The recent question "Cosa significa “piccola gente” in questa frase?", as well as others that are regularly asked on this site are about the interpretation of a word or phrase written or said by a writer or other kinds of authors.

I am personally in favour of this kind of questions because they usually give rise to a debate among users as to the most likely meaning of the expression used and usually help clarify unclear concepts.

The only issue about it is that the same kind of question would be quickly closed as off-topic on EL&U as primarily opinion-based. So are rules here different with that respect or is this site just more tolerant with off-topic issues?

See also the following link on Meta.

  • Could you give some examples of this kind of questions on EL&U that have been closed as off-topic? – Charo May 18 '15 at 14:35
  • There are a lot...let me check one of the latest. – user519 May 18 '15 at 14:40
  • This is just one recent example,: english.stackexchange.com/questions/246624/… – user519 May 18 '15 at 14:44
  • I am not suggesting that interpretations should be strictly regarded as off-topic, though. – user519 May 18 '15 at 14:47
  • I find this answer quite interesting. That is, one should distinguish questions related to language problems from that related to purely cultural problems. – Charo Jun 7 '15 at 11:45
  • I've seen that on EL&U there are also questions asking about the meaning of literature quotations that hasn't been closed as off-topic. For instance, english.stackexchange.com/questions/6406/…, english.stackexchange.com/q/250639/94942. – Charo Jun 7 '15 at 12:35

I do not completely agree with Charo that, in a non-technical context, «words have a definite meaning». Even out of a poetic context, words might be used for their sound, for the associations they raise, for the personal meaning they had for the author. To outline a kind of thought experiment: even if we all agreed about what “piccola gente” meant in that sentence, we could begin afresh by asking why ever the author used that phrase rather than whatever paraphrase we found, so suggesting that our “solution” isn't really a solution.

All that is not to mean that questions about interpretations should be excluded, on the contrary. Only that answers should be very clearly sourced, be it with a reference work explaining that phrase, or with other, less troublesome uses of the same phrase etc., rather than just consisting of a terse paraphrase.

  • Maybe I didn't express myself well. I meant that, when writing these words, the author has a definite meaning in mind. – Charo May 20 '15 at 14:29
  • I agree with you: good literature consists precisely on that. – Charo May 20 '15 at 14:33
  • Dopo leggere e rileggere la domanda e le risposte, dopo pensarci e ripensarci, ho votato per questa risposta perché mi sembra che è quello più sensato. A volte ci imbattiamo con espressioni che sono difficili di interpretare sebbene l'autore del testo avesse un significato concreto in mente. In questo caso, si dovrebbe fare lo sforzo di scrivere risposte basate in fonti affidabili. – Charo May 22 '15 at 10:04

I think that, when an author writes something, these words have a definite meaning (it's definite for the author) that is not opinion-based. They can be difficult to interpret, but its meaning is not at all opinion-based. So, in my opinion, this kind of questions shouldn't be off-topic. At least is that way if enough context is provided and it is not a fragment of a lyric piece or a poem open intentionally by the writer to a free interpretation.

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    You might be right but the meaning is not always available due to either very old authors and uncommon words or cryptic author. Ungaretti's poem Mattina is 4 words and in literature books there are PAGES and pages about the interpretations of the meaning, which are, in the end, all opinion-based. Scholarly elevated ones, but opinions nonetheless. I do think these questions are not OT, but it has to be VERY clear that any answer would be opinion-based (with vey few exceptions). Just think about the question on quadro di sito... – Riccardo I. May 19 '15 at 8:20
  • @RiccardoI.: Your example is a poem and, as I have said before, poetry can be different. – Charo May 19 '15 at 13:16
  • @RiccardoI. With regard to the question of the "quadro di sito", as I have said, some texts can be difficult to interpret. But the point is that the OP and the other users can't know a priori if there is anyone who knows the answer. So, in my opinion, even these questions should be admitted. – Charo May 19 '15 at 13:57
  • Well, this is my view, but I would like to know the opinion of other users. – Charo May 19 '15 at 14:00

Passati gli anni, adesso ho un'opinione più definita sull'argomento. Penso possa succedere effettivamente che, nel linguaggio poetico inteso in senso ampio (chiamiamolo così), a volte non sia possibile sapere con precisione quale sia il significato delle parole usate dall'autore/autrice. Questo può generare domande le cui risposte siano basate nelle opinioni degli utenti: domande di questo tipo dovrebbero essere chiuse. Può accadere in poesia, nel testo delle canzoni, ma anche in prosa.

Tuttavia, non tutte le espressioni che appaiono nelle poesie o nelle canzoni sono di questo tipo. Addesso che abbiamo il Grande dizionario della lingua italiana in rete, possiamo vedere come molti degli esempi letterari che appaiono provengano dalla poesia. Come spiegato in questa risposta, si tratta di distinguere tra i dubbi di tipo linguistico e quelli su argomenti di ambito culturale. Per la persona che pone la domanda, però, tale distinzione può risultare non evidente, specialmente se si tratta di un non madrelingua italiano.

Quindi, vorrei dire agli utenti del sito di non temere di chiedere sul significato di parole o espressioni che appaiono in poesie o canzoni per il fatto che poi la domanda possa finire con l'essere chiusa. Ma vorrei anche che i madrelingua italiani votassero per chiudere le domande sempre che credano che non siano su questioni di tipo linguistico, domande che probabilmente rimarranno per sempre senza risposta (con potenziali risposte essenzialmente "opinion based"). Non credo sia niente di positivo per il sito che comincino a proliferare domande di questo genere lasciate aperte, fatto che può anche fare salire la percentuale de domande senza risposta (mi chiedo se questo non stia già accadendo). Se un numero sufficientemente grande di utenti (si veda anche questa discussione) vota per chiudere una domanda, penso si possa chiudere senza problema. Ma, per arrivare a questo, forse sarebbe necessario che la comunità partecipi un po' di più per quanto riguarda i voti per chiudere le domande.

After a few years I have now a more definite opinion on the topic. I think it can happen that, in the poetic language in a wide sense (let's call it that way) it is sometimes impossible to know precisely what's the meaning of the words used by the author. This can produce opinion-based questions: questions of this kind ought to be closed. This can happen with poetry, with lyrics of songs but also with prose.

However, not all expressions appearing in poetry or in lyrics are of this kind. Now that we have the Grande dizionario della lingua italiana online, we can see how many of the literary examples appearing there are coming from poetry. As explained in this answer, it is a matter of distinguish the linguistic doubts and those on cultural topics. To the person asking the question, though, such distinction can be not evident, especially if they are not a native Italian speaker.

Therefore I would like to tell the users of this website to not be afraid of asking about the meaning of words or expressions appearing in poetry or lyrics, only because the question might be closed. But I would like that the native Italian speakers voted as well to close the questions, as long as they believe the questions are not linguistic, questions that will probably remain forever without an answer (with potential answers all "opinion-based"). I don't believe it would be positive for the website if open questions of this sort start to proliferate, a fact that can also increase the percentage of unanswered questions (I wonder whether this is already happening). If a number sufficiently high of users (cfr. this discussion as well) votes to close a question, I believe it can be closed without problems. But, in order to arrive at this goal, it would also be necessary that the community participates a little bit more with close votes.

  • Spero che qualcuno possa tradurre questo post all'inglese. – Charo Jan 24 '20 at 13:27
  • Thanks a lot for the translation and the corrections, @DenisNardin! – Charo Jan 25 '20 at 8:15
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    Tuttavia, @Denis, hai cambiato il congiuntivo imperfetto per il presente in una frase con "vorrei che", ma la Treccani espiega che "la subordinata presenta più spesso il congiuntivo imperfetto, rispetto al congiuntivo presente: vorrei che stessero, insomma, prevale nell’uso su vorrei che stiano". – Charo Jan 25 '20 at 8:32
  • Mmm.. non so a me sembrava più naturale. Ovviamente puoi correggere eventuali errori che io abbia introdotto, non sono perfetto neanch'io (anche se ci provo :)) – Denis Nardin Jan 25 '20 at 8:37
  • Bene, @DenisNardin: ho lasciato l'imperfetto. – Charo Jan 25 '20 at 8:41
  • Però a me sempre che credessero suona veramente strano. Sei sicura che l'imperfetto vada anche lì? – Denis Nardin Jan 25 '20 at 8:42
  • @DenisNardin: Forse hai ragione! Ho corretto di nuovo. – Charo Jan 25 '20 at 8:46

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