A call to action
This topic has been brought up here numerous times before, most recently by JSBangs:
I'm now of the opinion that single word requests should be either disallowed entirely or subject to much more stringent requirements.
The reasons are as follows:
- We get lots of them. Lots and lots.
- Most of them are uninteresting and of low quality.
- They have a high propensity to attract one-word answers and poor answers from newbie users.
- In chat, many of the most active users have complained about them. In other words, they attract less active users but repel the most active users.
There are some excellent answers there, and the overwhelming consensus is that these questions should only be allowed when the criteria for answering them are explicit and clear and they can't be trivially answered by a dictionary or thesaurus.
With all the resentment poured out here, one might think poor examples of this sort of question would get body-slammed the minute they showed up...
Cheating at crosswords
...Yet... Watching the front page, you could be forgiven for thinking "crossword-solving" was one of the primary functions of this site. Here are a few questions I've run across in the past few days:
- What do you call a man who knows well how to fix his household appliances?
- Word or phrase meaning "working hours have ended, and it's time to go home"?
- A Vocabulary word meaning: " to completely embody the meaning of a term "
Common to these questions is the lack of a clear goal: why is this question being asked? What specific criteria must the correct answer meet? And the resulting answers are predictably disappointing, as folks throw one synonym after another against the wall, waiting for one to stick... It would actually be less of a waste of time if the asker simply came right out and said, "Oh, and it needs to be exactly 7 letters long, and end with an 'r'".
Particularly embarrassing are the ones that can be answered - and often are answered - by the first result found upon pasting the description into Google:
- Term for bowling alley machines that fix pins (google)
- Word/phrase for parent whose children have grown up and left home (google)
There's nothing wrong with hosting questions that are already answered somewhere else... So long as we're doing it better. But a page whose only purpose is to link to another page is a speedbump on The Internet. I don't want to search for an answer only to find the top result linking to the second result - I want to go straight to the answer! Philosophically, this sort of "content" is just rude, insulting to those looking for assistance, the sort of shady tactic commonly used by link farms; they effectively beg search engines to derank your pages.
Painting the bikeshed
The last problem with these questions will be immediately familiar to users of other Stack Exchange sites: Q&A that anyone can have an opinion on will tend to attract more votes than those that demand specific expertise. "Bikeshed" questions aren't necessarily bad - but they require careful handling, as their quality can head south quickly... For instance, an unhelpful joke answer voted above all those that attempt to take the question seriously.
But what can I do about this?
When you see a question, ask yourself these questions:
Is my first impulse to reach for a dictionary / thesaurus / Google? It should have been the asker's first impulse as well - does he describe what he's tried, or why the obvious answers don't work?
Can I say with reasonable certainty what the correct answer would look like? A thesaurus will happily present you with a list of words, but it won't necessarily tell you which one has just the right connotations for the idea you're trying to convey. But if the question doesn't specify how/where/why the word or phrase is needed, then the expertise of those answering is wasted - they can't know if their answer meets the needs of the asker either. Real questions have answers - not just responses.
Is this question interesting, unique, thought-provoking? You're not a machine. The first two guidelines are fairly strict, but there can be questions that fail both of them and yet are still worth keeping around. Use your best judgement... But avoid the pitfall of thinking, "I can find no redeeming value in this question, but... maybe someone else will" - be true to yourself; if someone else finds the question useful, then they can fight to keep it around.
Once you've decided that a question fails these tests, act: down-vote, vote to close (the description for "Not a real question" fits just about perfectly), or flag for a moderator's attention. Leave a comment describing what's lacking, as I've done here.
You, the experienced expert users of English Language & Usage, are the gatekeepers for your site: you've already decided you don't want these questions, now it's time to step up and make them go away...