4

A recent question on ELU:

  • Is a noun always preceded by a determiner?

I believe that this is so easily answered by looking at virtually any book on grammar (it could be argued that even dictionaries will suffice, providing countless counterexamples in example sentences) that the question doesn't even belong on ELL. (Detailed discussion about when zero, indefinite, definite and null articles, and bare role NPs etc are already available in other strings.)

Other recent (as regards related topics) 'too basic, but not (reasonably) answerable by consulting a dictionary' questions, either still open or closed for dubious reasons, include:

In narrowing the scope of the 'insufficient research' CV reason to solely dictionary resources, I argue that overly basic non-semantics questions are not addressed / discouraged. Does the community agree that we need a 'a question on grammar, but too basic for ELU: almost any book on grammar will answer this clearly' close-vote reason?

edit in response to prompt: I can only repeat the request for debate about the provision of a 'too basic' CV-reason for non-semantics questions. Heartspring puts this argument well:

Araucaria said we can't use the new reason to close grammar questions; this post is saying that we still need a way to close them. [jsw29's], my, and Catija's concerns about localization all got upvoted, but they weren't addressed or solved, and I think Laurel's argument against it is "The internet is filled with crap, so why are we so eager to have our users consult it to solve their problems?" But the fact remains that [as the OP noted elsewhere] "we need some way to distinguish ELU standard questions, genuine ELL standard questions, and 'do it all for me' questions."

If no questions on grammar are now considered unsuitable here, the reason for setting up ELL seems to have been discarded. And I'm sure the majority of regular users on ELL would consider some questions too basic.

.....................

In response to Andrew Leach's request for a substitute CV reason, I offer (feel free to suggest other basic grammars; this costs about £3.50) (and I would not recommend it for advanced questions suitable for ELU):

  • Questions that can be easily answered by consulting a reputable online dictionary or a basic grammar such as 'Collins Easy Learning Grammar and Punctuation' should be closed with this reason unless the question includes an explanation of why the chosen dictionary / basic book on grammar wasn't helpful. When using this close reason, consider providing a link to a relevant reference in a comment.
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  • You know, that example sounds like it might be a duplicate. Some of the answers to that other question addressed the question from perspectives I found interesting. Are those not the types of answers you think belong either on ELU or even ELL?
    – Laurel Mod
    Feb 9 at 16:55
  • 2
    Don't forget that we only have three custom close reasons available. This could, perhaps, be amalgamated with the new "Answered by a dictionary" reason, but if we need this new reason, how would you fit it into the three? (I guess it's by that amalgamation, but perhaps you could make the method explicit? What would your wording actually be?)
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Feb 9 at 18:36
  • Laurel, the other question has the fine detail that makes it an ELU question, inviting '[d]etailed discussion about when zero, indefinite, definite and null articles, and bare role NPs etc'. Here, most junior school pupils should be able to answer on a basic level. Feb 9 at 19:21
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    Andrew: 'Questions that can be easily answered by consulting a reputable online dictionary or a basic grammar such as 'Collins Easy Learning Grammar and Punctuation' should be closed with this reason unless the question includes an explanation of why the chosen dictionary / basic book on grammar wasn't helpful. When using this close reason, consider providing a link to a relevant reference in a comment.' Yes, grammars get things wrong, but then not all dictionaries agree on everything. A basic sign of effort / research is surely needed for almost all questions. Feb 9 at 19:26
  • 1
    Your last comment is similar to what Cerberus said on Laurel's original post. Feb 9 at 22:21
  • That reads more like an inquiry as to whether there are any exceptions to the rule, rather than a question about the rule itself.
    – Maybe
    Feb 10 at 13:25
  • @Vopel Sorry ... which rule? I'm saying that questions like 'Is "The cat are on the mat" grammatical?' need a dedicated CV response (perhaps coupled with the 'easily answered by looking in any reasonable online dictionary' for meaning requests). Feb 10 at 16:25
  • @EdwinAshworth I'm using the word "rule" in relation to the expression "the exception that proves the rule". In other words, I'm saying that it seems like the question might be asking if there's ever a very rare case where it's correct for a noun not preceded by determiner, which is different from asking about what's proper in a general sense.
    – Maybe
    Feb 10 at 16:34
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    This is a meta question about over-basic questions asked on ELU, Vopel. ELU is still targeted at linguists and reasonably advanced Anglophones. / As regards your question on ELU, proper nouns and plural-sense nouns are very well known 'exceptions' (though there are exceptions to these exceptions). Master introduces the 'zero article' (we're having chicken tonight) and 'null article' (she was elected president) analysis. Many fixed expressions (take stock, weigh anchor) don't tale determiners. It becomes a far from simple question; as I said, Collins' 100+-page book on articles is inadequate. Feb 10 at 17:06
  • ... The question as posed is over-basic (a dictionary will give obvious counterexamples); a list of when nouns are used without articles or other determiners is too large to ask for, and individual examples have already been well covered on ELU. Feb 10 at 17:08
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    I am puzzled by this being raised as a new question. Several of the people who responded to the original question about changing the show-research reason have pointed out that narrowing it down to answerable-by-a-dictionary leaves out the basic grammar, and then a separate question about it has also been posted. Some of the contributors argued that the new reason should be formulated so as to include basic grammar; others thought that grammar should never be off topic.
    – jsw29
    Feb 10 at 17:32
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    @jsw29 - I think this is fine as a separate question. Araucaria said we can't use the new reason to close grammar questions; this post is saying that we still need a way to close them. Your, my, and Catija's concerns about localization all got upvoted, but they weren't addressed or solved, and I think Laurel's argument against it is "The internet is filled with crap, so why are we so eager to have our users consult it to solve their problems?" But the fact remains that "we need some way to distinguish ELU standard questions, genuine ELL standard questions, and 'do it all for me' questions." Feb 10 at 17:56
  • 2
    'Not in ELU's scope' explains almost nothing, Araucaria, and is very open to interpretation. How damaging is that? Feb 12 at 17:47
  • 3
    Does this answer your question? Replacing our "research" close reason: Completed Feb 14 at 15:17
  • 1
    I'm quoting Heartspring verbatim, Araucaria. Some questions are so trivial (any definition) that dignifying them with a response damages ELU's credibility. People rarely edit to refine the question to one less trivial, here say to 'In what cases may a noun not be preceded in a sentence by a determiner' (now probably too broad and certainly answered in part in various other ELU threads). Perhaps people with over 100k reputation should have a general 'too basic for a site aimed at linguists ...; can you amend this to make a question more suitable to ELU's remit' CV reason. Feb 14 at 19:25

4 Answers 4

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As I understand it, the mods intentionally switched to the new "answered by a dictionary" close reason to prevent "easy" questions about grammar from getting closed. See the thread announcing that change.

Who, exactly, is hurt by easy questions being asked and answered? Are we worried that we might seem too helpful or too welcoming? If you don't want to answer questions because they're too easy to be worth your time, you are welcome to not answer them, and to instead spend your time answering more interesting ones. If we keep getting the same easy question over and over, we should answer one of them and close future ones as duplicates.

Moreover, "easiness" is so subjective that this leads to questions getting closed, then reopened, then closed again in cycles that benefit nobody. Whatever our guidelines are for askers, they should at least be capable of being made clear and unambiguous. The close button is not a way of expressing your dislike for a question; it's to deal with questions that are, by their very nature, incapable of being given a good answer, meaning that ELU can provide no value to the asker.

In fact, I'd say that we only have the "dictionary" close reason, not because those questions are too easy, but because we don't want our site to just turn into a giant dictionary.

I also want the question you mentioned: "Is a noun always preceded by a determiner?" There is, presumably, a reason why the asker got confused about that point. In particular: many grammar resources online will tell you about the existence of a so-called "zero article" or "zero determiner." They'll say that, in a sentence like "Raccoons are friendly," the word "raccoons" actually does have a determiner: it's just the invisible "zero determiner." Such resources actually will tell you--or at least imply--that every noun phrase contains a determiner, whereas others will tell you that such noun phrases simply lack a determiner entirely. This could be a source of genuine confusion, and, if asked to clarify, I suspect we would have uncovered that there is a legitimate question here, one that reliable online resources will disagree about.

The difference between ELU and ELL is not the ease of the questions being asked. The difference is one of target audience; ELU is intended for use by native speakers, or proficient non-native ones, whereas ELL is intended for those currently learning English. Such audiences require a different kind of answer, typically one focused on making the asker a proficient speaker rather than explaining the structure of a language of which the asker and answerer already have a shared knowledge. In general, I think it's best to only migrate a question to ELL if (a) the asker describes themself as a learner, or if (b) it's the sort of question that a native speaker would be very unlikely to ask.

Questions about whether to use "a" or "the" in a particular context are a good example; native speakers rarely have questions about this, but it can be quite hard to explain the rules around article use to a speaker whose first language lacks them. That said, questions from non-native speakers that demand uniquely complex or sophisticated responses may belong here. One of our most upvoted answers of all time--Araucaria's post on whores and horse--came from an asker who described themself as a non-native speaker and was clearly not asking something a native speaker would be confused about.

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  • 4
    Yep. And as a wise person said elsewhere: 'Easy grammar questions that could easily come from native speakers? Who, exactly, is hurt by such questions being (able to be) answered? Are we worried about being...too helpful? It's not like you're obligated to answer any open question. If you think it's too easy, you can just...not answer it and let someone else do so.' Feb 16 at 9:41
  • 2
    Defining the target audience for ELU as people with good English proficiency misses the mark. Its audience is "linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts". That is, it serves English language academics: professionals, students, and serious amateurs. A good question should come from that community, or should at least be deep enough that it requires someone from that community to answer it. In short, ELU really is for the hard questions.
    – MetaEd
    Feb 16 at 16:51
  • 1
    ELL was set up to help with more basic questions (not questions that can be easily answered by using a dictionary) to maintain an emphasis on more demanding questions those with a firm grounding in the basics might have. This is the distinctive of ELU. 'Who, exactly, is hurt by easy questions being asked and answered?' undermines that ethos; there are many other sites where more basic questions may be asked, but no open platforms I'm aware of targeted at non-basic analyses. Feb 16 at 17:16
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    The argument that some questions should not be closed because nobody 'is hurt by' their 'being asked and answered' applies equally to all questions that are now subject to closing; it is an argument against there being such a thing as closing. It is also equally true of any question that is now subject to closing that 'there is, presumably, a reason why the asker got confused about that point'. 'We don't want our site to just turn into a giant dictionary', but we also don't want it to just turn into an introductory textbook either.
    – jsw29
    Feb 16 at 17:31
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    @jsw29 "Who would be hurt by these questions not being closed?" is the exact opposite of what we should be asking. "Who would be helped by these questions not being closed?"—The hope is that someone will write an academic answer of interest to linguists et al. If there's no academic answer possible (and no duplicate, maybe), it probably should be migrated to ELL.
    – Laurel Mod
    Feb 16 at 18:52
  • @Laurel, that seems to be a response to alphabet, rather than me.
    – jsw29
    Feb 16 at 18:58
  • @jsw29 It's a direct response to what you're saying about alphabet's argument in paragraph #2 (and arguably repeats what he says in #3), and it's also something to address everyone else who's questioning what ELL is for given the new close reason here. (I agree with alphabet but maybe I have a flair for dramatic rhetoric :p)
    – Laurel Mod
    Feb 16 at 19:09
  • @EdwinAshworth Simply put: I don't think that your view is in consistent with current goals and policies of ELU's moderators.
    – alphabet
    Feb 16 at 22:49
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    In that case, alphabet, ELU has become just another English language question-and-answer site, which is against the site's main objective ('the site’s main purpose is not to help individuals, but to build a [searchable and non-bloated] library of knowledge about the site’s topic': Colleen). And the reason for adding ELL (for more basic questions that are still reasonable) is lost. Feb 16 at 23:38
  • @EdwinAshworth Yes, it is an English language question-and-answer site. I'm sorry if that isn't your goal, but it is, as I understand it, the site's current objective. As stated above, ELL isn't for questions that are easy; it's for questions from English Language Learners. Close votes here should reflect the site's actual goals and policies, not the objectives you want it to have.
    – alphabet
    Feb 16 at 23:56
  • @alphabet MetaEd has been a loyal and helpful contributor here for many years. He repeats what I believe is the still extant site policy: 'A good question should come from that community [English language academics: professionals, students, and serious amateurs], or should at least be deep enough that it requires someone from that community to answer it. In short, ELU really is for the hard questions. ' It's what has distinguished ELU from many other English language sites for many years. Feb 17 at 14:17
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That the answerable-by-a-dictionary reason for closing does not cover even the most basic matters of grammar was pointed out by Heartspring less than an hour after Laurel first proposed its introduction. Since then, that has been commented upon by a number of people who were involved in the discussion of the new reason, and was also the subject matter of a separate question, albeit without any sort of a consensus emerging.

There are four possible reactions to noticing that the new reason does not cover trivial questions about grammar.

(1) That is as it should be: no question about grammar should ever be closed on this site as too basic.

(2) A separate closing reason for such questions should be created.

(3) The answerable-by-a-dictionary reason should have added to it a clause about trivial questions about grammar, so that it becomes something like: answerable by a dictionary or a basic textbook of English grammar.

(4) We should have a general this-is-too-obvious reason for closing (that does not attempt to separately list different ways of being too obvious).

The first option is favoured by Araucaria, herisson, and those who upvoted their contributions to the earlier discussion of this matter. I hope that some of them will come to present their arguments on this page. (Incidentally, I think that this question should have been closed as a duplicate, and the discussion continued where it was started, so that people do not have to repeat here what they have already said elsewhere. It, however, does not seem likely that this will happen.)

The second option would be, as Mr Leach pointed out in the comments, nearly impossible to implement because of the systemwide limitation on the number of distinct reasons for closing.

A number of us (Heartspring, Cerberus, myself, and those who upvoted and/or commented favourably on our contributions) favour some version of the last two options.

Between the last two, I would prefer (4). Disjunctive reasons for closing, as (3) would be, are confusing and frustrating to those whose questions are closed. A closing banner that says something like 'Your question is closed because of X or Y' leaves one wondering 'Well, is it X or Y? If it is Y, why do they mention X, which does not apply to my question?'

Moreover, if we were to choose (3) and add answerable-by-a-grammar-textbook to answerable-by-a-dictionary, we would probably discover that there are other ways in which a question could be too trivial and that the disjunction needs to be even more complex. A generic this-is-too-obvious reason will cover all of them, without our having to anticipate them.

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  • 1
    Upvoted...but didn't we just get rid of the "generic this-is-too-obvious" reason? I'd been voting to migrate some of the ones that fall under that category, but ELL seems to not like that all the time. Feb 12 at 0:17
  • @Heartspring, it is difficult to be sure how many of those who supported Laurel's proposal that show-research reason be changed did so (1) because it was a broad this-is-too-obvious reason, how many (2) because of how it was formulated, and how many (3) for both reasons. I was definitely in the second group, as were, I think, several other people.
    – jsw29
    Feb 12 at 16:58
  • 2
    The intent of the new text was so that we don't have a generic catch-all "needs effort/research" close reason—because it was catching all. I want to ensure the people who come here with questions always have a clear avenue for getting good answers, even if that's offsite or on ELL. But when we discussed adding "or grammar book" to the dictionary close reason, nobody could provide me a free, reputable, online one where answers could easily be found—the only clear avenue to an answer was leaving the Q open, either here or ELL.
    – Laurel Mod
    Feb 12 at 22:25
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    there are other ways in which a question could be too trivial - etymological questions that can be answered via online dictionaries or at etymonline.com would be one obvious candidate.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 13 at 9:41
  • 1
    @Laurel, your intent behind the new text was, as you have made very clear, 'we don't have a generic catch-all "needs effort/research" close reason' (i.e. (1) in my comment above), but some people supported your proposal, without sharing that reason: they wanted to get rid of the wording that insisted that research be shown and return to something like the old general-reference reason (i.e. (2) in my comment above). It therefore shouldn't be regarded as settled that there is a general agreement that we shouldn't have a general it's-too-obvious reason.
    – jsw29
    Feb 13 at 16:55
  • Why do people who don't answer grammar questions concern themselves so much about closing grammar questions when they have no expertise in this area? People who answer grammar questions (e.g. Herrison) and make substantive and substantial grammar contributions should be listened to more carefully. Feb 14 at 17:51
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No, such a close reason should not exist.

Beginner grammar books can be wrong

Even with simple grammar questions, the idea that "almost any book on grammar will answer this clearly" is liable to be false, at least if we append '...and accurately' to the end. John Lawler wrote

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? – John Lawler, Sep 9, 2023 at 13:53

The question about determiners actually started by saying "I have studied a grammar rule that states that". Unhelpfully, it provided no source, but it's entirely believable that the questioner encountered a real grammar guide (even a book!) that really said something wrong or misleading. So there is room to doubt whether closing the question for the reason that "almost any book on grammar will answer this clearly" would be true or helpful to the original poster, although it might be satisfying to close voters who just want to get rid of questions deemed uninteresting and beneath the dignity of this site.

Simple questions can have complex answers

Taking the provided example, 'Is a noun always preceded by a determiner?' is not an inherently trivial topic. An answer could go into the determiner-phrase vs. noun-phrase controversy in syntax.

We could argue that's not what the original poster was asking about, to which we could argue in response that the Q&A's on this site are not just for the original posters, but for anyone who comes across the question in the future. I don't think it's inappropriate for someone to post an answer that addresses the issue that prompted the question, but that also goes into further depth than the questioner may have realized existed. Plenty of times, someone might ask a question on a math or physics stack exchange site without understanding all of the higher-level concepts that are involved in the thing that they're asking about.

I do think there are potential issues in some cases with reinterpreting a question to be about something that it didn't originally ask about at all, but which an answerer finds more interesting. But my biggest concern in that regard is about well-meaning edits to the question itself (often intended I think to try to save it from the 'overly basic question' close-vote squad) which may distort the original question or inaccurately 'put words in the mouth' of the original poster. In this case, though, the original question clearly does ask for an explanation of the grammar of determiners, so I don't think an answer that gave more information about determiners than needed to address the original example would be going off-topic.

A small amount of context for a long-running discussion

The question of whether some questions are too simple has come up perennially on Stack Exchange sites. Here are some Meta SE posts with answers that bring up some of the issues: Has a consensus been reached on whether or not some questions are too simple?, Introduce a "general reference" close reason.

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  • I was at pains to point out that (1) the basic question is clearly answerable by 'No'; a child of 5 can correctly formulate 'I like olives / mummy / John'. And (2) the underlying questions (the correct use of articles [including the null and the zero, 'some' according to Master], bare role NPs, and other simple and compound determiners) are extremely complex: Collins has a 100+ page monograph on articles and another on determiners, and there are many good threads on ELU already. But closure as a duplicate would not really help OP here. Feb 12 at 12:26
  • @EdwinAshworth There is no basic question that is answerable by 'non' that is not of interest to linguists and serious language enthusiasts. The Original Poster under discussions's question is a prime example. Feb 12 at 12:33
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    I think this raises a very good point that the site’s main purpose is not to help individuals, but to build a library of knowledge about the site’s topic. Just because the author is ignorant of the complexities of the issues surrounding their question doesn’t mean answers need to be constrained to their framing. Answers here should be written for the target audience described in the tour, not tailored for whoever happens to stumble across the site.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 12 at 12:56
  • @Colleen So here the question should be closed either on duplicate grounds (answered at A, B, C, D ...) or on 'too broad for a decent single answer' grounds. The simple rebuttal of the quoted statement ('I like olives / mummy / John' obviously show this to be erroneous') is arguably not advanced enough even for ELL. Feb 12 at 17:44
  • @EdwinAshworth I wasn't thinking of a specific example of a question or disagreeing with your proposal (I upvoted it) I do think some questions can be redeemed by their answers if the community looks at them as a happy accident of an opportunity to document some knowledge instead of an annoyance to be disposed of. There's a lot of muck to wade through to find that grain of sand to make the pearl out of though.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 12 at 18:07
  • @Colleen I couldn't agree more. Frame challenges have been agreed to be advantageous (within reason), and I think too many people forget that 'the site’s main purpose is not to help [an individual], but to build a library of knowledge about the site’s topic [helping the many the site is aimed at]. But often (as here) basic questions are answered with basic – and sometimes junior-school – answers. Or (again as here) a proper answer to the underlying questions would take a thesis. Feb 12 at 19:21
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    @EdwinAshworth I wish the company was more interested in taking everything the site communities have learned to design a better Q&A network that would accommodate non-programming questions better and have more support for distilling information from discussion rather than everyone writing their own answer and competing. I think the system forces us into unproductive choices sometimes.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 12 at 19:28
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    If a topic is sufficiently controversial that grammarians don't agree, or it has a complex but generally-agreed answer, then the close reason by definition would not apply. This kind of argument smacks of nit-picking; the argument that grammar books can never be trusted is not a useful one for a site such as this.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 13 at 9:45
2

In theory, by the time someone has earned the privilege to cast a close vote, they are aware of what is generally on-topic or off-topic for the community. If someone believes a question is off-topic, they will pick whatever reason is closest to their reasoning regardless of how it is worded or how actionable the advice provided by it is.

I don't think a new close reason is merited unless it is going to offer the author a way to bring their question on-topic. If the question is being closed as "answerable by general reference" (essentially), how can an author bring it on-topic? There's not much value in making the distinction between a dictionary, a grammar book or some other reference unless you believe the question can be salvaged.

If it's closed and someone disagrees with the reason, then maybe it merits a meta discussion which would probably happen regardless of the specific wording of the close reason. Usually though, most people will recognize it as off-topic, and the author is just a drive-by and not really engaged. I doubt the community would bother to reopen a question just to choose a different close reason unless a duplicate was found.

There are many reasons why a question may be out of scope for a site in a way that can't be corrected to bring it in scope. They don't all need to be enumerated.

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  • If I understand you correctly, you too support what was listed as (4) in my answer, i.e. a broad formulation of the closing reason, that does not attempt to enumerate, in some quasi-legalistic way, all different possible ways in which a question is answerable by readily available sources.
    – jsw29
    Feb 13 at 20:57
  • @jsw29 Uh no. I don't think we need to change any of the close reasons unless we think it will cause authors to fix their questions so they can be reopened. Who cares if the wording of a close reason for an unsalvageable question is precise? Just pick something.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 13 at 21:00
  • And, if you're concerned that you're giving bad feedback to a new user who has the potential to become a valuable contributor, you can always choose "Other" and explain why the question is out of scope. I tend to put the same amount of effort into my moderation of a question that the author put into writing it.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 13 at 21:11
  • That's what I, in fact, do most of the time (even when I don't think that the questioner has the potential to become a valuable contributor). Most close-voters, however, tend to use one or the other of the 'canned' reasons, so I think that it is desirable that they be formulated so that as often as possible they correspond to real reasons. Broad formulations of the reasons can accomplish that. Whenever a 'reason' that is not the real reason appears in the closing banner that causes unnecessary frustration to the questioner as well as confusion to potential questioners.
    – jsw29
    Feb 13 at 21:22
  • @jsw29 A very broad close reason might as well just be "This question is off-topic". Everyone here is a volunteer and is free to spend as much or as little effort as they want. There will always be a "grammar" tag in every canned choice that people choose because they can't be bothered to think harder about the choice. We do not have the ability to accomplish what you would like to have happen by changing the wording of the close reasons. The system itself is causing the frustrations, not the text of the close reasons.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 13 at 21:30
  • SE's go-to solution to every user interaction issue is to write more text, or different text, or change the color of the text. It doesn't solve the problem. This interface is inhumane because it pushes people to read documentation when they're trying to talk to a person. It would be better to send authors to chat or meta to get help asking their questions from people in the community.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 13 at 21:34
  • I really really want to make an analogy to a labyrinthine automated call system that won't let you talk to a person and forces you to pick irrelevant options but I'm trying to break my analogy habit. 🙄
    – ColleenV
    Feb 13 at 21:41
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    Ooops, sorry, wrong answer! Feb 13 at 22:02

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