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Update: Closing remarks

The phrasing I suggested in an answer below is now live:

"Answered by a dictionary" close reason

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.
41
  • 11
    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, 2023 at 7:38
  • 6
    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, 2023 at 8:12
  • 10
    @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, 2023 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, 2023 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, 2023 at 12:13
  • 2
    @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, 2023 at 22:17
  • 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, 2023 at 23:38
  • 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, 2023 at 21:42
  • 5
    @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, 2023 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, 2023 at 14:01
  • 2
    I invite everyone here to go take a look at the review queue on ELL. Everyday, some 20 questions are slated for closing. I generally do not close any unless they meet strict criteria.
    – Lambie
    Oct 1, 2023 at 17:45
  • 1
    @Lambie The close queue on ELL is a whole nother issue (though also pretty related to the points I bring up here). Once I wrap this up, I'm hoping to tackle that too.
    – Laurel Mod
    Oct 1, 2023 at 18:09
  • 1
    Laurel, I see that Catija's answer had some suggestions, and you have your to-do list; what's next? I notice that the CVers have become more lenient (I've tried to be so), and your post has received substantial support, in indicating that the community is also ready for this. Does Catija (seemingly the CM point of contact for this) not working here anymore affect this update? What are the plans for fully implementing this and changing the close models? Is there some sort of a timeline, or an imminent 'part 2'? (It's been a while since there was activity on this post.) Nov 18, 2023 at 3:34
  • 1
    @Heartspring I posted this question, which we should review and edit as a community. Are you able to leave comments on it with the lock I used? (Also, really sorry that this has taken so long; pretty much every part of this project has been the fruit of my own labors and I'm feeling somewhat burned out.)
    – Laurel Mod
    Nov 20, 2023 at 19:08
  • 2
    Heard it all before ~ tri-yearly. All it does tho is give the close voters the literal reason they want (used to have?) instead of just the one they use anyway, for trash. Making the mistake of trying to use the reason listed to alter the behavior of our users instead of guiding the questioner. 'This question may be better answered by a free, publicly available dictionary. If you still don't understand something, provide a link to a dictionary before giving up.' - the way you wrote it, I'm supposed to define the word and then cast a close vote? that's not how SWR are supposed to work ;)
    – Mazura
    Jan 16 at 0:11

9 Answers 9

13

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.

1
  • 6
    I think basically if it's debatable whether something is general reference, then it probably isn't. :) But I agree that replacing the euphemism with "it's in the dictionary, here's the link" is vastly preferable.
    – Marthaª
    Oct 5, 2023 at 15:56
11

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 all of those? 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.

The dictionary wouldn't answer it; is this sort of question on-topic now? (This is a basic example quoted for its recency and brevity, but there are many similar questions out there.)

The current close-reason doesn't forbid trivial etymology questions, either, and not all dictionaries include the relevant information, even if it's readily googleable. 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? (The point still stands, even if this is not a great example, as the comments point out.)


Many SE sites have a 'too basic' close-reason. Right now, we have an extremely versatile 'general reference' close-reason that acts as an equivalent; as you said, we kinda overuse it.

The plan here, however, seems to be to take that high-utility close-reason and localize it to only being applicable to only a few types of questions. Is that really what we want?

(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, 2023 at 23:56
  • 2
    That question breaks the "proofreading" rule, so it wouldn't be allowed anyway.
    – alphabet
    Sep 9, 2023 at 0:14
  • 1
    @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, 2023 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, 2023 at 0:46
  • 3
    @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, 2023 at 1:03
  • @Laurel Thanks! Yes, I think that that's a good way of handling that. Sep 9, 2023 at 1:11
  • 5
    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, 2023 at 3:18
  • 5
    @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, 2023 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, 2023 at 23:53
  • 3
    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, 2023 at 0:04
  • 1
  • And so what is the answer to the Original Poster's question? Feb 12 at 12:40
  • @Araucaria-Him - I mean, it's a discussion announcement, right? I was responding to the ideas outlined in Laurel's post; I don't think she really had a 'question.' Feb 12 at 13:27
  • @Heartspring What's the answer to the How to use comparatives with possessive pronouns? question? Feb 12 at 17:14
  • Hey @Heartspring, please could you answer my question! Thank you. Feb 13 at 23:52
8

I created What resources do I need to consult before asking a question? and while that might not be the final revision of that post, I think it's good enough to move forward with the rest of this. Without further ado (sorry, there's been a lot of ado to get to this point), I copied Cat's suggestions with tweaks. Good? Good enough to use? Nothing will ever be perfect, but we could potentially edit this close reason again if we see anything that's a big enough problem later on.

Since Cat said this is a very big change, the CMs will likely not edit the old reason to retroactively apply it to already closed questions. I guess what to do with old questions could be its own discussion too.

I think all of these are under the 500 character limit.

Close modal text (title+body)

(Shown to close voters as they go to close the question)

Answered by a dictionary

Questions that can be easily answered by consulting a reputable online dictionary should be closed with this reason unless the question includes an explanation of why the dictionary wasn't helpful. When using this close reason, consider providing a link to a relevant reference in a comment.

I went with Cat's suggestion to not require a comment. However, I still don't want to see this close reason used unless you're actually certain that the answer exists in a "reputable online dictionary". I've really had enough of seeing questions closed with this when there is no resource in existence (at least not one in Google or on our full list) that answers the question, much less one that's a dictionary.

I added "easily" at the suggestion of jsw29 in the comments.

This still shouldn't be used to close questions which are only answered by the OED, but that's perhaps (hopefully?) too rare an event to require any space here.

Post notice description

(Shown in the post notice banner above the more specific guidance.)

This question was closed because it should be answered by consulting a dictionary. It is not currently accepting answers.

This is fine. It's only half of the banner anyway, if I'm understanding correctly.

Post owner guidance

(Shown under "Post notice description" to the post owner.)

We expect askers to use a dictionary to learn a word's basic meaning, pronunciation and usage. If you've already consulted a dictionary and it didn't answer your question, edit this post to explain what you found and what you still don't understand. If you're learning English as a foreign language, consider asking on English Language Learners, a site for speakers of other languages learning English.

Added a link to help/on-topic and changed the wording according to Colleen's suggestion

General user guidance

(Shown under "Post notice description" to anyone who's not the original poster.)

We expect askers to use a dictionary to learn a word's basic meaning, pronunciation and usage. If an edit to this question adds sufficient detail or explanation such that this close reason no longer applies, vote to reopen or request reopening on our Meta site. If comments from the author convey such information, edit them into the question and recommend reopening.

I'm struggling with this one a little. I removed the suggestion to flag because I don't really want to get a lot of moderator flags, but I felt like something should replace it. Maybe "...vote to reopen, if possible" if we didn't want to mention Meta. (Again, linking to a homepage feels weird.) In any case, the best option should come first, which is voting to reopen. Currently, meta requires 5 rep to use, which is less than flagging, though I can't imagine us getting a lot of unwanted meta questions in any case.

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  • 1
    The formulation 'because it should be answered by consulting a dictionary' may be somewhat problematic, because of the ambiguity of answered. On this site, to answer is often used in the sense of to post a formal answer, while that is not the intended meaning here. It might be better to say something like 'because the answer to it can be easily found in readily available dictionaries'. I would include easily and readily available, to distinguish such questions from the many very good questions to which the answers can also, in a way, be found in dictionaries, but not easily.
    – jsw29
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:06
  • @jsw29 What's your opinion on "solved by a dictionary" as a simple replacement to address your first point?
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:49
  • As for "easily"/"readily available", I think that's covered in the close banner with "This site expects that askers use a dictionary to understand basic definition, pronunciation, and usage of words", but I could see making an edit to the close modal text
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:54
  • (1) Solved may solve the first problem, but at the cost of amplifying the second (solve suggests a process that is not immediately obvious). (2) I would still like to see some version of easily/readily in the banner that is visible to everybody, not only to the OP. I take it that the important purpose of what you (with the help of the rest of us) are doing here is not only to make it clearer to the OPs why their questions are closed, but also to educate potential questioners about what questions are welcome here.
    – jsw29
    Dec 18, 2023 at 21:17
  • @jsw29 There are two banners: 1) One for OP with the "Post notice description" and "Post owner guidance" and 2) one for everyone else with the "Post notice description" and "General user guidance". The second part of both of those specifies "basic definition, pronunciation, and usage of words". Anyway, I'm getting the feeling that these suggestions might only be micro-optimizations, since I'm not sure if the casual user will look that closely into the wording as if they're reading a legal contract. The hardcore user will hopefully find their way to meta where this is explained in detail.
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 18, 2023 at 21:53
  • unless they indicate why a dictionary couldn't address their question. It is not very clear here what "they" is referring to. I think it's trying to indicate the author? Maybe "unless the question includes an explanation of why the dictionary wasn't helpful." would be better. I think we should stay focused on posts and not on the people writing them since all posts on SE are collaborative (technically). Also "user" should be "author" maybe? Or just "consider leaving a comment with a reference..."
    – ColleenV
    Dec 20, 2023 at 16:55
  • "This site expects that askers use a dictionary..." This is going to be a really difficult sentence for a learner to parse. A simpler wording would be better: "We expect askers to use a dictionary to learn a word's basic meaning, pronunciation and usage. If you've already consulted a dictionary and it didn't answer your question, edit this post to explain what you found and what you still don't understand. If you're learning English as a foreign language, consider asking on English Language Learners, a site for speakers of other languages learning English." You could also link to ELL/help/on-topic
    – ColleenV
    Dec 20, 2023 at 17:50
  • I would omit 'request reopening on our Meta site'. Our meta-site should not be a standard tool for reopening questions; that's what voting to reopen, possibly supplemented with comments below the question itself, is for. Requests to reopen should appear on the meta-site only when they raise some questions about closing/reopening that go beyond the specifics of one question.
    – jsw29
    Dec 21, 2023 at 20:49
  • @jsw29 Only users with 3k rep can vote to reopen, which was why I included asking on Meta as an option. It is on topic; the tag specific-question was created automatically exactly for this type of request. I can't imagine this resulting in too many meta posts, so I'd say we can cross that bridge if and when we come to it.
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 21, 2023 at 21:11
  • @Laurel, yes but the 3k requirement is there for a reason (I presume), so I don't think that posting on the meta-site should be encouraged as a device for circumventing it. The OP's editing the original question and/or posting a comment below it, explaining why it should be reopened, is, in any event, more likely to get the attention of potential voters to reopen than posting on the meta-site, which gets much less traffic.
    – jsw29
    Dec 21, 2023 at 22:50
  • @jsw29 Editing is a great way for low rep users to get posts into the reopen queue, but it's too tricky for all of them to do it correctly, especially when some questions were closed in error and don't have actual problems to fix. Comments do not put the question into the reopen queue, so that's a non-option. I think you should just trust my judgement (which is that depressingly few users, especially low rep, will put the effort into making a meta post to reopen a question for it to be an issue) and if I'm wrong and things are unbearable, I'll make CMs remove the part about asking on meta.
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 21, 2023 at 23:03
  • It is true that 'comments do not put the question into the reopen queue', but neither does posting on the meta-site. Both these mechanisms have an effect only in so far as the users with reopening privileges take notice of them. My hunch, although admittedly I don't have any systematic evidence on that, is that more people will click on a closed question that seems interesting to them and give some thought to a comment that protests against its closing, than will visit the meta-site.
    – jsw29
    Dec 21, 2023 at 23:19
  • @jsw29 Posting on meta actually does alert someone—us moderators! Posts scoring 3 or more are shown in the sidebar too. We have a post scoring +6 right now, so meta viewership is doing ok. There are plenty of people who will see a question on meta and reopen vote accordingly.
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 21, 2023 at 23:30
  • 1
    @Laurel I like the edits except consider leaving a comment to a reference. Maybe consider providing link to a relevant reference in a comment?
    – ColleenV
    Jan 18 at 14:23
  • 1
    @ColleenV I was going to ask you why, but then I realized that most of the original wording there rubs me wrong too. Changed.
    – Laurel Mod
    Jan 18 at 16:51
7

As my name was invoked regarding drafting text for the close modal and post notices, I thought I might offer some guidance in addition to what y'all have already discussed. What's presented below is intended to be presented as the experience of someone who's been there before and literally wrote the guide on close reasons.

My guidance is not necessarily going to be the precise final text you will want to use as (despite my history here) I don't necessarily comprehend all aspects of this as well as you do. That said, remember that most people who have their questions closed will know less than I do, so it's important that the information we build into the UI takes that into consideration.

The policy changes - a good idea, some thoughts

The first thing I'd like to state is that I appreciate and support this discussion and the change it recommends. While it may be difficult to finalize text for these site elements, I very strongly believe that we should avoid closing questions because the asker doesn't give any indication of having done research before asking the question. Our intention on Stack Exchange is to be a place for depth and breadth in a subject. Only allowing questions that can't be easily answered through an existing resource guarantees that the site will never contain that full library of information.

Closing a question because someone didn't specifically state that they were unable to find the answer somewhere else on the internet - or by extension because it can be answered elsewhere on the internet - means that this site won't have the answers to those questions, which leads to it being a less-useful resource because there are community-imposed gaps in the content.

Now, this adjustment has limits but where you draw those limits is what this question is about. I can think of at least two y'all should consider:

  1. The subject of the English language is split in two between ELU and ELL. Provided that doesn't change, it's fair to enforce that separation. If the question indicates the user needs support to understand concepts that the average (not expert!) native speaker may not even recognize require explanation, it's likely better suited to ELL. I'd put the example in Heartspring's answer in this category. A native speaker may not even understand why someone would ask or know how to explain why any of the options are "better" or where some may fail.
    • While I haven't been active there in quite a long time, my feelings about the difference between ELL and ELU are not quite the same as Laurel's. I recognize there's a need to keep the sites separate but because I feel the more valuable reasoning is because a learner may need a different sort of explanation than a native speaker. I often couldn't answer ELL questions because my native English brain has no clue what the various verb forms and modes are.
    • This can be difficult to ascertain so I'd recommend following the standard practice for migration: consider whether the question is "good" -i.e. complete enough to be answered - and only then migrate to ELL. Otherwise, close as unclear.
  2. Narrowly restrict the use of the research close reason to questions that could have been answered by a dictionary. As with thoughtful policy, there's reasons to allow exceptions where the user indicates they don't understand what the dictionary says or want a deeper understanding than found in the dictionaries they've checked.
    • This is what the updated close reason would be used to define and it should be thoughtful in how it's phrased to avoid overuse.
    • This should be coupled with guidance to the asker that guides them to the resources available on the internet or invites them to improve their question by adding more information.

At this point, I'll transition to my specific area of expertise, how to write good close reason text. While y'all are welcome to discuss what I've written above in the comments, I'd prefer discussion of #1 be separated off. While it's an integral part of this discussion, it feels like it needs an entire Q&A thread of its own and would benefit from ELL's participation.

The close reason changes - some recommendations

Treat this as a new close reason rather than editing the existing one. It's unclear which you were planning but I wanted to make this recommendation clear. This close text will not make sense when used on so many of the questions that have currently been closed with it, so editing the existing reason will create a very confusing state of affairs here. In this case, you're better off walking away and not looking back, even if it means you start over when it comes to statistics. I feel like it's been too long since the old version of this was retired (2014) to reuse it.

The Dictionary close reason text

Close modal text:

Questions that can be answered by consulting a reputable online dictionary should be closed with this reason unless they indicate why a dictionary couldn't address their question. When using this close reason, consider leaving a comment pointing the user to a reference.

While mostly similar to the recommendation in the question, I find it's often as important to explain when not to use a close reason as when it should be used. I swapped "free" out for "reputable" because the list y'all have should likely be free anyway, and I'd imagine the emphasis should be on the resource being trustworthy.

As with Laurel's example, I feel that it's important to point askers to resources rather than merely shutting the door in their face but I'm concerned about implying that it's required. At the bare minimum, the Meta post will be linked once the question is actually closed, so putting the onus on close voters to find a dictionary entry for the word in question and leave a comment linking to it may risk people just not voting to close at all out of fear that they'll be reprimanded for failing to do so.

Honestly, it also feels a bit like they'd be bitten for answering in comments, which is another issue I hear a lot about on ELU. I'd be hesitant to encourage y'all down a path where the site starts looking like answering in comments is the de facto way of participating.

Post notice description

This question was closed because it should be answered by consulting a dictionary. It is not currently accepting answers.

This is a pretty simple bit. Probably not much room for discussion but feel free to debate could/should/can. The link to the explanatory meta post can go here or in the longer explanation text but it should likely just be in one or the other.

Post owner guidance

This site expects that askers use a dictionary to understand basic definition, pronunciation, and usage of words. If you've already consulted a dictionary and it doesn't resolve your issue, edit this question to add more details about what you found and still don't understand. If you're new to English, consider asking on English Language Learners, our site designed for non-fluent speakers.

I generally recommend that asker instructions explain the policy in a minimal way and even link to it in some situations. I think this one is simple enough that it doesn't necessitate a link but feel free to do so if you wish. I also very much recommend giving the user some guidance on what else to do - either how to fix the question or where else it may be in scope.

If there's additional info or guidance that can be added/linked here, feel free to include it. For example, I know that ELL has a "Details, Please" meta question they link to that explains how to provide enough detail for a question to be answerable. If y'all don't have this, it might be useful in situations like this, similar to the tag wiki you have for single word requests.

General user guidance

(This is technically shown to anyone not the asker any more rather than high-rep users only)

This site expects that askers use a dictionary to understand basic definition, pronunciation, and usage of words. If an edit to this question adds sufficient detail or explanation such that this close reason no longer applies, flag or vote to reopen. If comments from the author convey such information, edit them into the question and recommend reopening.

As with the guidance to the author, the main focus here is a brief explanation paired with encouragement to work towards reopening the question if the close reason no longer applies. In as much as curbing misuse of close reasons is important, it's also important to ensure users recognize when to reopen and are reminded to do so. If you do have guidance you might add to the asker version, it may be worth including here as it can inform newer users who may not be aware of site policy.


At this point I'll reiterate - the specifics of my recommendations above may not be sensible in practice here on ELU. If that's the case, take the examples as scaffolding you can use as a framework to revise my versions or devise something else that's a better fit. While I may be slow to respond, I'm happy to review future drafts if I can be of help.

Supporting this policy

After having reviewed all of this, there is one thing I'm concerned about and it's built on what you've already got going here in this meta post and answers and in your list of references. Beyond updating/replacing the close reason, in the end I'd encourage you to make a simplified version of What good reference works on English are available? that can also serve as an introduction to why this policy exists.

If I were sent to that list, I'd immediately just give up. It's an amazing list of resources and I think it's wonderful that you have it, it has 13 answers with dozens of links in each. While it's reasonable to ask for simple dictionary research, looking things up in Corpora and historical references and other such things is way beyond the scope of this close reason as I understand it.

While you should link to that longer list for reference in this new Q&A, I don't think you should use it as the actual target for more information. Instead, ask a new question along the lines of "My question was closed as being answerable by a dictionary, what does that mean?" and cover a few key points:

  1. A brief explanation of the policy and its history.
    • Keep it short and digestible, remember the audience is likely to be people who have their questions closed and also people learning how/when to vote to close.
  2. A brief discussion of the expectations for askers are.
    • Give additional detail about what questions should include and guide them in how to improve their question if the dictionary is insufficient. Give before/after examples.
    • Mention how to ask for help on meta if they still can't figure out how to improve the question.
    • Feel free to give more info about when ELL may be a better option while also being clear about ELL policies that may be relevant.
  3. A pared-down list of resources.
    • What you include should be only the sorts of resources y'all want to see questions closed for. So if that's dictionaries only, the list should only be dictionaries. If it also includes thesauruses or other grammar guides, they can be included but I'd recommend paring any lists you include down to a few high quality, free options.
    • By limiting this list, you remove ambiguity for close voters who may feel like this new close reason can still be used if the answer is found in any of those links in the existing resource thread.

Feel free to adjust however it makes sense - but work towards a goal where it's as short and visually inviting as possible while being informative and helpful and framed in a way that shows the community wants to point people in the right direction and that closure isn't necessarily a bad state for their question. I love the FAQ format y'all have used before where the question is actually several sections and each answer addresses one, so you can take advantage of page anchors to link to specific information.

Hopefully this has been helpful to you all - I understand this is a big project with several pieces but I hope that this change has a positive impact on the site and leads to people feeling more able to participate here than they may have in the past.

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  • 2
    Much of the advice here is sensible, but I would disagree with treating this as a new reason rather than an edit of the current one. As I have argued in my answer, the show-research reason, in fact, functions largely as a euphemism for look-it-up-in-a-dictionary (this site's analogue of RTFM); the site would probably be, on the whole, improved if the closing banners in the existing questions of that kind were reformulated to better reflect the real reason.
    – jsw29
    Oct 12, 2023 at 15:00
  • 4
    I swapped "free" out for "reputable" because the list y'all have should likely be free anyway, and I'd imagine the emphasis should be on the resource being trustworthy.: Reputable is good. Unfortunately we have a history of people occasionally closing questions that are answered by the OED, as if everyone pays $100 per year for its services. Maybe add "free" back in.
    – Laurel Mod
    Oct 12, 2023 at 15:24
  • 2
    As for whether or not it should be an edit to the old close reason, it could really go either way. As you point out, many old closures wouldn't make sense with the updated text, but in my eyes, many of these closures didn't make sense to begin with. I would like to encourage users to go back to old questions and undo the wrongful closures.
    – Laurel Mod
    Oct 12, 2023 at 15:35
  • 2
    @Laurel, I don't think that the resource being free of charge on the Internet is crucial here. What is crucial is whether the answer can be found out by quickly looking something up, or it involves active analysis of what is in the dictionaries. If the answer requires careful comparison of the sense that is listed thirteenth in some dictionary, with the sense that is listed seventeenth, that is not a matter of general reference, even if the dictionary is free.
    – jsw29
    Oct 12, 2023 at 15:37
  • 3
    @jsw29 I feel like we might be talking past each other. The issue you bring up is definitely valid, but it's not really related to the cost of the dictionary. All I'm saying is that the assumption when closing should be that people don't have access to dictionaries other than what's freely available online. Even I don't pay for the OED (though I did have access previously).
    – Laurel Mod
    Oct 12, 2023 at 15:49
  • @Laurel This isn't fixed and you're welcome to edit! I mention a few times, this is just my recommendations, so if there's a specific reasons for including free, add it. But I think if my last section is considered, the list of all resources should be free, so hopefully someone wouldn't think the OED is required :)
    – Catija
    Oct 12, 2023 at 16:38
  • 2
    A good, thoughtful post. How about, "This question was closed because it can be answered definitively by looking up the word or phrase in a basic dictionary."? // As to retroactively changing the closing-banners, I vacillate between Catija's en Laurel's arguments. I'm inclined to go retroactive: let people feel validated to reopen all those old questions. Oct 12, 2023 at 17:03
  • Y'all can always create a new close reason and retire the existing one and, in the interim, work to reopen the questions that shouldn't have been closed... but I also don't generally think it's a great use of time to go back through 6 years worth of these questions. I'm concerned that the confusion caused would not be worth the potential benefit. You can always edit the old close reason, too, such that it doesn't imply that the old close reason is still valid... but we're likely talking about thousands of questions, right? 263 in the last 90 days, so about 1k per year.
    – Catija
    Oct 12, 2023 at 17:54
  • @Laurel, we agree that a question that can be answered only by consulting OED, and not by consulting more run-of-the-mill dictionaries, generally shouldn't be closed as 'general reference' (or whatever we choose to call it). Where we seem to disagree (and this is marginal to the core of this discussion) is that I don't think that the reason is that OED requires a paid subscription, but that such questions typically require careful analysis of what can be found there, rather than just looking something up.
    – jsw29
    Oct 12, 2023 at 20:18
  • @jsw29 I think your last comment relates to the same issues I'm discussing in the last section of my answer - does that sound correct?
    – Catija
    Oct 12, 2023 at 21:32
  • Catija, generally yes. I think that it is misguided to try to come up with some precise, exhaustive list of general-reference sources, that could then be applied mechanically. The link explaining the reason should, rather, convey the idea behind the reason, and list a few such sources, but only as examples. I think that @Marthaª has formulated well what should be the guiding principle in applying this reason for closing: 'if it's debatable whether something is general reference, then it probably isn't'.
    – jsw29
    Oct 12, 2023 at 22:26
  • @Catija And so what is the answer to the Original Poster's question that Heartstring linked to? Feb 12 at 12:42
5

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.

13
  • 4
    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, 2023 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, 2023 at 2:34
  • 2
    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, 2023 at 2:37
  • 5
    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, 2023 at 13:53
  • 5
    @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, 2023 at 23:27
  • 4
    @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, 2023 at 23:41
  • 1
    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, 2023 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, 2023 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, 2023 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, 2023 at 0:34
  • 5
    @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, 2023 at 3:43
  • Based on these two recent meta posts, your last comment was pretty prescient... Feb 9 at 22:24
  • 1
    '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.)' Why are more basic questions on grammar not transferred to ELL? Perhaps because they will be rejected there as not showing reasonable research (or even a rudimentary command of the language). But I think we need some way to distinguish ELU standard questions, genuine ELL standard questions, and 'do it all for me' questions. Feb 9 at 23:36
4

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.

10
  • 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, 2023 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, 2023 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, 2023 at 0:56
  • 2
    Also keep in mind you can always upvote someone else's comment.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 9, 2023 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, 2023 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, 2023 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, 2023 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, 2023 at 12:10
  • 1
    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, 2023 at 21:48
  • @jsw29 Some do; but that question has actually been asked before.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Sep 13, 2023 at 6:31
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.

3

This is a welcome change!

It is very important, nonetheless, that it is not only expressly understood but also expressly stated that dictionaries are not authorities on grammatical information, and that they are on the meaning of words and phrases.

This is a site for linguists, etymologists and serious language enthusiasts. Because all of us (linguists, etymologists and serious English language enthusiasts) know that dictionaries are not authoritative sources in terms of grammatical information, for example part of speech information, it should be very clearly stated somewhere that "answerable by a dictionary" only applies to "meaning", or "single word requests" and similar, and not to requests relating to parts of speech or other grammatical information.

1
1

“However, that doesn't change the fact that there's real damage being done. And we need to fix it.”

I find it unsatisfactory that the nature of this “real damage” is not explained. It is certainly not apparent to me. My own impression is that, despite the existence of ELL, this site attracts scores of basic questions from non-native speakers, who either don’t read or ignore the purpose of this SE group.

Furthermore, I think it quite reasonable to expect anyone who posts here to own a decent dictionary — Chambers for the iPhone and I imagine Android is cheap enough — so codifying “free dictionaries” is wrong, in my opinion.

Arguments not polemics, please.

3
  • It's the next few paragraphs after that quote which explain the issue and the resulting damage that I'm talking about, in as much detail as I could manage without overwhelming the question (or myself). Like I said, this is something that's been simmering for years. As for specifying "free" dictionaries, that was dropped at some point during the process. Please check out the final review post.
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 22, 2023 at 19:27
  • @Laurel — I still think you are overdramatizing the situation and, in any case, doubt your proposed change will have any effect. It reminds me of the introduction of marking schemes for research projects that resulted in poor students attaining similar marks to good ones. People will do exactly what we did then: determine the overall grade and then adjust the marks to fit. We know (or think we know) an off-topic question when we see one, and most likely we'll kick the can down the road to ELL if there's no obvious category to kill it with. Don't put your faith in small print.
    – David
    Dec 27, 2023 at 16:13
  • Arguably we've already seen a change. After I posted this meta question, the close rate across the site dropped from 80–90% to 60% (which I could never have predicted). Most of the work for the new close reason has already been done, so we'll see what happens once it's live.
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 27, 2023 at 16:35

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