It has come up in other threads that we have a lot of "basic" or "lowest common denominator" questions. However, a few myths about this need to be put to rest.

First, we do have a general reference close reason, and we do use it. Questions which really are as basic as they seem can be closed, and should be closed.

However, there are a lot of "basic" questions which, under the covers, turn out to be linguistically interesting and involve subtleties which are invisible to native speakers. As a native speaker with decent writing or speaking skills, you may do things "automatically" which turn out to be extremely difficult to explain or rationalize. Elucidating what native speakers do by instinct is in fact very challenging, and a good explanation is a huge benefit to people attempting to learn the language. It makes the internet a better place for us to answer these questions.

Some examples:

If you're a native speaker without any linguistic training, the answer to all of these questions may be obvious. But to a linguist or a language learner, these are all difficult and interesting problems! To paraphrase something Kit said in chat, the kind of person who says "I don't see what's so hard about..." is the person who shouldn't be in charge. If you are, say, the sort of person who scores in the 99th percentile on your GMATs, you may be the last person who can accurately gauge the difficulty and relevance of questions like these.

So we should make a few things clear in our FAQ and site definition:

  1. Questions by language learners are on-topic.
  2. Questions that are covered by all standard reference sources should be closed as general reference.
  3. But questions that are obvious to native speakers are not necessarily general reference, and often are interesting and useful to learners and linguists both.

Point #3 brings up a kind of Catch-22: learners may not know whether their question is general reference without asking it. I propose that we as a community accept this ambiguity, and answer questions where the answers are difficult, and politely closing those questions which can be answered by any dictionary.

  • 2
    Great question.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 16:17
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    I would also add that questions that are obvious to one native speaker are often less obvious if you ask several native speakers - because there is a lot more variation in usage than most people realise.
    – psmears
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 16:18
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    This would make a good blog entry. If we had a blog...
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 18:27
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    Is it ok if we answer here giving our opinions about what should be closed and what not? I don't mean to have the last word on the matter but I'd like to give my contribution.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 8:27
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    @Alenanno: Good manners dictate that if you're the first to vote to close, you should add a comment clarifying exactly why. I think that ideally, even if you're not the first, you should do this unless you completely agree with a reason already given by someone else. That seems like the best way of establishing whether we have any significant differences of opinion. Commented Jul 17, 2011 at 13:28
  • @Fumble yeah I usually do that when I vote to close, I'll do it always from now on. But I meant on here, I wanted to post something :D
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jul 17, 2011 at 13:52
  • @Alenanno: Well I personally don't think I have anything to add to Jeff Atwood's chart (and associated discussion from 22Feb 2011, which I came across shortly after signing up for EL&U). But of course you can post something here. If it doesn't go down well (i.e. - you get no upvotes/lots of downvotes), you'll know it's not part of the site consensus. If it does, you'll know you were right to raise the issue, and you'll gain real kudos (plus a bit more rep! :) Commented Jul 17, 2011 at 14:39
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    I'd assumed that 'ELU is for linguists ...' meant that the many other sites aimed at learners allowed that ELU could be reserved for non-learners. Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 1:24

2 Answers 2


There's already guidance on this. Refer to the following chart:

The only caveat I can think of is that in step 1, above, you shouldn't answer questions that are explicitly off-topic for the site, even if they would satisfy the following rules. (For example, answering an Android question on the Apple site.) That sends the wrong message.

  • I have two pronounced problems with the decision chart: Re step 1) Can we define 'web search' better for EL&U? Which sources; How to search? Can we add some tools to EL&U that would help users realize they have not done due research and lower the noise? 3) How to objectively rule on step 3? When can I start considering myself an expert or at least a person who can judge if something is interesting to experts?
    – Unreason
    Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 14:37
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    per "adding tools", you have them: comments, flagging, and voting to close. As for the rest, use your judgment and discuss aspects here on meta as necessary. Commented Jul 18, 2011 at 19:42
  • in terms of tools I was thinking some js that could maybe do dictionary lookups or something similar (or maybe big red instructions for anyone below x reputation that says: do your research). As for the rest, you miss the point: we both try to use our judgment and we are discussing the aspects here on meta - that is why I suggested to improve the decision chart. This goes especially for 'Is the question basic and trivial, or is it complex and interesting for experts' hidden in the middle of it.
    – Unreason
    Commented Jul 19, 2011 at 7:53
  • @Alain Pannetier makes the relevant point in answer to this question, about the fact that some questions may look trivial when they're not really. One should be careful to avoid being overzealous in closing questions. Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 17:11
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    @fumble sure, but a question must show effort -- if it is accidentally interesting, that's not quite enough. Show us context, examples, explain why you need or want to know this. Share what you researched so far. Commented Jul 23, 2011 at 20:58
  • I think the last rectangle should be closed as subjective...
    – SamB
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 23:52

It is a hard and undeniable fact that new users that come to the site will expect "English Language and Usage" to accept General Reference questions. It does not matter if the description says: "linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts." I think this will be emphasized for the users that have been a part of stackexchange communities, for example I think you will not find any significant number of questions on stackoverflow closed because they are too basic (This is not verified, just my opinion; I am aware that the issue has been debated. Ultimately for stackoverflow this does not matter so much as it is not as frequent as it is here.)

If feasible at all following approach might improve the quality of questions:

1. Have a short note that would say

A lot of question asked here are general reference questions. If you are about to ask a question such as "What is the meaning of the word apple?" then you are not at the right place. Please try to research it in dictionaries. Even if you don't find satisfactory explanation it will help you ask a better question and to get much better answers (and also to avoid having your question closed as general reference) if you can explain what exact aspect of the dictionary definition you have a problem with.

2. Also, once faq is fixed we could have (for new users only) the following attached to the submit question button.

I confirm that I have read the faq.

  • Vote-up for no. 2! I have suggested the same idea on ELL in the past. Specifically I had asked for a multi-lingual FAQs, seeing as so many questions are posted by English learners whose level of English might be seriously challenged by the current day FAQ.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 13, 2013 at 8:26

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