me at first. I was indeed using the term in Vanilla's sense.

1251791.  Sat Sep 30, 2017 3:59 am Reply with quote

monzac wrote:
This blog is 5 years old and refers to threading as a relic even then :)

I had a look at that page and the author is right to point out some of the disadvantages of threading on the Web. (Many of these don't apply on Usenet, where each post is in a single file; but Usenet is on its way out anyway.)

The main problem that a "flat" structure doesn't address is when a topic naturally breaks into separate discussions. This happens all the time, especially in "debate"-style threads. The "@-name" device referred to by 'yorz is fine if you're just throwing an odd comment into the thread and don't expect anyone to reply to it; but if that comment generates further comments, then you can quickly end up in a situation where there are multiple discussions in the same thread all jumbled up with another.

That's not unique to this forum, of course; it happens on all sorts of forums with a "flat" structure. On one forum I used to take part in, the moderators would sometimes break a thread into two if separate discussions developed. That meant a lot of work for the moderators, as they had to backtrack through the thread deciding which post belonged to which sub-thread, and then move them all over to the new thread. I'm not sure whether the moderators here would want to take on a similar duty.

One approach that I personally adopt sometimes is to create a new thread myself if I want to go off on a tangent (as I did with this one). Sometimes I'll include quoted text from the original thread to provide some context, which means a certain amount of cutting-and-pasting, because the forum software doesn't do it automatically. I don't mind doing this sometimes but I think it would be unreasonable to expect everyone else to follow the same approach. Also you can't guarantee that posters from the original thread will switch their comments to the new one.

Ideally, what I think would be a good solution would be to have a "create sub-thread" option built into the software, so that posters could automatically start a new branch if they felt the discussion warranted one. There could be built-in limitation to the level of branching if it was deemed necessary to avoid too much complexity.

Anyway, we don't have that here, so we've just got to muddle along with what we've got. The quote facility and the "@" device are probably sufficient to deal with the issue most of the time. As I suggested earlier, it might be a good idea if posters avoided using second-person pronouns where they might be ambiguous, or use brackets to disambiguate them - e.g. "you (GuyBarry)". But I stress that these are purely suggestions, offered in a constructive spirit.

1251794.  Sat Sep 30, 2017 4:35 am Reply with quote

GuyBarry wrote:
... the moderators would sometimes break a thread into two if separate discussions developed... I'm not sure whether the moderators here would want to take on a similar duty.

They do. It happens when it seems fitting and right :)

Alfred E Neuman
1251811.  Sat Sep 30, 2017 5:23 am Reply with quote

I think this is a storm in a teacup. If a thread goes off topic or if there are two conversations running simultaneously for a while, what's the big deal?

A forum is mostly a conversation, especially a loosely managed one such as this, and as such diversions and detours are to be expected, and indeed some of the most interesting discussions are sparked off in that way. I had a friend once who always had to drag the conversation back. He didn't have many friends. And now he doesn't have me as a friend either. It's tiresome and counter-productive.

I've seen a few forums that use threaded replies, and find them annoying to read. You'll have three different replies to a question, and each spawns its own little sub-thread, instead of everything taking place in the same place. The fact that I only end up in those forums if taken there by a search, and almost never post in them, is a clear indication of my personal preference. The fact that many of the posters in those forums are members of other non-threaded forums, which are more active and vibrant is an indication that I am not in the minority.

Using @ references has its drawbacks too - often it means scrolling back up to see what the other person said, unless it was in the preceding post or two, and you've just read them.

Quoting an entire post when you're replying to one sentence breaks the flow of the thread, although it is easier to read, as if you are reading the thread you can ignore the quote if you've just read the post. As a default I only read the quote if I can't work out what the post itself is referring to, which makes reading threads easier and quicker.

Quoting snippets works a most of the time, but can lead to accusations of quoting out of context. Of course some like to whine about the difficulties of posting on a phone or tablet. I've not read or posted on these forums from a computer in over a year, and manage to quote snippets fairly easily, so grow a pair.

Basically there is no single perfect mechanism. Use your judgement, don't just do the same thing regardless of the situation. Read your post before posting, to see if it reads easily, and has all the information for a reader to know what you mean. And of course, none of us is perfect, someone is going to misunderstand something you say or do, and if they do, so what? Often it's while trying to explain or re-explain something that I come to understand it better myself. Sometimes the research I do to back up a comment I've made will change my mind (assuming that my mind is open to change).

Oh, and while we're trying to change the world - will everyone who posts just a link and a cryptic comment please cease and desist forthwith. I'm not going to click on it unless I'm incredibly bored. And in a month/year or two when someone else reads it, and the link is dead, it's meaningless.

Yes, I know, that comment isn't going to change how anyone posts. And so I have a choice. I can accept it, and either read the links, or just leave the thread. Or I can try to force my will on others and insist that they change their habits, and create threads about lone, out of context links. Which is going to make the target defensive, and it's far more likely that we're going to end up arguing in both that thread and in others too. So, from time to time I'll mention that I don't like lonely links, and then I just get on with things. If that doesn't get me what I what, at least it doesn't set me at odds with everyone while still not getting me what I want.


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