In a very welcome post, long overdue:

Replacing our "research" close reason: Final review

... one of the new close-vote reasons is given as "answerable by a dictionary."

Now, if this is a close-vote reason relating to meaning, this is completely apt. However, we expressly do not want questions relating to parts of speech or other grammatical or syntactic concerns to be closed as "answerable by a dictionary".

Any given dictionary might give its own particular answer regarding the part of speech of a word, but no linguist, etymologist or serious language enthusiast would regard a dictionary as a reliable source of information on these issues. Far from it.

This should be absolutely totally and utterly clear at every stage of the close process. Grammar questions are expressly not "answerable by a dictionary"

If you agree or disagree with this line of thinking, please help inform the discussion here by adding a post below.

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    (Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like you’re referencing the applicability of this close reason to matters grammatical alone, not to other potential dictionary uses: I therefore leave the following observation as a mere comment.) In a similar vein, I soundly believe that scant few questions we get about a word’s putative pronunciation details are truly answerable by (non-specialist) dictionaries. Transcriptions are at best broadly phonemic, never phonetic. Symbols used vary wildly, overlap and conflict, and are often dated and confusing. Global regions aren’t well represented—&c&c&c.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 2:24
  • @tchrist Yes, I completely agree. Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 9:33
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    @tchrist The proposed close banner specifically covers "basic definition, pronunciation, and usage of words". Do you think that's problematic? Since it's being qualified by "basic" I think it makes sense, since we don't really want questions like "How many syllables is caramel?" (Now, we do have a question that recognizes that there are two pronunciations for the word, and asks why; it is a good but not basic question.) The same line of thought applies to most any subject that a dictionary might cover, including some grammar questions.
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 14:22
  • @Laurel How many syllables in caramel seems like an excellent question to me! If you have a sllabic /r/ for the second syllable and it is not more sonorant than the preceding vowel and it's quieter and less sonorant (or equivalently so) when compared with the following nasal, how do we know there's a new syllable there? Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 15:42
  • @Laurel I think you know that there are problem close voters round here, and if you give them an opening, they'll take it. In my opinion, there are rarely any pronunciation questions that are really that simple, and the people who are itching to close-vote them wouldn't know which ones are which. They'll close the lot. The question is whether you want to effect a real change here. In which case remove the 'pron' bit, or in fact explicitly exclude it. Imho. Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 15:45
  • If we can do better the proposed wording, that's great. However, the text of each part can only be up to 500 characters, which isn't enough to explain every nuance. (Also, everything about English can be explained in more detail than what a dictionary provides, but it seems like we want to draw the line somewhere instead of removing the research requirement entirely.) The new text is supposed to be a blunt tool to stop most bad closures, with the rest being handled by other tools such as reopen votes, meta posts, custom mod flags, mod messages, etc.
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 18:03
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    @Laurel Excellent, so remove the reference to pronunciation alogether. The dictionary reason should be there for meanings etc, not pron or grammar. There is no basic pron or grammar. All linguists are interested in the proper description of the basics. These things are not off-topic for us, they are our bread and butter. They are badly described everywhere on the internet. It's a pretty reliable, but not foolproof, generalisation that the people who want to close these questions a) do not understand them and b) are SWR enthusiasts. Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 18:12
  • Feedback is needed on What resources do I need to consult before asking a question?, which explains the intent behind the new close reason in more detail (cc @tchrist). I guess I'm just surprised that so many people support something that's even more extreme than the extreme change I already suggested.
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 22:40
  • 'Answerable by a dictionary' precludes reasonable questions where dictionaries disagree. But dropping the CV reason altogether invites researchless questions. A 'no reasonable research shown' condition looks more reasonable. Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 22:54
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    As @EdwinAshworth notes, the dictionary CV often amounts to 'no reasonable research shown' or as we'd say in the States: Not asking you to do the heavy lifting for your little question, but how 'bout any lifting at all. Huh? Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 1:42
  • @EdwinAshworth, Yosef, But nobody's suggesting removing the dictionary CV!!! That's straw manning! I hope you're not suggesting that EL&U or the linguists and serious language enthusiasts encourage visitors to look in dictionaries for their grammar in formation!?%&$! Would you encourage people to use a hairdryer in the shower or a toaster in the bath? Such suggestions are positively damaging for users. Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 15:20
  • @Araucaria But Laurel has interspersed 'The proposed close banner specifically covers "basic definition, pronunciation, and usage of words". Do you think that's problematic?' Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 19:16

2 Answers 2


I agree that questions about grammar, syntax and part of speech are not going to be easily answered by online dictionary sources.

What is the best way to clarify this? Do you support editing the close modal text to something like the following? (bolded text added):

Questions about meaning or word usage that can be easily answered by consulting a reputable online dictionary should be closed with this reason unless they indicate why a dictionary couldn't address their question.

I don't know if this would be strictly followed by close-voters.

  • Yes, that seems like a good idea. Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 9:36
  • What about "basic definition, pronunciation, and usage of words"? That's the text I plan to use in the close banner.
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 14:16
  • @Laurel Where does 'basic' end? 'No reasonable research shown' covers most problematic questions (yes, where does 'reasonable' end ... I'm hedging the blunt 'no research shown'). Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 22:57
  • @EdwinAshworth So basic it's satisfactorily answered by a dictionary (though I guess the rest of the text covers that). I don't trust "reasonable" as a requirement, not with how the current close reason is being used. (More on that in the main post, linked above.)
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 23:11

The fact that this question needed to be raised, confirms the point that I have made earlier, that it is misguided to try to come up with some precise, exhaustive list of criteria for the closing reason that will replace the current show-research reason (and roughly correspond to the old general-reference reason), that could then be applied mechanically.

What, I think, we want to be able to close by using this reason, are the questions to which a generally competent, generally well educated, speaker of English (but without any specialised education or talents that would be relevant to the question), either knows the answer or would be able to find the answer in less than ten minutes, if given access to the Internet or a moderately-sized library. That includes the matters to which there are straightforward answers in general-purpose dictionaries, but it includes some other matters. For example, it includes the grammar of English as it is standardly taught to non-native speakers and in other forms of non-specialised education. The questions about, say, parts of speech should be closed if they merely seek an answer that will be marked as correct in an introductory English course, but left open if they are about the subtleties of the way in which CGEL classifies words.

Araucaria seems to argue that the questions of the former kind do not exist, and I find it hard to see how anybody could believe that. It is of course true that we can take a naive question from somebody taking an introductory English course and transform it into a different, sophisticated question calling for a complex answer, but when we do that we are not really responding to the question intended by the OP.

The regular contributors to this site, I believe, have a good intuitive understanding of what separates the two kinds of questions, but it is very difficult to formulate it precisely. The best thing would be, I think, not to try, but instead trust the contributors who have earned the closing privileges to responsibly exercise their judgment as to whether something is too obvious to be worthy of an answer on this site.

Most people who regularly exercise their closing privileged will, in any event, continue to follow their intuitive understanding of what is too basic, too obvious, too trivial to be on this site, regardless of what wording of the closing reason is adopted. They will just vote to close such questions and then click on some reason or other that seems to be the closest to what is on their minds, even if it is not very close. Not having a general 'this is too obvious' reason will then result in many closed question having closing banners that do not reflect the real reasons.

Incidentally, Aracuria's question on this page, considered on its own, says only that 'we expressly do not want questions relating to parts of speech or other grammatical or syntactic concerns to be closed as "answerable by a dictionary"', which is something that almost everybody would agree with, but leaves it entirely open whether some of these questions should be closed as something else, or that none of of them should be closed at all. It is only when we read his comments that it becomes clear that he is arguing for the latter position. Heartspring has, in answering the related question made the same point, that a dictionary-focused wording of the reason does not cover basic grammar, but argues for the former position, and is supported in that by Cerberus and a number of upvoters. It is potentially confusing to those who have been following the debate about changing the show-research reason that the concern about basic-grammar questions has now been pulled out to this, separate page. It would have been more productive if the discussion about Araucaria's arguments had continued as a part of the general discussion about the new wording of the closing reason, where support for and opposition to his arguments can be considered together with support for and opposition to Heartspring's and Cerberus' arguments.

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    "able to find the answer in less than ten minutes" This was probably the intent of the old policy, but the score on Replacing our "research" close reason shows that the majority of users here don't want that going forward, nor how people had been close voting up to this point. The support given here to Araucaria shows that apparently some users want something more extreme than what I put forward (which itself is a pretty extreme change from what we had).
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 22:38
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    It is debatable what can be concluded about the views of the majority of users from what appears on the other page. For whatever that is worth, the most highly upvoted answer there points in the opposite direction. The high score on the question itself only shows that there is a general dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, not specifically what should be done about it.
    – jsw29
    Commented Dec 21, 2023 at 23:10
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    Bravo. Great answer, saying what needs to be said. We have ELL for a reason.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 21:23
  • '[W]e expressly do not want questions relating to parts of speech or other grammatical or syntactic concerns to be closed as "answerable by a dictionary"' ... if the question has promise, an option is to edit in a reference or two. Commented Dec 23, 2023 at 23:01
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    Seriously. I don't think we expect 10 minutes of research, but 1. If you can type here, you can type or dictate into Google. Did you even try? Commented Dec 24, 2023 at 1:49
  • @YosefBaskin I think we need to worry about that more for answers than for questions!!! All closing an answer does is prevent anyone from giving a good answer! Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 17:57
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    @Araucaria-Him Can you explain so I understand you better? Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 18:01
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    @YosefBaskin I don't understand. Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 18:02
  • Some common sense at last (although you fall into the same specification trap with your 10 min). “…but I know it when I see it” says it all.
    – David
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 20:22
  • @David, 'ten minutes' was meant to be only a rough indication of what, I think, many of us would regard as too easy to be worthy of a page on this site; it was not proposed to be a part of the 'official' formulation of the reason for closing. If it were up to me, I would probably use something like 'the answer can be easily found in readily available sources' as the formulation of the reason, and trust the users with closing privileges to apply it judiciously (i.e. assume that they generally 'know it when they see it').
    – jsw29
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 20:39
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    @YosefBaskin: the problem is that if you type your question into Google, who is to say whether the answer you get is correct? Despite the knee-jerk reactions of many people on this site, we do not actually want askers to consult a search engine first. We want them to consult a dictionary - if it's appropriate. The appropriate reaction to a bad-but-not-off-topic question is a downvote, not a close vote.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 0:02
  • Personal feeling: a close vote is a reaction to the post as a third party, whereas a downvote is personal. Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 23:20
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    @Marthaª, I would argue that the questioners should be expected to consult obvious sources before coming here, and that what counts as an obvious source depends on the nature of the question. In many cases, it will be a general-purpose dictionary. But if the question is about some specialised usage in a particular field, then the questioner should be expected to consult basic sources specific to that field. And if the question involves cultural background of some usage, then general search of the Internet at large may be called for.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 2 at 16:21

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