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Background

We have a massive problem with close votes. There's no sense in placing blame — we've been on this path since before even I joined the site, and we all thought what we were doing was best for the site. However, that doesn't change the fact that there's real damage being done. And we need to fix it.

We closed 63.49% of the questions asked in 2022 according to the big list of close stats, which tracks closures across all SE sites. We've consistently been at the top of this chart year after year. Lately, when I look at close tools (10k only), I see that we are usually closing 80% or more of questions (but sometimes exceeding even 100%). When I look at questions that are being closed, I see so many questions that were not answered by a "general reference", some of which did include their "research" and got closed anyway (example: "Unrelentless" to mean "relentless"?). I see questions that were closed in spite of the expert answers that were posted to them, and questions that were closed before an expert answer could be posted. This isn't improving the internet. And I see what it's doing to the people here.

We've fostered a site where so many people who I respect greatly just don't like asking questions. This includes users who are native speakers, and even users who on top of that are also active on other Stack Exchange sites (and therefore know how this SE thing works), including moderators. Even users who have been around on this site for a really long time struggle to avoid close votes. That should be rare. It should also be rare for questions to be closed and reopened without significant edits. It shouldn't be the case where getting 1 or 2 close votes is an inevitability for almost every question. But all of these things are regular occurrences on this site and it causes many of our regulars (myself included) to spend way too much time on getting questions reopened instead of answering them. If you have an expert answer to an English question, your main obstacle to answering it should be the fact that you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom — you shouldn't have to beg and plead for it to be reopened or add "oh but these five dictionaries don't answer this question" or wait for a queue that might not even reopen the question at all without further intervention.

Now, I expect this may be hard for some of you to hear, and even harder to put into practice: We need to change.

The policy change

The policy is as follows: The "research" close reason should be used on questions which are answered in a reputable online dictionary. And no, you can't use the "other" close reason to get around this.

Dictionaries are great. There are so many comprehensive ones out there online from reputable sources. And they're simple to use. It makes sense to require our users to use one before asking. (For an idea of what dictionaries this covers, take a look at the main section under "General Dictionaries" and the section for "Learner's Dictionaries".)

How can I justify not allowing "Google" as a general reference? Relying on a search engine is the antithesis of our site. The best quality answer will not rise to the top of the search results, only the content with the best SEO keywords. Our experts cannot provide a better answer, or downvote the crap out there, or even leave comments on it. Nothing of value is guaranteed to stay on the internet either, as links go dead. And with one simple invention, suddenly all these problems can get worse quicker: Generative AI. Blogs will go from being one person's opinion to being no person's opinion and in record quantity. But answers here will be moderated for AI content; I'm making sure of it.

But how then do we differentiate ourselves from ELL? I think it's all in the answers. On ELL, most of the information in an answer will be stuff that a native speaker is likely to know already — it's just enough English to make it to the end of the day. But here, on English Language and Usage, an answer like that shouldn't be enough: We want enough depth to our answers that we can party all night. This is even possible with a question that looks easy on the surface, since an answer could draw from corpus evidence, for example.

A note on (up/down) voting

On other sites, bad questions that don't break any particular rule get downvoted instead of being closed. That works well, but before we become a site where everything is downvoted instead, please remember that short doesn't have to mean bad:

Questions that seed interesting answers should be rewarded. Questions that include their research should be rewarded (even if it wasn't perfect). Questions that cover something you don't think is covered anywhere else on the internet should be rewarded.

While moderators can't see your upvotes and downvotes, I hope that you'll keep an open mind and look out for what value could be under the surface.

The tech change

In order to reinforce the rules, there needs to be a change in the system. Years ago, close reasons got an upgrade. We never took advantage of this, but it's not too late now. We have 5 different "slots" to fill, according to Catija, most of which have a 500 character limit:

  1. Brief description (100 characters but should be just a few words) - this is the Bold part of the close reason that appears in the close vote UI when closers are voting to close the post.
  2. Usage guidance - this tells close voters when to use this close reason. It should clarify any edge cases and help voters feel certain they're choosing the correct reason
  3. Post notice close description - visible to all users. This is a general note about why the question was closed. It can include links to resources that explain the site's policy. It should always start and end with the same thing "This question was closed because it is... It is not currently accepting answers."
  4. Post owner guidance - this additional information appears in the post notice but only for the asker of the question. It should contain detailed information about how they can improve their post and may also include links to help here on meta or in the help center.
  5. Privileged user guidance - this additional information appears in the post notice but only for users with the close/reopen privilege. It is designed to help them know how to guide the asker in improving their question or inform them when the question should be reopened.

The "Usage guidance" will change

This is my vision:

Plain text:

Answered by a dictionary
This question has been answered by a free, publicly available dictionary. Make sure a link to that dictionary has been provided in the comments before closing.

This is a quick draft, so it could afford to be changed a little. I think this would be a sensible place to include specific guidance on when to migrate to ELL (if we had any; we don't).

The other parts of the close reason should also be updated, both in light of these changes and also because I think it would be better to provide askers different help than the rest of the community. I figure that's something we can work on drafting here.


Further discussions (TODO)

  • Adding a tag warning to and related tags pointing to Etymonline as a preliminary point of research.
  • Adding guidance on the Ask Question page that actually explains how to ask a question here instead of telling people to just not ask questions here if they can avoid it.
  • Switching over the other close reasons to the new format. We could be providing a lot more guidance to askers than we do. (We could mention thesauruses in our close reason.)
  • How to write better answers. I can share how to do corpus research, and if you have another technique please consider posting your own discussion.
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  • 6
    The number of users closing a question should go back to being five. Why? Because we have a small but very active group of users who believe their quest is to guarantee a certain level of quality (I'm being objective) but at the same time they also retain that EL&U is only for experts, serious enthusiasts, and linguists. They do this by downvoting helpful answers and voting to close at first glance LQQ. As a mod you can rectify when a question has been erroneously closed. A moderator can single-handedly reopen a closed question. You have this privilege, please use it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 9 at 7:38
  • 3
    Related matter: "In the nick of time" or "in a nick of time?" that was a question posted over twelve years ago but was closed in July 2023 by three users for lack of research. Yes. No research was shown, but luckily after an edit, which proved the OP was not imagining things, it was reopened. Users are voting to close questions that were posted in EL&U's infancy, when parameters were more lax, and ELL did not exist.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 9 at 8:12
  • 8
    @Mari-LouA We talked about raising the close votes again, but there's more than 3 people who VtC like this. Not opposed, but wanted to post this first. Also, I get what you're saying about using my own votes (which I do, sometimes), but the broader picture is that I'm afraid I'm going to burn out at some point from having to do this so much. Also, I don't like the feeling that I'm working against the community, even if it's just a few people close voting.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 11:29
  • 4
    It's not infallible, but if there's only five people regularly closing, raising the limit will help to stem that flow. I get it, now there are no more review queues–not that they were so long in the first place–but what would actually happen to the site if a LLQ was tolerated, left unanswered, downvoted, and allowed to slip into oblivion to be silently sucked out by the "roomba"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 9 at 11:44
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA I mean… that what-if doesn't sound bad? In the best case scenario, someone would look past the quality of the question, realize they have an expert answer to give, and we'd be all the better for it.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 12:13
  • What can we do to engage more users in the review process? Wouldn't more active reviewers yield more balance on the votes no matter if it takes three or five to close? Not to mention help avoid review burnout.
    – livresque
    Sep 9 at 22:06
  • 1
    @livresque We need to do things right the first time around. Too many questions don't ever get to the reopen queue to get votes. Also, I can't summon up people to work the queues. Let's fix the problem at the source.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 22:17
  • Heard. Not asking you personally to "summon" people, yikes, but a large self-moderated community that has a low percentage actively participating in Review in turn cultivates the quality. Are the guidelines the source or are we the people the source?
    – livresque
    Sep 9 at 23:05
  • 1
    @livresque Does it matter? The source is the first revision of a question, one that has yet to receive a close vote. I've said for years that we've been working against ourselves, so why shouldn't I take the chance to fix that? We have so many dedicated people here, and I think we could get so much more done if we were all headed in the same direction. (The review queues are emptied quick enough here but we shouldn't be using them for questions which don't need to be closed.)
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 23:38
  • "We want enough depth to our answers that we can party all night". You party answers??
    – Lambie
    Sep 12 at 21:30
  • 1
    I just have to share that one of the very few questions I have ever asked was closed. I asked it on the French META site: It was a tag for Spoken French, a good or bad idea? Not only was closed down, it is asking for deletion. There were five answers from the same person basically dragging me over the coals. Of course, this is outrageous as I documented why this tag would be a good idea. The same people just kept removing the tab I created. Bosh. [Is that aggressive??] Yes, sour grapes for me all the way. I vote to close very few questions in general.
    – Lambie
    Sep 12 at 21:42
  • @Mari-Lou A 'English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.' The default reading, the one Gricean maxims demand, is that this is the intended extent of the contributors (nobody is arguing for restriction of readership). Sep 16 at 13:54
  • 2
    @EdwinAshworth that old chestnut. How many users, answerers and querents are actually linguists, or etymologists? Maybe we can count them on two hands. How long do you think a site could survive on that number? The truth is this, anyone can come and ask a question, and anyone can answer. You don't need special qualifications to participate, just a desire to know or help or...even show off.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 16 at 15:19
  • 1
    @Laurel There remains the option of posting a similar/identical question but including research. If the original question has not been closed, research may be edited in. But I'm firmly against any move that allows basic questions (questions someone at an English junior school should have been taught the answers to) and trivial questions to reduce the site's credibility. eg 'Can the words 'basic' and 'basically' be pronounced with [z] instead of [s]? [no research]' '[F]or linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts' is what makes ELU different from many other sites. Sep 17 at 14:01
  • 1
    @Laurel, you have asked a well justified question, which was, over ten days, viewed quite a few times (by the standards of the meta-site), and received several answers and many comments. What is supposed to happen now? I am asking this, because there are many, many meta-pages on which somebody makes a reasonable proposal for some change, it receives some support, and then nothing happens. Not only that, but there doesn't seem to be any mechanism for anything to happen.
    – jsw29
    Sep 19 at 15:45

5 Answers 5

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Dictionaries don't necessarily answer super basic grammar questions, so the new close-reason wouldn't easily apply to those types of 'too-easy' questions. Are we just going to migrate those all? AFAIK, ELL doesn't want our 'trash'.

Today this question was asked:

How to use comparatives with processive nouns?

I wonder which of the following is/are correct?

a. The national flag of Malaysia has more colours than Japan's.
b. The national flag of Malaysia has more colours than Japan.
c. Malaysia's national flag has more colours than Japan's.

Is this sort of question on-topic now?

The current close-reason doesn't forbid trivial etymology questions, either, and not every dictionary contains origins, either. Irrespective of dupe-status, is a question like 'What is the origin of the phrase 'to rest on one's laurels'"? really the type of query we crave to answer?


Many SE sites have a 'too basic' close-reason, we for now have an extremely versatile 'general reference' close-reason that acts as an equivalent. As you said, we use it maybe too much.

But the plan here seems to be to take that high-utility close-reason and localize it to only being applicable to only a few types of questions.

(Not really objecting to the plan, just putting this out there.)


Somewhat off-topic, but since you sorta brought it up...re:

We've fostered a site where so many people who I respect greatly just don't like asking questions.

High-rep users really should ask more questions. Their answers stink of brilliance and thought, and I bet their questions would as well.

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  • My preference would be 1) close as a duplicate here or 2) migrate to ELL and possibly close as a duplicate there. I'm in a pretty unique position here (flexes ELL diamond), so I'd like to have a similar conversation on ELL Meta soon too, since these questions really aren't easily answered unless you have native proficiency in English.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 8 at 23:56
  • 2
    That question breaks the "proofreading" rule, so it wouldn't be allowed anyway.
    – alphabet
    Sep 9 at 0:14
  • @alphabet It depends on what's in the body. In the case of one identified issue (e.g., tense in context) it could live happily on ELL (or as a duplicate). If there's multiple problems, yeah it's a good candidate for closing as proofreading.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 0:46
  • @Laurel Both of your preferences involve closing as a duplicate, but there's no certainty that such a question would be a duplicate. Sep 9 at 0:46
  • 2
    @MarcInManhattan If it's not a duplicate (and it's not proofreading, etc.), then it should get answered on ELL. (Maybe I just can't help myself from bringing up duplicates so often because I'm the main one finding duplicates that nobody else thinks exist on both sites. Also closing as a duplicate is great.)
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 1:03
  • @Laurel Thanks! Yes, I think that that's a good way of handling that. Sep 9 at 1:11
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    Re your last point: our goal is to answer questions that people encounter, not to come up with interesting questions for each other. I don't think we want to push for high-rep users to ask questions purely for the sake of asking questions.
    – alphabet
    Sep 9 at 3:18
  • 2
    @alphabet I see no problem with asking for the sake of asking here, especially if they're interesting questions. We've even had some purely hypothetical questions that have given some interesting answers.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 11:41
  • "not every dictionary contains origins, either" The policy is not that the answer must be in every dictionary, but rather that it must be in a reputable dictionary.
    – Ryan M
    Sep 11 at 23:53
  • 1
    As for the specific example of the origin of the phrase "to rest on one's laurels", why not? I just looked it up, and it's moderately hard to find. Many sources mention the awarding of laurel wreaths in Ancient Greece, but, as one notes, "The negative connotation, and the saying, only came about millennia after...the Ancient Greek and Roman empires," and few discuss the origin of the phrase. While I did find one that discusses it, the question is hardly trivial, and perhaps there's more than the one person running that site found.
    – Ryan M
    Sep 12 at 0:04
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7

I wholeheartedly support this observation and the proposed change.

It should be noted that this is very close to how that very closing-reason was originally devised here, as General Reference.

Heartspring's suggestion, adding "or in a beginner's grammar book", is also worth thinking about.

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  • 3
    Are there any reputable grammar resources that are freely available online? I'd like to make sure that we're actually pointing people to the answers, not just assuming that the answer is there and closing anyway. (Unfortunately it's much harder to search for grammar.)
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 2:21
  • @Laurel: I don't actually know. I understand your concern. I also wonder whether it might not be a bit much to ask of closers, to find the rule in a grammar book (if we are to allow this reason)? Sep 9 at 2:34
  • If it's that difficult to find, why wouldn't we want an answer somewhere more accessible? For many questions that might be ELL — probably the dividing line would be if a native speaker would intuitively know the answer or not.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 2:37
  • 3
    Better make sure you add a link to a real "beginner's grammar book" with real English grammar in it. There aren't that many, and textbooks are always wrong. That's where we get the questions beginning "We know that ...", which are always silly and don't have any answers. How does one deal with widespread official ignorance? Sep 9 at 13:53
  • 4
    @JohnLawler By making a better grammar book, right here on Stack Exchange? Like I said, the internet is filled with crap, so why are we so eager to have our users consult it to solve their problems?
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 23:27
  • 2
    @Laurel: It may not be difficult, but it's still quite a bit of work, looking up why He doesn't likes it is wrong. And yet it is a very basic question. And not every native speaker will be able to properly explain why it is wrong. Even so, it is probably far too basic for ELL. Or isn't it? So should such questions be within the scope of the new version of the closing-reason, or not? I don't have a definitive answer. Sep 9 at 23:41
  • Given the amount of crap there is out there being taught, nothing is too basic for ELL, and nothing is too basic for ELU. The problem is the students only come to one class, ask one dumb question that shows they didn't understand anything, and never come back to learn more. Frustrating. Sep 9 at 23:46
  • @Cerberus-ReinstateMonica Here is your duplicate on ELL (don't be fooled by the title): The use of -s on third person verbs in a question starting with "does". And no, it wasn't closed on ELL.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 23:57
  • @Laurel: That was quick! And would such a question still be kept open today? Oh, and would it be possible to migrate all similarly basic questions to ELL? I'm wondering how we should deal with them when they arrive here. Sep 10 at 0:17
  • @Cerberus-ReinstateMonica And I spent some of that time on making dinner! The question isn't so old that ELL has really changed too much; there are occasionally new questions that basic. It should be possible to migrate new questions like these over. I've said it somewhere else, but I'd like to have a similar conversation to this on ELL too (but I didn't start writing that one yet).
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 10 at 0:34
  • 2
    @Laurel: Hmm would it be possible to migrate those even if their number is high? Once upon a time, ELL was sort of invented so as to funnel off questions which seemed too easy for native speakers on EL&U. But it was thought that the new site shouldn't be a rubbish bin, and so those very basic questions on EL&U would usually still be closed, rather than migrated. I'm not sure where we are now and what our options are, practically. Sep 10 at 3:43
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In one of your suggested CV reasons (I guess it would be "usage guidance"?), you included this text:

Make sure a link to that dictionary has been provided in the comments before closing.

I very much recommend against requiring a CV'er to leave a comment unless it was anonymized somehow. Otherwise it would help the OP to identify the CV'er, which I believe is generally frowned upon by SE.

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  • How about 1) provide the link in a comment 2) suggest the OP view it or edit 3) don't down vote. Maybe the dictionary is too brief or doesn't pursue subtleties.
    – Mitch
    Sep 9 at 0:48
  • @Mitch As long as you're leaving a comment and casting a CV at roughly the same time, the OP might be able to associate those actions. You could leave a comment and then come back a few hours later to CV if no improvement has been made, but that seems overly troublesome. Sep 9 at 0:52
  • I get your point, but unfortunately there's no way to leave an anonymous comment like that. My question back at you is would you be uncomfortable leaving comments like that? My hope would be that OP would accept the help gracefully (in spite of the close votes). Otherwise I hope you have confidence in us (the mod team) to take care of any inappropriate comments or whatnot.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 0:56
  • 2
    Also keep in mind you can always upvote someone else's comment.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 0:59
  • 1
    @Laurel You may recall that about a year ago there was a well-received suggestion on ELL Meta that CV'ers provide more reasons in comments. I took that to heart, thinking that my comments would be appreciated. Well, it took only a few nasty comments (and one or two whiny complaints in Meta) for me to reconsider; I still leave comments occasionally when I CV, but much more rarely than I used to. So it is a real issue (at least on ELL, but I expect probably here, too). Sep 9 at 1:03
  • Vaguely maybe? That was a pretty long time ago. Do you have a link to the Meta ELL posts complaining? (That's not been my experience, but yours might be drastically different. Even though I probably leave more comments than you, most users have enough sense to not directly sass someone who can suspend them.)
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9 at 1:14
  • 1
    @Heartspring Yes, but if you haven't left a comment then they typically won't respond to you personally. If you leave a comment, then that's where they sometimes reply with a rude remark. Sep 9 at 1:24
  • 1
    @MarcInManhattan (and anyone else) If you find rude comments being left, flag them. Moderators do see these, and the system also counts them too. And there are system checks and help to counter revenge voting, too.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Sep 9 at 12:10
  • Votes to close are not anonymous anyway, so I don't think that the problem with requiring dictionary links is that it interferes with anonymity. Requiring such links would, however, amount to essentially requiring answers-in-comments, which some well established contributors find objectionable.
    – jsw29
    Sep 12 at 21:48
  • @jsw29 Some do; but that question has actually been asked before.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Sep 13 at 6:31
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There are two distinct, although related, questions here: (1) Is the show-research reason for closing used too much, and, if so, how should its use be limited; (2) Should that reason (perhaps narrowed down, as a result of answering the first question) be relabelled?

So far as (2) is concerned, this question, as Cerberus has already pointed out, essentially amounts to the proposal that the site revert to the old general-reference reason for closing. Regardless of what may be argued about (1), which I shall not address in this answer, I wholeheartedly support this reversal.

As I have argued before, the current boilerplate formulations of the reasons for closing, including the show-research one, often obfuscate the real reasons. In the overwhelming majority of cases, people who vote to close a question by using the show-research reason do not really think that the question could be improved by showing research. Rather, they think that, if the OP spends two minutes with a dictionary, the OP will find the answer, and realise that there is no question left that would need to be asked here. The old general-reference wording articulated that reason clearly. At some point, somebody thought that this wording was too brusque, and introduced show-research as a euphemism of sorts. That was, I believe, a mistake, as those who come to this site to ask a single question in good faith (but are not immersed in its culture) cannot be expected to 'get' the real reason behind the euphemism that they see in the closing banner, which then leaves them confused and alienated (probably far more so than if they were told the real reason in plain English).

I realise that it may not be easy to explicitly formulate the precise criteria of what constitutes general reference, but I don't think that it is necessary to do so for the reason to be understood. When it is debatable whether something is really a matter of general reference, that can be dealt with case-by-case, in the comments, and/or by the OP's editing the question, and/or by voting to reopen.

4

I also wholeheartedly support this change. I think that the high closure rates can make ELU appear hostile or unhelpful for new users. "Difficulty" per se is a completely arbitrary and unreasonable standard, as shown by the presence of questions that cycle back and forth between closed and reopened.

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