These questions always bug me when they ask about a perfectly normal, acceptable English usage.

It just seems like someone whose English isn't that good decided to question the correctness of the writing of someone else who ex hypothesi has a better grasp of English, and then decided to waste our time with it. There also seem to be a lot of them, asking about perfectly acceptable English, which doesn't do anyone but the questioner any good, and they could probably just have used google or a reference work to find the answer to their question, without cluttering up the site.

Can we introduce a policy requiring that these questions specify why there is some doubt as to the acceptability of the construct in question? That would at least allow the answers to be more useful by explaining the questioner is under a misapprehension as to the rules applicable.


Is it correct to say "one out of *a* possible four"?


Is the phrase "man is mortal" grammatically correct?

Some examples where the poster has put at least a minimal explanation for their doubt:

"Anyone has" or "anyone have" seen them?

"Passed" versus "past" instance in a published novel

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    Can you give some examples?
    – nohat Mod
    Commented May 29, 2011 at 18:37
  • Ex qua hypothesi? Commented May 30, 2011 at 2:37
  • @Cerberus: By virtue of the hypothesis that they have written a correct sentence in English, which sentence is the subject of the "is this right" question.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 30, 2011 at 9:29
  • @Marcin: Okay, fair enough. Commented May 30, 2011 at 13:23
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    I think a couple of the questions in your list are quite interesting. I sometimes find questions on this site that get me thinking about grammatical constructions I've always taken for granted because they sound so natural. I am curious to know why you were so rude to the person asking the first question. You could just as well have said, "It is not clear in your question what you think is wrong with this construction." I see where you're coming from when you say the questions lack clarity, but I do not see any cause for sarcasm.
    – Tragicomic
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 12:00
  • Surely this is the sort of question best dealt with by downvoting it? Or voting to close on the grounds it's just parochial? Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 22:18

4 Answers 4


I believe it is important for askers to explain the reason they need to ask.

This is the key difference between idle curiosity, which is disallowed per the /faq ...


You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page. To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where [you can't provide a rationale for asking].

... and a valid question. If you can't explain why you need to know, then you might be wasting everyone's time.

Alternately, if the reason is "because I am learning English as a second language" that clearly means the question is off-topic for this site. Which is another reason askers might be coy about it.


I agree with the general sentiment here that question askers should provide motivation for their questions, but I'm not sure that having a policy requiring them to would do much other than to turn off potential new users by closing their question and quoting some policy.

I think a better approach would be to gently prod the askers of such questions in comments to explain in more detail what they are asking about.

Users with vote to close privileges should also feel free to vote to close such questions as "not a real question".

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    Experience has shown that questioners never actually do so. As you have seen today, it seems to lead to uninformed speculation by other users. As with any policy, I see no reason why there can't be a period before the question is closed in which the questioner has time to amend it.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 29, 2011 at 18:56
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    Sometimes they do! I think we already kind of do have the policy you seek, in the form of the "Not a real question" close reason. Users who have vote to close privileges should feel free to vote to close such questions as not real questions.
    – nohat Mod
    Commented May 29, 2011 at 18:59
  • Except that it is a real question in the sense that it is actually a question, but the answer is simply "yes" or "no". I've never seen a vote to close on these questions, so I infer that users with the privileges either don't even look, or don't think they meet the "not a real question" criterion.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 29, 2011 at 19:02
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    @marcin then close it as "general reference" aka "too trivial"; that is what it is for. Commented May 30, 2011 at 15:45
  • @Jeff Atwood: I would if I could!
    – Marcin
    Commented May 30, 2011 at 15:46

If the question could be meaningfully reworded to make it more useful or more broadly applicable and you have the rep, edit the question yourself; that's the policy at SO and most of the SE sites, in my experience.

For example, this question:

Is it correct to say "one out of a possible four".

seems to ask for a yes-or-no answer, which would indeed be pretty useless. Fortunately the accepted answer goes into excellent detail that is really an answer to something like:

How does the article work in "one out of a possible four"?


Why is "x out of an adjective y" valid grammar?

or a half-dozen other better ways to ask the question.

Most of the SE sites are about asking for expert opinion, insight, or knowledge, such that even asking good questions can be difficult for those at a lower level of expertise. If I was a non-native English speaker and wanted to understand how that particular construct worked, I couldn't necessarily ask it in a way that will help others down the road; I'd have to leave that to the experts.

If the OP doesn't reword or expound upon the initial question and rewording it yourself isn't feasible or doesn't make sense, vote to close.

  • Right, but it looks like users with vote to close and edit privileges are overwhelmingly ignoring these questions.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 30, 2011 at 9:26
  • Do you really think it requires expert knowledge to articulate why one has doubts about the validity of a construct? If there is no reason whatsoever, then the question should not be asked; if there is a reason, no matter how "wrong" then it is no imposition to ask a questioner to articulate it as best they can.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 30, 2011 at 9:31
  • @Marcin When it comes to a foreign language I think it requires significant mastery to clearly ask in that language about the validity of a certain strange-seeming construct, yes. That's my experience, anyway. Note that I specifically said, "If the OP doesn't reword or expound upon the initial question," in an effort to express that asking the person to reword is a great idea; that doesn't mean they'll be able to do it, and the fact that they can't doesn't make it a bad question, just badly worded. How do you know they're not already articulating it as best they can? Commented May 30, 2011 at 9:57
  • Because the problematic questions are the ones where there is absolutely no attempt to articulate what the perceived problem is AND there is no problem. Anyone who thinks there is a problem must at least be able to say roughly what they think would be an approximately correct formulation.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 30, 2011 at 10:52
  • @Marcin Obviously we simply have different experiences trying to speak a non-native language. "Is this right?" and "Does this sound right?" are questions I certainly had early-on, and even if I kind of had a sense of where in the sentence things seemed wrong, I didn't have the words to explain it. Commented May 30, 2011 at 11:44

I understand your concern. We now have General Reference as an official reason to close questions:

General Reference: this question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.

This includes questions that can be easily looked up in a dictionary by a moderately intelligent user. It should also apply to very simple questions of grammar, about which there can be no discussion.

However, there are several reasons why many apparently too-basic questions are not closed.

  • Grammars and dictionaries often simplify things: the input of a knowledgeable answerer may add unexpected nuance. Especially the use of tenses could benefit from elaboration and analysis.
  • Whoever answers the question is free to interpret it very broadly, even to include things the asker didn't want to know; that often results in a more complete picture and will be interesting for many people asking a similar question. Answers here often interpret questions asking is this correct? as "in which registers is this acceptable?", or "can you explain why this apparent violation of some rule is still correct, and are there similar exceptions?", or "what is the history of this idiom?". Our intended audience is not just the asker, but anyone Googling a similar problem.

I think Matthew has a very good point that someone who would ask a question often doesn't know how to ask it, which may result in a poorly worded question; but it may be about something interesting in fact, if only we will look past its apparent inanity. Perhaps we should edit such too basic questions more extensively, especially their titles; that may be a very good alternative to closing them. It just requires some effort, and... sometimes I am just too lazy.

I also agree with Nohat that gentle prodding and giving them a chance to improve the question themselves is fair and often fruitful—though perhaps not as often as we should like.

As regards the question about one out of a possible four, the asker's doubt seemed by all means reasonable to me. How are we to know whether some author didn't make a mistake? A simple slip of the pen? The editor or the typesetter might also have introduced an erroneous a. There are many non-native speakers on this website, both asking and answering questions...

  • You realise that your argument regarding the "one out of a possible four" question could be applied to literally any sentence at all? If that is your test, then any question of that type would always be valid. Is that really what you mean or want?
    – Marcin
    Commented May 30, 2011 at 9:28
  • @Marcin: I see my reasoning wasn't clear. I found his doubt understandable, because the construction apparently violates certain rules and is itself not a consistent whole. Of course there are many such constructions; but it did not surprise me that he should want it confirmed. My point that "authors make mistakes" was not meant to support this: it was just a general argument against "it is in a book, and it must therefore be correct". // I think this website is also meant for questions by non-native speakers, who may ask questions that are of no interest to others. Commented May 30, 2011 at 13:35
  • @Cerberus - the policy in general seems to be against trivial questions. I think it is fair to assume that most written sources are correct in the sense that they are accord with common usage among their intended audience, and to ask someone who doubts that to articulate the source of their doubt.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 30, 2011 at 14:24
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    @Marcin: Okay; does "I thought the rules of grammar forbade this usage" count as a source of doubt? I agree that it would be best if such questions indicated why they thought something was wrong. But what if they don't: should they then be instantly closed? I'm generally not a fan of quick closings, unless it is clear that nothing deeper or more interesting can be gleaned from the subject. Some alternatives to closing have been proposed in the answers here. Commented May 30, 2011 at 16:57
  • @Cerberus: I'm not advocating instant closings; in fact I have more than once on this page made the point that I think people should be given time to change their question.
    – Marcin
    Commented May 30, 2011 at 17:05
  • @Marcin: True, you didn't say they should be instantly closed. It would be OK to ask someone to tell us why he think something is wrong. But if you ask them but don't close, several answers will pop up within minutes in any case... Commented May 30, 2011 at 20:57
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    @Marcin: I have to agree with Cerberus here - sometimes the simplest-sounding questions offer the most interesting opportunities for answers, by forcing one to examine areas of the language that seemed obvious, or that one had taken for granted, in a new light. If you see a question and can't see why there's any difficulty with the grammar involved, it may be that there is none, or it may be your own failure to see some subtlety. Rather than instantly downvoting, a friendly comment enquiring what the difficulty might be helps distinguish the two. If no explanation is forthcoming...
    – psmears
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 8:40
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    ...after a few days then by all means downvote. If you feel the question should be closed, you have the right to increase your reputation and then vote - but also respect the right of others not to close questions if they feel there's something worth answering (blatantly off-topic questions usually get closed very quickly!). Often the best thing to do is just move on to another question :-)
    – psmears
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 8:46

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