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:

  1. We get lots of them. Lots and lots.
  2. Most of them are uninteresting and of low quality.
  3. They have a high propensity to attract one-word answers and poor answers from newbie users.
  4. 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:

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:

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...


  • 25
    Who are you, Shog9? Your words are true, but your identity is new; how do you know so well our problems? I was about to post a question to meta asking if we could add an option for closing called 'question is dumb'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 20:16
  • 25
    Hey, @Mitch - check my profile! I work for Stack Exchange, mostly doing stuff like this - encouraging folks to use the tools at their disposal. I'm not much of an English scholar, but I do spend a fair bit of time watching what goes on here - and checking the results against other sources to see how we stack up.
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 20:19
  • 3
    no problem... your question just doesn't fit the profile of a lurker.
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 21:29
  • 10
    @Mitch Shog9 happens to be one of the most beastin' SO users of all time; there's a script floating around that calculates average post quality, and for users over 15k rep, I believe he was in the top 10.
    – user11550
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 0:28
  • 4
    Quick clarification: if I read a question and I find it really boring - is this enough reason to vote to close it? I've always held back in these situations, but I could let lose... Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 20:40
  • 20
    @Matt: by itself? No. But it's a good reason to check for other deficiencies: if the question bores you because the asker put no effort into it and hasn't provided any clear guidelines for choosing a correct answer, then that's a good reason to close it.
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 21:34
  • 4
    @Shog9, Why is the answer "slack" considered an "unhelpful joke answer" to the question "word for the act of intending to do nothing"? I've just upvoted it because it seems to be the most accurate answer, even more accurate than the word "idling" which the other answer writes. Should it have been downvoted?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 16:15
  • 7
    So, ignoring the fact that the answer is horribly inaccurate (go ahead, look it up - I've never heard nor seen the word used for this purpose) the problem remains that the answer doesn't bother explaining how the word might be used in the context envisioned and mostly just consists of a link to an external site and "OH YEAH". @Pacerier. It was, and remains, a flippant and lazy response.
    – Shog9
    Commented Sep 28, 2015 at 22:10
  • 1
    @Shog9, Lazy, yes. Regarding accuracy, is there a metamessage to the comment "I've never heard nor seen the word used for this purpose" or is it meant to be interpreted literally? The usage of "slack" above is common. (At least, it is over here where >99% (wouldn't be surprised if this estimation is accurate) of English speakers know that usage from a very young age since it's a heavily (ab)used word in public schools.)
    – Pacerier
    Commented Sep 30, 2015 at 6:10
  • 1
    The definition you're quoting is not what the question requested, @pacerier
    – Shog9
    Commented Sep 30, 2015 at 15:31
  • 2
    @Shog9, The question requested a word for "the act of intending to do nothing". The definitions I quoted: "to be wanting in activity" and "a spell of inactivity or laziness". The answer is close enough for the description "unhelpful" and "joke" to be unwarranted.
    – Pacerier
    Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 10:17
  • 5
    Uh, no. The asker wanted a word that meant something specific, and the answerer tossed out a word that meant something related with no indication of this, no explanation for why he thought it was close enough, no usage examples that would've made his choice more clear and... Then padded it out with "OH YEAH" to avoid getting blocked by the quality checks. The answer is still wrong, still upvoted for humor only, and probably still misleading ESL readers, all for the sake of a throw-away joke. You've now written 10x more to defend it than the author wrote to post it, and it's still wrong.
    – Shog9
    Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 18:34
  • 2
    @Shog9, Previous comment has pointed out that the answer is not wrong because the condition "doing nothing" is a subset of the condition "wanting in activity". The next best answer ("idling") has the same accuracy. More importantly, there is no evidence that the upvotes are due to humor. If upvoting due to humor isn't what voters typically do, it follows that without evidence the logical choice would be to assume upvotes due to humor are more likely to be absent than to be present. Will continue the discussion over here.
    – Pacerier
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 3:44
  • 1
    @Shog9 I have to downvote this question, just bcause I feel that SWR's are generally not compatible with the best version of this site, the one I'd like us to aspire towards. They could be a fantastic SE site of their own, but they don't fit here, imo. Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 20:57
  • 2
    It seems like having a separate stack Overflow site for single word requests might be a good idea. It could specifically welcome "crossword puzzle answers" as well as "opinion based word choice" and maybe even have threaded comment sections for discussion. I think people would both enjoy participating and enjoy finding discussion with numerous outbound links in the discussion but I do understand how that does not fit with the Stack Overflow model. FWIW, I like to find discussion forum threads with links in Google search and I don't think they include enough of them sometimes.
    – Tom22
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 20:57

4 Answers 4


I don't agree that questions that can be googled are automatically suspect. Everything can be googled, and what's first or second in the results today might not be there tomorrow. If we want to become that first search result, then we need to be willing to answer the question.

Also, just because it's on the internet doesn't mean it's true: if you don't know the answer to a question, how are you going to evaluate the accuracy of possible answers? There's a reason SE has reputation and upvotes/downvotes.

General reference is very dangerous as a close reason. Pretty much every bit of information can be found elsewhere -- that's where our experts learned it from, after all -- but that doesn't mean every question is too basic. To qualify as general reference, the question needs to be easily answerable from a source specifically designed to answer that type of question. Google is not a source specifically designed to answer any question other than "where can I find information about [search term]".

If a question doesn't include enough information to be answered with any accuracy — such as single-word-requests where the description is a vague category at best — then by all means close it as not a real question. But just because you looked it up in Google and found an answer that your experience enables you to label as correct, doesn't mean you should close the question as general reference.

  • 11
    If you want to teach folks how to fish, that's awesome - but when the sole answer consists of a link to another site, that's worrysome... Especially when that site would have been the top result for the question if this site hadn't pushed it off. I'm not saying you should shut down all questions that can be googled - but the expectation should be that the asker has at very least tried, and is willing to show his work: "I searched for 'bowling alley machines' and got stuff about video games" would at least gives you the assurance that "pinsetter" wasn't already rejected by the asker.
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 15, 2011 at 21:16
  • 2
    WolframAlpha might someday be able to answer some questions... :) Commented Nov 20, 2011 at 8:08

I feel like this "problem" has been around for a while: how to define what is too basic and not interesting to the desired audience of the site.

Well, consider the instructions that new users see when asking a question (for the first time) are

How to Ask

Is your question about English language and usage?
We prefer questions that can be answered, not just discussed.
Provide details. Share your research.
If your question is about this website, ask it on meta instead.

Did we ask ourselves is it really objective to expect the new users who come to the site called "English Language and Usage" and to whom the instruction given is "Is your question about English language and usage"1 that she will read through the whole faq, paying special attention to the details of examples of what is on or off topic? Let's assume that it is. There she will read as an example of on topic question: "Problems encountered by people learning English".

Now, you say that the uninteresting question are "philosophically rude", but isn't it "philosophically rude" not to expect such questions given the state of facts? But, I digress.

I think the first thing that needs to be done is to make sure that we inform the new user what is expected from them, namely that:

  • they should show research or attempt at research in dictionaries and online encyclopedias

  • if the research failed that they should explain why or how

There are many ways this can be incorporated into the site (personally, I am particularly fond of the idea that users under X points should click on 'I have done research' with every question they ask).

This will not eliminate such questions completely, but at least it should lead to the situations where it is clearer to the users why their questions are closed. This is not the case now, and not only we get noise from questions that should be closed, but we also get further noise when people do not understand why it happened. This is also garnished with noise of overzealous closers and sympathetic re-openers. In reality I don't think it is as bad as it could be, but these are the elements of noise that we experience and that can be improved.

To fight 'mediocrity' we should fight it at the first lines: hard and fair. For that we need to take better care of the new users.

1 Please note that the sentence 'Is your question about English language and usage?' does not capitalize the name of the site. Therefore, it is even more justified to expect the new user to interpret it as any question on English language and usage, not only as questions that the site "English Language and Usage" defines as on topic in its faq.

  • In every SE site, the off-topic/on-topic questions are defined from the FAQ. Asking, "Is your question about English language and usage?" doesn't imply that all the questions about English language are on-topic on EL&U. Then, not all the questions that are closed are closed because off-topic.
    – apaderno
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 10:44
  • 2
    @kiamialuno, no, with all due respect you are completely missing my point. Please try to think as a newcomer to this site. For example compare serverfault, their sidebar says: "Is your question about servers, networking, or desktop infrastructure?", basically summarizing what is on-topic and using generally understood meanings and not specific meaning in context. With EL&U it says is your question about English language and usage?
    – Unreason
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 11:29
  • A single sentence cannot report all the on-topic/off-topic questions. That sentence means that a question that asks "Is a [name of a not well known animal] a mammal?" should not be asked, as the topic of the question is not English language, and who answer would not answer basing solely on their knowledge of English.
    – apaderno
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 11:57
  • 3
    @kiamialuno, the problem here is that, compared to other sites, this single sentence here is too easily missleading and ambiguous. Let's keep it simple, "Is your question about English language and usage (as we define it in the faq)?" is much less so, isn't it?
    – Unreason
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 12:29
  • 1
    There is already the link to the FAQ, in that block: "read the faq."
    – apaderno
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 12:34
  • @kiamialuno Ok, sorry, but it sounds to me that you are more interested in denying the problem than in being constructive.
    – Unreason
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 13:14
  • 1
    This question has been created from Shog9 as call to action for closing questions that are mediocre. Closing a question is not related to the fact the users read, "Is your question about English language and usage?" Are you saying that, because that sentence, you are not voting to close a question asking "What is the plural of cat?" The topic here is not "For which reason do many users ask mediocre questions?"; the topic is "Do close mediocre questions that should not be there on EL&U." (Indeed, that means "when there is a reason to close them.")
    – apaderno
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 13:52
  • 1
    @kiamlaluno, finally you get it, yes, I am completely guilty here: I am saying that on average it is better not to have mediocre questions than to close them. And yes, that is the point of my answer.
    – Unreason
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 14:37
  • 1
    Since there are already mediocre questions, the only way not to have them is to close them; once they are closed, they can be deleted (from who has the privilege of voting to delete them). The problem is not "Is your question about English language and usage?" as who asks mediocre questions would ask them even if you change that sentence. There are users who ask on Meta Stack Overflow questions that are about programming, and not related to Stack Exchange sites; that happens even if there is nothing that says programming questions must be asked on MSO.
    – apaderno
    Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 14:43

Word and phrase requests are the most interesting part of this site in my opinion. It's the only time I see idioms and expressions and words I've never seen before and learn new ones. It's always enlightening to have that "I didn't know there was a word for that" moment. It also accustoms you to expressions and idioms from other languages from which the OP is trying to translate or find an equivalent for. If unreferenced or single sentence answers are the problem, just enforce a standard, the way we enforce the requirement for example sentences for word-requests. There's no need to throw out an entire category subject because of some bad answers or even lively dissent in the comments, which of course is one of the most interesting parts also.

If we get rid of these types of questions what we have left are matters of English grammar mostly (I think), which can be quite dry, and is a subject over which even grammarians and grammar books don't agree. So this will result in either a single high-reputation-user answer going mostly unchallenged by the majority, or result in the same entanglement of argumentative comments which we're supposedly trying to avoid in implementing this change.

These types of questions really stimulate some hard thinking about the meanings and contexts of language use, challenge our understanding of the meanings of expressions and idioms, and expose many readers or participants to the addition of new tools in their vocabulary toolbox. I think it makes us wield a wider vocabulary and better prepared for speaking or writing our thoughts.

Of course the answers are quite subjective and invite disagreement, but we're talking about language here, not maths where there's a correct answer. If the only questions allowed are questions with definitive answers then grammar questions also will be a sticking point, compounded also by regional variations of language use.


Of all of the topics on this site, this is the one that I enjoy the most. When it's done well.

There's nothing worse that having a question asked without a clear set of guidelines for what type of thing is being looked for, and what words have already been considered and rejected and why. When that happens, anybody can throw out hundreds of possibilities from a dictionary and thesaurus search. Sometimes, you can guess—and it's nice when you come up with something exactly right and both the person asking the question and everybody else looking at it and feels the same way. However, that's mostly just blind luck.

It shouldn't be about luck. If the question is well defined, then it's not about random answers. It's about making use of general knowledge and doing some investigate work into meaning and semantics.

This site shouldn't just be about grammar and etymology. While that's somewhat interesting, it's not as interesting to me as why words are used and how a slight change in something can produce either a subtle or a drastic change in overall meaning.

The best questions are those whose answers require either a specific synonym with a subtle difference in meaning from the rest—or something that is not in a list of synonyms but that you have to dig for.

Yes, there are some bad questions. And there are also some questions that just aren't all that interesting. But there are also some really good questions that aren't mindless and which do stretch vocabulary and innovative thinking.

you've already decided you don't want these questions, now it's time to step up and make them go away...

Obviously, I'm not one of the people being spoken to here. I like many of these questions, and I look forward to seeing them. I'd like to see the overall quality improve—but I'd rather see more of them than none at all . . .

Update: I was asked in a comment to add an example of a well-built single-word request.

In order to be as objective as possible, I based this on a tag search of questions and answers that received a high number of votes and also had accepted answers.

Perhaps appropriately, an excellent example is also one whose accepted answer was given by the commenter who spurred my search:

Is there really no English equivalent to German's “Fachidiot”?


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