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Being intrigued by this question (What is the name of this rat) I took the trouble to google it and post the answer as a comment. But it got me to thinking. It seems to me...

“Supreme court” vs. “highest court” is legal terminolgy.

Relationship between professor and student is academia.

Is “Windows-based PC” a correct term and better term for 'low-level' are computing.

Describe someone who feels little or no emotion? is medical.

Word to describe a mathematical variable that repeats is mathematics.

What are the proper terms for these star shapes is geometry.

...etc., etc.

I don't really understand the logic of allowing some "What's this called?" questions, but not others. I'd probably have voted to close the "rat" question myself if it had already been answered, on the grounds that once "the correct answer" has been posted there's no need for any more.

Short of saying some/all of the above counterexamples should also have been closed immediately, what exactly is the thinking here?

  • Thanks for bringing this up because it needs to be addressed. Another example that really bugs me: english.stackexchange.com/questions/50128/… -- IMO this has nothing to do with the charter of English, it's purely a computing question. – Jeff Atwood Dec 19 '11 at 12:07
  • @Jeff: Haha - I thought that one was irritating too. I started in computers before we even had "floppy" discs at all. When we moved on to the 3.5" ones with rigid plastic cases I really got fed up with people discussing whether "floppy" was really the appropriate word. And I never liked people talking about "burning" optical r/w media when half the time they neither knew nor cared exactly how the physics actually worked. – FumbleFingers Dec 19 '11 at 14:32
  • well, what I find irritating is that question, I feel quite strongly, belongs on a site for computing experts not a site for english experts. Generally speaking questions are best served where the most appropriate experts will be available to answer, and this is not a computing site! – Jeff Atwood Dec 20 '11 at 20:48
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I think some "what's this called" questions are more on-topic than others because they're really asking, What's the best way to say this? How do I make sure I'm understood? The asker has a genuine problem, so it's necessarily related to another topic in their life where it originates.

I think these questions can be bad in the same ways as other single-word-request type questions. I'm not arguing that they're always useful, but here's sort of the thought process I go through if I review them.

For the more on-topic questions, the primary work involved in answering will be explaining language. A thorough answer can address things like word differences, nuances that the dictionary doesn't provide, actual usage examples, and so on.

Naming questions become more off-topic, in my opinion, when a good answer requires expertise in the field and no explanation of language. For example, if I ask,

Q: I used a strong solution when I made etchings on metal plates in art class. What was it?
Q: What's this bug in my houseplant?

You might guess nitric acid and fungus gnat, respectively, but if I ask somewhere more focused on the domain, I'll probably get much better, more complete answers that tell me about art techniques or houseplant debugging, which is what I seem to care about. I'm not even interested in why people call it a certain thing, or learning a common word for it, but in solving my problem.

In a nutshell, it's obviously a spectrum, but I consider these questions off-topic if it seems like there must be a better home for the question somewhere else and there seems little potential for thorough answers about how people actually use language.

  • These are useful thoughts - on "main" I might have complained that it's not an answer, but here they seem quite apposite. Re the specific question in the frame here, I didn't go any deeper than finding the name of the animal, but it certainly raises other more general issues - rat / rodent applicability, for example, or why "Solenodon" not "Mastodon". As you say, it's a spectrum. But if that implies we should have some kind of (albeit hazy) "cut-off" limit, it seems we're not very consistent about it. – FumbleFingers Nov 17 '11 at 22:49
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    @FumbleFingers: better a spectrum with vague threshold, than all or nothing. Some of the examples you gave I'd want to close, some not at all. Not everybody agrees with each other; I think the voting mechanism allows for that. My criterion is 'would someone here know better or would someone in another (possibly non-existent) SE know better?'. Still vague but it matches current experience here at ELU. – Mitch Nov 18 '11 at 1:51
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Nearly every question could be placed into a sub-category, that's one of the issues about having a topic as meta as the English language - English can be used to talk about anything. Nearly every word someone asks a question about could be categorized into a separate topic.

For example, this question is about the word 'party' and it's comparison to the word 'bash'. This question could be categorized under sociology - the study of society. But I feel if we were to draw a Venn diagram that question would be in that area which is both relating to English as well Sociology. This is true with each of the above specific examples mentioned.

I think the bottom line which can push a question more towards English or more towards the other topic would be how relevant the word, phrase, or situation is in the life of the average person. For example, a question about the name of the shape of a star is a largely irrelevant question in the vast majority of people's lives whereas a question about the name of a common medical condition could be much more relevant.

Unless I'm mistaken, since we are dealing with the abstract criteria of 'relevance' to decide if a post is acceptable or not, a majority vote should be required to bring down a question and this largely what's happening now.

  • I don't see what you mean. How exactly is a request for the names of two particular star shapes different to asking for the name of an animal? – FumbleFingers Nov 17 '11 at 18:22
  • Does my update answer your question? – ChrisM Nov 17 '11 at 18:50
  • I guess so - you seem to be saying if a term is only relevant to some other domain, rather than "everyday life", it's off-topic to ask for the word. But since I don't see that ordinary people need to know the words to distinguish two similar types of star shapes, I still don't get why that one still survives, when the one about the name of an animal just got closed straight off. – FumbleFingers Nov 17 '11 at 20:07
  • Yep! I think the star names should be closed. I'll vote down on it. – ChrisM Nov 17 '11 at 20:14
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    +1 on your question btw, it's a good one. – ChrisM Nov 17 '11 at 20:18

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