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My first question here, When and where did the new sense of "normalize" begin?, has been closed due to being "off-topic."

TL;DR summary of the question: There is a recent sense of normalize that means to make something abnormal into a new norm, rather than the conventional sense of to make something abnormal conform to an existing norm. I'm interested in tracing the history of this recent meaning.

Despite this question having many upvotes, and an accepted answer of, at the current time, 18 upvotes, it has been downvoted by members and closed. Thanks to the answer by tchrist, I was both made aware of an article on Merriam-Webster.com and, through a quotation he referenced, I was led to discover an academic text on language evolution with an entire section that deals with the very question I asked. Now, it would seem that if both the people at Merriam-Webster, and a group of academic language researchers think this question is interesting enough to write articles about, it cannot possibly be "off-top."

After getting tons of upvotes, the naysayers started in the comments, giving various explanations to the effect of "it has always had both senses." They seemed to frame this as a problem with the question, rather than a potential answer. In the comments, it was asked if they felt the same reasoning fit words like "radicalize: to make radical" but no one deigned to give a response. If indeed the word normalize has always had what I'm referring to as the "new" sense of the word attached, by all means, answer my question with your logical arguments and evidence as to why. This is literally the point of the question: to get to the history of the meaning.

Of course, not one single person claiming that the novelty of the sense in question was mistaken bothered to give an answer. Conversely, Merriam-Webster poses the question in a way that assumes this meaning is "new" and says "Recently, we've seen it used to describe a change in what's considered standard." The authors of the study in Corpora and the Changing Society describe the word being used in this sense as a "neoseme." Both groups having done their research, one single quote from 1864 can be produced where the sense seems to be the "new" sense in question. (It's worth noting that normalization is only attested from 1842, and as a neologism being used by an American journalist might have been used in a peculiar way, since there is no evidence of this meaning again until 2015.)

The reason given by the first member voting to close: "I’m voting to close this question because it's based on a misunderstanding of existing definitions, including meaning #2 in the MW definition cited in the question itself."

Now, not only is this something that he could have dealt with in an answer to the question by giving examples of the word being used in the sense the question is curious about, but there's another problem here: "meaning #2" is: 2 : to make normal (as by a transformation of variables). This clearly refers to statistical normalization, by which:

...normalization of ratings means adjusting values measured on different scales to a notionally common scale, often prior to averaging. In more complicated cases, normalization may refer to more sophisticated adjustments where the intention is to bring the entire probability distributions of adjusted values into alignment.

Likewise, when we investigate transformation of variables, we find:

One of the most common assumptions for statistical analyses is that of normality, with nearly all parametric analyses requiring this assumption in one way or another. While not all normality assumptions pertain directly to an individual variable’s distribution (i.e., the assumption of normality for a regression is that the regression’s error is normally distributed, not that all variables in the analysis are normal), it is often easier to meet the assumption if each variable in the analysis is normally distributed.

There is no evidence here to support this term being used to indicate changing the norm to accommodate variability or abnormality. So, it seems that it is the other user who either does not understand the question or does not understand the definition.

The second member voting to close says: "I'm voting to close this question because it's based on an unfounded, false premise, specifically that the so-called "new sense" of "normalize is new, which it's not. The Latin root from which it was derived included and includes that definition. That definition likewise exists for cognates in other languages, like "normalizar" in Spanish and "normaliser" in French. Anglicized as "Normalize," it was imported with said definition, so the question is based on an unfounded premise that is false." (It's worth noting this user has an incredibly high reputation.)

Again, rather than using this an answer and backing it up with evidence, he simply votes to close. He claims the meanings of the Latin root and two cognates support the sense in question always being used. If this is the case, evidence is needed, as cursory searches for these terms do not uncover the "new" sense of "making the norm conform to the abnormal." This is not remotely authoritative, and is ostensibly incorrect about the meanings of the French and Spanish terms, which hardly indicate how a word is used or has been used in English at any point. And if he believes etymologies support the fact the term entered English with the sense, all the more reason to write an answer.

Then at some point since last night, the question was closed.

So what is going on here? This is obviously a pertinent question that strikes at a phenomenon currently underway: either the introduction of a new sense of the word or its take-over from more common uses of the word. It creates a linguistic environment where we can no longer be sure whether "We need to normalize the behavior of these troubled teens" means "We need to bring their behavior back into accepted standards" or "We need to change our standards so their behavior is seen as normal."

The cultural problem on this site is far more pervasive than this single question, though. One of my first interactions with a high reputation user was in a thread asking about the grammar of "adjectival clause" being used in contrast with "adjective clause." This question was shut down because the high-reputation user claimed that adjectival/adjective clause were not a valid category of clauses (despite this term being used on this very site by many high reputation users). When it was pointed out to him that the question was about the grammatical use of an adjectival form versus a noun adjunct, he refused to understand and doubled down on "there's no such thing as an adjective clause."

I could go on and on about the irrational behavior of high reputation users. As a new user who is genuinely passionate about investigating language, it is very off-putting to see this repeated, obstinate, tone-deaf form of one-upmanship consistently perpetrated in post after post, usually upvoted by some cohort of people who seem more interested in explanations that sound smart rather than ones that convey knowledge. Debate is not encourage on the site, so seemingly unchallenged but incorrect comments from high reputation users often have the definitive say, even when they are clearly unreasonable.

Hence, I submit, the site is useless to new users. Unless we can clarify the guidelines for these types mentioned above, it's a hostile environment.

Edit: Responses that ignore that this is primarily about the type of environment the behavior creates and that blame users for being upset by this behavior are part of the broken culture that needs to be fixed.

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    @DanBron I spent almost 30 minutes writing this, because I wanted to make it perfectly clear what the issue with my Q was, so at some point it got reopened. That doesn't alter the points that 1) it should never have been closed in the first place and 2) the behavior of many users here is off-putting. People passing themselves off as experts who can't even comprehend a simple sentence are a problem. And once their reputation is high enough, they don't seem to ever admit they've made a mistake or there could be another way to view it. Jul 6 at 18:26
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    I’ve upvoted this, because I agree that there is an issue with people not distinguishing between a question that is off-topic and a question which as the answer “You’ve made a mistake in how you’ve framed the question.” One of my few questions here was based on a mistake made from ignorance that someone was kind enough to answer. I think ELU misses a lot of “geode” questions because they never get seen by people with the expertise to recognize they’re much more interesting when you crack them open. It’s not just ELU that has this problem though.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 6 at 18:34
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    @ColleenV “Geode” and “crack it open”: nice analogy! To both you and Arthur: I agree there’s an issue to be solved here. But it’s been raised innumerable times (and, as you say Colleen, not just on EL&U), and there has been essentially no progress towards a solution. My take, which I posted under a similar complaint here on meta a couple days ago boils down to (using your analogy) “we are inundated with rocks; they never stop, and between heuristics that pattern inspires and the basic need to simply not be covered in rocks, we accidentally toss many of the geodes”. So: how to stop the rocks?
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 6 at 18:41
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    @GArthurBrown Yes, I agree. It’s the inevitable consequence of mixing reputation points with expertise. People can earn the privilege for closing questions by being good at asking or answering questions, not by being good at knowing which questions are on or off topic. People don’t even really get any training other than very generic documentation. I can’t blame people for doing what they think is good for the site under those circumstances. The way the system is set up, this discussion will never end.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 6 at 18:41
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    @GArthurBrown This is where I'd have to point you towards the bottomless backlog of discussions on this topic (here on m.elu, but more so on m.se and m.so). There are fundamental philosophical questions about the purpose and aims of the site that don't jibe with the approach you just outlined (in short, we are not aiming to retain Qs which are "useful to someone"; we want to build a library of reusable knowledge, and aim to host Qs which are helpful to as many people as possible, now & in the future). Also the # of CVs needed on SO does scale beyond 5 & they still get these complaints.
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 6 at 19:10
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    That's also been tried. It also hasn't worked. Because those who team A would shame feel they're doing the conscientious and right thing for the site, and it's team A who should feel shame. And vice-versa for team B. I'm telling you, there is nothing new under the sun on this topic.
    – Dan Bron
    Jul 6 at 19:26
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    This is the fundamental problem with the new 3 votes-to-close policy which has been recently adopted. You will nearly always find two users who agree with close voting any question. Before the reform there were about 140 questions in the Close review queue, nowadays you're "lucky" to find more than three questions in the queue. Questions get closed too easily and too quickly.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 6 at 20:12
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    Hang in there and don't let it get to you. Otherwise it is difficult to stay. Look at the bright side, it teaches you patience :-) . Like MAri-LouA, my concern with the 3 votes is that questions get closed waaaay too fast. I saw a question of a beginner (1 rep) downvoted 3 times (-3!) and closed without any explanation within 15 minutes. I mean, NO TIME TO BREATHE!
    – fev
    Jul 6 at 21:43
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    @GArthurBrown, you are presenting here a reasonable criticism of some practices that are prevalent on this site, and this criticism deserves to be considered seriously. However, using the formulations such as 'a group of 3 or 4 cranky old users decide they are smart enough', is not helping your criticism to be taken seriously; it is likely to alienate many more than just the 3 or 4 cranky users that you have in mind. Also, the title of this question should be made more specific: the question is not about the site's culture in general but about one specific aspect of it.
    – jsw29
    Jul 7 at 15:35
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    @GArthurBrown I know what you mean. I mostly spend time on StackOverflow, and it used to be even worse there. There was a concerted effort a few years ago to tamp down some of the worst mistreatment of newcomers, and it seems to have been somewhat successful, although with mixed results. Jul 7 at 16:30
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    I have to admit that after the worst of the newbie-bashers were successfully driven away, the number of newbies saying "Do my homework for me!" roughly tripled. Jul 7 at 16:32
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    @GArthurBrown Zero. But also I'm afraid that a lot of the non-abusive experts have drifted away, too, because there are no interesting questions any more; they're being drowned out by the "Do my homework for me" posts. (Not at all trying to excuse or condone the newbie-bashers here, just observing that communities are complicated things!) Jul 7 at 16:36
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    @Mari-LouA I spend more time now on the Vote-to-Reopen queue. Between two things, interesting and follows the rules, if they are in conflict I'll promote interesting.
    – Mitch
    Jul 8 at 14:36
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    I just recently discovered this stack; within my first two interactions, it seemed immediately obvious that, as someone who professionally relies on the ability to resolve very edge-case grammatical scenarios, this stack is probably useless. The moderation seems capricious and inconsistent, and therewith goes the reliability and integrity of the entire project. As someone who, before a career change, spent years relying on stackoverflow's example of community excellence, the difference here is stark and disappointing.
    – Jonline
    Jul 19 at 15:09
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    Maybe it was voted down because it manages in a fairly short question to mention rape culture, gun control, gay rights, and a progressive conspiracy to change or corrupt language. There's something to upset everyone there.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 19 at 19:19
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I think it is important to note that the first review was three votes to leave the question open, so maybe the problem isn’t some pervasive broken culture but a different problem caused by “close” votes being stickier than “leave open” votes. I think it also needs to be pointed out that this terrible new user experience is about a a hot network question that was closed for an entire two hours before it was reopened and apparently there was some unwelcome commentary. Maybe the problem is the comment system, not the close vote system. Regardless, I already headed down the close vote path, so I’ll just leave the rest of this as-is.

When someone votes to close a question, they are voting to prevent people from being able to answer that question. Thinking about why closing a particular question would be good for the site instead of thinking about how the question fits a particular close reason might make it easier to decide whether a question truly needs to be closed.

You can skip the list to get to my conclusions about the culture issue. It’s just explaining my view of reasons why questions should be closed.

In what sorts of situations is it good for the site to close a question?

TL;DR If it is likely that the community will be unable to provide original, high-quality answers and effectively rank those answers relative to each other, the question should be closed. If the issue that made the answers difficult to provide or rank is resolved, the question should be reopened.

  1. When the question will generate answers that are all equally valid. This subverts the main function of a Stack Exchange site, which is to provide answers that the community has ranked by how well they answer the question and how credible/correct the information in them is.

  2. When the question needs to be clarified so that every answer is answering the same question. Answers that have different interpretations of a question can’t easily be compared, so they can’t easily be ranked, which subverts the main function of an SE site.

  3. When a question can be completely answered by a dictionary or other general reference. There is little value in maintaining a copy of another reference’s information.

  4. When a question has already been answered on the site. Answers can not be effectively ranked across questions.

  5. When a question is blatantly off-topic. The community was created to answer certain types of questions about certain topics. If a question is not within the community’s area of expertise or of the type of questions they signed up to answer, they will be unwilling or unable to provide good answers and rank them.

I think the last point is where we have the most trouble. English is a broad topic and different people have very different interests and areas of expertise, so there is a lot of disagreement about “Is this the sort of question that belongs on ELU?” I think the flood of low quality questions (LQQs) has made it hard for some to entertain the idea of leaving a question they don’t care for open for other people who might like it more to answer.

I think lowering the close vote threshold will actually help, but we have to get through the turbulence that comes with any change first. Close voters just need to adjust to their votes carrying more weight, and feel the LQQ tide recede.

These “cranky” old timers have been fighting to keep ELU standards high for a long time now and it can feel like a never-ending losing battle, which can lead to some babies getting tossed with the bath water. The only answer is for the community to communicate with each other about what is and is not an off-topic question.

Mistakes get made, but they can be corrected so long as we treat each other respectfully, especially when we disagree. Most community members who take the time to interact on meta care about this site and are trying to do what’s best for it, even though we might disagree about what that entails exactly.

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This question made me think about the ways in which English Language & Usage has changed since 2012, when I first visited it. Although the resulting commentary doesn't directly address the poster's central concerns, some readers might be interested in a (fairly) longtime site participant's perspective on the evolution of this site.


English Language & Usage in 2012

I have been a more or less continuously active participant at this site since January 2013, but I first came here in spring 2012, answering nine questions over the course of two weeks before wandering off. As nearly as I can recall, the reason I dropped out then was that I couldn't remember the password for the original account I had created.

In 2012, EL&U had already been in existence as a full-fledged Stack Exchange site for a couple of years. It had no "show research" requirement for questions, and the vast majority of answers were fairly short and, as it were, undocumented. Even then, however, some users produced extensive, detailed answers that showed signs of considerable independent research. In this regard, I was especially impressed by the contributions of tchrist, Hugo, StoneyB, and Jon Hanna, although many others provided thoughtful and obviously well-informed answers as well. What I liked most about these answers was that they took the questions they answered seriously. Researching a question shows respect for it, and I appreciated that these posters were taking the time to respond thoughtfully to the questions they addressed.

This was by no means a universal feature of answers at EL&U in 2012. Many answers were one- or two-sentence responses that came across as peremptory at best and dismissive at worst. Obviously, when answers consist of bald assertions of fact, it can be difficult for a non-expert to know whether they are authoritative or merely idiosyncratic. In 2012, the predominance of short-form answers may have heightened the importance of site reputation, since such answers rarely included any independent corroboration of their conclusions. And this, in turn, may have encouraged a sharpness of tone in answers challenging other uncorroborated posts that a particular answerer disagreed with.

In 2012 it was still not unusual to see posts by questioners and answerers who came to the site armed with supreme confidence in arbitrary rules of grammar and usage that they had learned in school—the sort of superstitions that Theodore Bernstein devoted his book Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins (1971) to demolishing. I wish that I could report that the better-informed answerers of 2012 dealt with these assertions of Thistlebottomed rules gently and judiciously, but in fact they often did not.

The abiding tone of some prominent posters amounted to not suffering fools gladly, and in some instances the asperity of their responses crossed the line from laconic bluntness to overt rudeness. Perhaps some well-informed site participants felt that harshness was the only way to drive out wrong-headed competing answers in a setting in which the only guide to reliability available to uninformed site visitors was the net upvote totals that answers received. Whatever the precise cause, the results were more conducive to clubbishness than to generosity of spirit.

Although the change in tone since 2012 at EL&U may not have had anything to do with the rise of documentation in answers, I like to imagine that it did. A more likely source of improvement may be the sustained efforts of various site participants during the mid-2010s to encourage a kinder and more welcoming attitude toward newcomers (and oldtimers). In any event, it seems to me that harsh and flippant answers are far less frequent in 2021 than they were in 2012. To the extent that such responses still occur, they gravitate toward comment boxes rather than answer boxes, and even there they tend to be more restrained than their predecessors were. If nothing else, this evolution indicates that the overall tenor of even as large and amorphous a site as EL&U can move in a positive direction.


English Language & Usage in 2021

As free-form and off-the-cuff questions and answers have become less common at EL&U, the site's vetting of questions and answers has become more stringent. This is a mixed blessing. First-time visitors who read the official site tour's explanation of how the site works are likely to come away with a fairly good idea of how the site operated in 2012—but a rather mistaken idea of how it works today.

Years of effort to accelerate the process of filtering out bad questions (in particular) have resulted in the introduction of several site policies that are at odds with the breezy example question and answers that appear under the subhead "Ask questions, get answers, no distractions" near the top of the tour. And nowhere in the main text of the tour page does the word research—as in "questions must indicate the research that the poster has done prior to asking at this site"—appear. (The closest it comes to mentioning this requirement is in the form of the rather opaque phrase "Include details about what you have tried..." Huh?)

Consequently, even newcomers who take the tour—who I imagine account for a very small percentage of all newcomers who post questions or answers here—are not well prepared for the hoops that they must jump through in order to satisfy the posting requirements that reviewers actually enforce at EL&U.

A great many questions posted at EL&U fail to meet site standards on grounds that I think are objectively legitimate—such as because the question can be answered by consulting a standard dictionary or because the question involves a specific issue that is of no interest to anyone other than the poster (a request for proofreading assistance, for example). I see a connection between this large number of flawed questions and what seems to me to be a tendency of some site participants to close-vote without careful deliberation.

A person scrolling through a review queue in which most of the questions lined up for vetting clearly fail to meet the site's requirements may develop a degree of bias in favor of closing any question that appears in the queue—a presumption of closeworthiness that the question must overcome, rather than a presumption of acceptability unless the question shows itself to be clearly deficient in some meaningful way. And nowadays only three people have to vote to close in order for the closure to take effect.

At any rate, overzealous question closure seems to have become a substantially bigger issue in the past five or six years than it was in 2012, even as many more site participants are empowered to vote to close questions and (most recently) as the number of close votes required for closure has dropped from five to three.

All of this is separate from the question of why some individual site participants challenge the legitimacy of questions or answers that other site participants consider perfectly acceptable. The latter issue, it seems to me, is simply a hazard of community or open-source site participation and site moderation.

If I were the despot of EL&U, I would impose somewhat different standards for question closure than currently exist, I would quickly overrule closure decisions that (in my tyrannical opinion) were bad, and in general I would try to minimize the various things about the site that annoy me. I daresay that every site participant who has been here long enough to have endured a clueless comment from another user or a bad decision by the powers that be would do likewise—although very likely not along the specific lines that I would prefer.

The thing is, each of us has chosen not to set ourself up as absolute ruler of our own independent domain. Instead, we have tacitly elected to subordinate our particular preferences to the rule of a virtual city of site participants, whose insight, judgment, and diplomacy are all over the map. The results of this cession of power can be infuriating, and challenging the bad decisions that occasionally result undoubtedly requires extra effort, but the rewards are not insignificant: access to an array of interesting questions, fruitful exchanges with intelligent co-participants, and a large audience of potential readers.

In the final analysis, I don't think that the culture at EL&U is broken. In fact, in practical terms, I'm not even sure that there is a coherent culture here. At a minimum, a coherent culture implies a distinct and fairly homogeneous ruling class that consistently articulates, prescribes, or dictates what is acceptable, admirable, and correct, and what is not—and I don't see that at EL&U. What I see is a kind of anarchic wildness in which a multitude of individual actors pursue their inscrutable and often conflicting goals, barely restrained by a small cadre of moderators and a somewhat larger group of self-appointed post reviewers, each, in turn, enforcing personal standards of judgment in service to a personal vision of what the site should be. Under the circumstances, it's astonishing that the system works at all.

I don't mean to sound pessimistic or fatalistic about the shortcomings of English Language & Usage. I think that the great majority of participants at this site who stick around for any considerable length of time contribute positively to the site, and I think that the trajectory of the site is toward greater civility and tolerance. But it's a long trip, and the best way to move forward, in my view, is to model the behavior that one would like to see prevail.

For me, that means trying to practice tolerance, politeness, and reasoned argument. It also means accepting that my preferences may not win out in the short term or in the long term. As long as my experience at this site is, on balance, positive, I will continue to participate; if it ceases to be positive, I'll stop. In the meantime, as much as possible, I will focus on the things that I can control: the research I do, and the questions and answers I post.

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    The OP points out, among other things, that some well established users tend to use as the reasons for closing the considerations that could be more productively presented as answers. My observation is that some of these users often seem to spend more time and energy arguing, in comments, why a question needs to be closed than it would take to write a reasonably helpful answer to it. That is a very different phenomenon from the 'tendency of some site participants to close-vote without careful deliberation'.
    – jsw29
    Jul 8 at 21:27
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    @jsw29 I don’t like the argument that the amount of effort it takes to write an answer somehow factors into whether a question should be left open. Whether something is on topic has nothing to do with the time needed to answer it. I get that sometimes the debate in comments seems more interesting to people than the more important aspects of the site, but the comment system is broken and in some ways encourages a lot of back and forth. People should care about whether a question belongs on ELU or not, and time spent curating questions is not wasted because it could have been spent answering.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 9 at 2:52
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    What I see is a kind of anarchic wildness in which a multitude of individual actors pursue their inscrutable and often conflicting goals, barely restrained by a small cadre of moderators and a somewhat larger group of self-appointed post reviewers....” Perfect description, perfect analysis. Bravo!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 9 at 9:19
  • +1 This perfectly describes the 'culture' of Maths SE as well.
    – Toby Mak
    Jul 9 at 10:11
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    @ColleenV, if it takes time and effort to explain why one thinks that a question is off topic, that means that there is room for doubt about it, and when there is room for doubt about it, it may be more profitable for everybody concerned to let the question be answered. An explanation of how it relates and how it doesn't relate to English language can be included in an answer. Note that the OP gives specific examples of the considerations that could provide answers being used as reasons for closing instead.
    – jsw29
    Jul 9 at 15:52
  • @jsw29 I think I understand why you're making that argument, but your logic is flawed. If I truly believe that a question should not be part of the site for whatever reason, and I'm closing it so it won't get an answer that might cause it to stick around, why would I just give up and write an answer for it because I'm having trouble getting other people to agree with me? I agree with you that people sometimes close questions for reasons that are suspect (or maybe just poorly articulated). I don't think "wasted effort that should be put into an answer" is a productive way to think about that.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 9 at 16:03
  • These close arguments are not just about whether a question is answerable. They are also about whether a question should be preserved on the site. Telling someone who is trying to argue "this is not an ELU question" that they are spending too much time arguing when they should just be writing an answer is not helpful. They aren't here to answer those sorts of questions, so no amount of time spent answering them will be "profitable" for them.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 9 at 16:10
  • @ColleenV, trying to close such a question 'so it won't get an answer that might cause it to stick around' is usually unsuccessful: if there is room for doubt whether a question ought to be closed, it will take time for the three, let alone five, voted for closing to be cast, and during that time somebody will answer the question and somebody will upvote that answer and so 'cause it to stick around'.
    – jsw29
    Jul 9 at 16:10
  • @jsw29 You've missed my point entirely. I'm trying to explain why the "why are you spending so much time arguing; you could have written an answer by now" way of thinking about it isn't productive. I am not defending particular closure arguments or points of view about closures. This happens to me a lot - I get a little too focused on one particular little point and have trouble making myself understood -- I'll stop now before I get carried away. I don't really disagree with any particular point you've made, other than the wasted time bit.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 9 at 16:12
  • @ColleenV For what it’s worth, I think you’ve done an excellent job of expressing your points, and in a civilised manner - both here and in a comment thread that was moved to chat.
    – Lawrence
    Jul 19 at 15:48
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    @Lawrence Thank you for making the effort to reassure me. I often feel like an alien dressed in a human suit when I’m trying to explain my thinking to other people. At least in person I can see their brow wrinkle and their eyes glaze over. I suppose if I had been born to different parents I would have been cured of it at an early age, but my dad is weird in similar ways and my mom loved him for it so I was encouraged instead. ;)
    – ColleenV
    Jul 19 at 16:02
  • I'd like to point out that the second guy to close-vote my post I reference in the Q recently voted to a close a question he's already answered, because the questioner did not like his answer! That's what we are dealing with. No way to discipline these repeat offenders. Jul 20 at 1:51

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