I'm fairly new to the stackexchange network, but I participate quite a bit on stackoverflow. I've used a few others (like this one) for one or two questions. And I have to say, EL&U feels extremely unfriendly to newer users compared to the others I've used (this has nothing to do with the question I asked). I love the stackexchange system, and believe the game-like aspect of it produces great results. I'm just trying to understand EL&U better.

Last night I was reading a few questions and realized that a HUGE percentage of them were closed. They all seemed on-topic, had much discussion, and were really interesting questions. I wasn't looking for anything specific to solve a problem, I was just having fun. I tried to understand the explanations of why they were closed, and peoples' comments about why they down-voted, and most of the time I just didn't get it. It seemed like semantical nitpicking.

On the first page (Questions, newest, 50 per page setting), there were 20 closed questions (40%). I compared that with a few random SE sites:

  • el&u - 20
  • gaming - 6
  • stackoverflow - 2
  • math - 5
  • wordpress - 0
  • stats - 1

Many of the complaints about questions are related to the question itself having misspellings, bad grammar, or syntactical errors. It seems to me that the whole point of a Q&A site about English is so people, many of whom are not well versed in the topic, can learn about it. I recently used Home Improvement to ask this question: https://diy.stackexchange.com/questions/10049. I'm not a home improvement expert, which is why I went there. I used all the wrong words to describe things and my question wasn't very clear since I couldn't even really grasp the concept of what I was trying to ask. But they worked with me and came up with ideas of what I was asking. After a little back and forth, I edited the question to make more sense and got a great answer. No one closed my answer. No one said, "Learn the proper words for things before posting". They made me feel welcomed, and were very helpful. They are the experts answering questions, and realized I was not, which is why I was asking.

EL&U feels like an exclusive club where you have to know English perfectly and understand a bunch of subtle rules before posting. Here are a few closed questions I saw last night:




All of these seem like decent questions and they're interesting. Of course, they could be improved to be better. But is closing/down-voting them the best way to encourage a new user to improve their question? On stackoverflow it seems like people edit others' questions more to make them better, especially if they are just cosmetic changes which don't affect the question. Why confuse someone with, "your grammar is horrible", if you understand what they're asking. The guy on the last question tried desperately, three times, to edit his question to suit @REGDWIGHT ѬS道's request with no luck.

Individually, you could defend each of the closings based on the reason given. But if you look at the bigger picture, 40% of questions closed in my sample, is the community closing/down-voting too much?

I'm new here, so I'm just pointing this out and asking the question. Maybe everyone else is happy with the tone and feel of this community, and I'm off-base.

UPDATE: Thanks everyone for the great responses. It seems the general consensus is, no, you do not feel you are closing too many questions.

My original post wasn't meant to question the judgement of those who closed/down-voted any particular posts. As @waiwai933 pointed out, they can each be defended in a way that makes perfect sense. It was more a broad commentary after using the site only one day and not really understanding the community. So I participated for a couple of days to get a feel for things. I love systems and figuring out how they work. I usually have a gut feeling for what's working and what's broken that turns out to be right.

So after using it some more, I still felt the same way. I couldn't figure out why you wouldn't want millions of well-written landing pages all driving traffic here. I feel like most questions can be made into good landing pages with a little effort. That's how Stackoverflow works. It's almost impossible to think of a programming question off the top of your head that doesn't have a SO link on the front page of Google. Sure, you could find all that info elsewhere, but why not bring people to the site for every programming question. The answers, and the discussions that surround them, will be a far better experience than they'll get elsewhere.

So when I started using EL&U, I expected the same thing for English (which is a pretty broad topic). Most English-related questions end up on the horrible generic ask sites. I tried for awhile to come up with a basic question that had an EL&U link on the front page and didn't find any. I finally looked up a question and put the exact title into Google and got a result. So, something seemed broken.

That was until I realized EL&U is not an all-purpose English website. From the About page (emphasis mine):

This is a free, community driven Q&A for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

I'm sure I saw this the one time there was a notification before I signed up, but nowhere am I reminded of this, so I went back to taking the title literally. So, aside from the consensus of the power-users here, that tagline settles it. This is not a site for simple questions you can find elsewhere.

With that in mind, I can definitely see how certain questions could get tedious. Single word requests don't usually have a definitive answer and the OP does a lot of "Nooooo, not that one."

So maybe EL&U suffers from such a simple name and topic. There's no "scariness" to the site. The statistical analysis SE site is called Cross Validated, which would scare away the casual asker. English is such a big topic, too. People don't accidentally end up on SO if the want to program their thermostat or change the code on their alarm. It's probably too late to change the name, but perhaps something like:

enter image description here

And right before the title on a new post it could say something to the point, like:

Have you done a web search first? You might find an easy answer to your question elsewhere. If you're not sure what type of question is appropriate to ask here, see our FAQ.

There might be a few minor changes that would prevent a lot of these off-topic/poor quality questions from being asked in the first place.

  • 10
    Please have a read of Single word requests, crosswords, and the fight against mediocrity. While I agree that TPTB want SE to be the first hit for any question, they seem to treat EL&U differently, thus we close more vigorously. Also the community is a little tired of answering questions that can be answered by typing the question title, or a keyword from it, into Google. Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 8:19
  • 7
    And I don't mean to say that Google should be used as a trusted resource, but that if I search Google for a question and a link to a trusted resource is on the first page, then really the asker hasn't put in enough effort. Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 8:36
  • 4
    And a question that shows no research may get a down vote, and if it can be answered by a single link to a dictionary or Wikipedia, it should be closed as general reference.
    – Hugo
    Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 23:20
  • 4
    For comparison, Programmers.SE has 15/50 closed.
    – Hugo
    Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 23:22
  • @MattЭллен I read this, thanks. I updated my question with my thoughts on all this. Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 5:40
  • Hmm, more emphasis on the serious would be good.
    – user11550
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 5:55
  • 6
    I think that the name of this SE is misleading. You should definitely emphasize that this is indeed meant for advanced questions and not the type of questions normal people have.
    – Illotus
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 16:26
  • 2
    Thank you for this lucid question and the following insightful update. I too was taken aback by the seemingly disapproving reception of my first activity here and this discussion has helped me understand the community dynamic. Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:53
  • One appropriate middle ground would be to have alternatives where those questions can be answered. Perhaps a site for English learners rather than experts. Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 22:52

6 Answers 6


I've been participating in this site for little over one month, and I keep visiting it every day because I like the idea of contributing to this cultural exchange (I'm actually learning a lot of interesting things, given that I'm not a native speaker).

However, I must say that I share some of the uneasiness which the previous posts describe. I've asked questions which in my opinion might have interested others too, and I had them closed down (in one case I was told that, prior to asking, I should have researched pages and sites which I had actually linked in my question).

When I reply, I'm always a bit worried about the comments which I may get; very often, people who are certainly very learned are extremely strict about the usage of terms, but this contributes towards making their comments sound like dissertations on linguistics rather than something meant to help others improve themselves or their replies.

I surely understand the need for rules if we want to keep the site in good health, and I consider the task which moderators face daily quite demanding, but the site is also for "serious English language enthusiasts", not only for retired or still active linguists and etymologists, and I have the feeling that they (i.e., the enthusiasts) might feel put off at times, as I do.


These are the ten newest questions that have been closed:

So out of these 10, there's only 1 that possibly shouldn't have been closed. And while our close rate is certainly on the high end, I don't see that there's much we can do since it depends on the people asking the question. So I'm going to answer your question with another: Of these 10, after reading my comments on these, are there any you think should not have been closed? I'm open to reopening any of these questions if there's sufficient reason to.

  • 11
    Very little space here, but I thought 5 of the 10 could be made into lasting/useful questions/answers. …origin of … 'visa'? FAQ says etymology is OK. The SE founders have said they want to be the landing page for google searches on topics. Sure you could look up the etymology (ignoring that most people don't know that word or what it means), but an answer could bring together several sources in an interesting way. … "spontaneous"? Could be asked better, but the first answer and comments are interesting. Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 21:40
  • 4
    How to use "which"… His original was fine and it progressively got worse as he tried to update it. People were working out his intentions in comments, as appropriate. … "scientific fundamentalist" I thought both the answers were interesting and he did try to edit twice. … preposition use… Difficult to google and the first comment is a perfect answer (that there are too many to state and here's a reference, one which you probably didn't know about). Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 21:40
  • Agreed on the other five, and the visa one obviously needs editing to get rid of the second part about the company. Maybe the topic of this community just naturally leads to high closures. +1 for the great examples. Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 21:50
  • 4
    In general I think it's fine that ELU has a fairly high percentage of closed questions, though I do think if the answer seems to be trivial/obvious it's only common courtesy to actually provide it while voting to close. In the specific case of spontaneous I remain of the opinion that it should never have been closed - I'd still like to know how/why the word started as an adjective applicable to people, but has somehow shifted so it's now predominatly applied to inanimate objects. Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 23:04
  • 1
    I don't think there's much value in opening the visa question or it becoming a landing page: if you Google "visa" you get Wikipedia's article with its Latin roots even visible in the Google summary. Read the article for a detailed history and, well, a full encyclopaedia entry! It's even updated regularly. Or pick any dictionary. You have excellent chances to find it there. No need to know the word etymology. Do we really want to mirror these sites? No. That's why we have the "general reference" close reason.
    – Hugo
    Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 23:42
  • @FumbleFingers I now agree. I updated my question with my thoughts. Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 5:41
  • @Hugo I've updated my question with my thoughts on this. I now agree with the high closure rates. I just needed a few days to understand the community better. Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 5:43
  • What is the point of the site if you don't want to talk about the things these questions are asking? Etymology, usage, grammar, punctuation, etc. all relate to English Language & Usage, and the experts on this site should be willing to help those who don't know, not antagonistic towards them! Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 23:47
  • I have gotten three "pages not found" for the OP's link. Why is that?
    – Lambie
    Commented May 13, 2019 at 16:21

I've only been active on this site for a few weeks, but I've gotten the same general impression that the poster here has: The active members seem a little over-zealous in closing questions.

I can certainly understand closing blatantly off-topic questions. If someone asks "Who was prime minister during World War I?" or "Who is your favorite rap singer?", clearly that's totally off-topic, and if such questions are not closed, the site could degenerate into having no clear subject at all. But I see lots of questions closed as off-topic that are debateable. Like recently closed as off-topic was "Can the word 'dehydration' imply 'thirsty'?" Okay, arguably this is asking about the biological process of dehydration and is thus a science question. But I think the poster was struggling to understand the connotations attached to the two words. That sounds like a language question to me. It seems to me that if a question is ambiguous in this sense, we could answer it as a language question, ignoring any scientific or historical or other off-topic possible answers. Erring on the side of closing often in practice means that you make it almost impossible to post questions that are, in fact, relevant. Do we really want to say that if there is any possible interpretation of the question that is not relevant, that we close it, whether that is what the poster was really trying to ask or not? I think the standard should be that in case of ambiguity, we give the poster the benefit of the doubt.

Likewise, if someone asks, "What is the definition of ...?", yes, this could be easily answered by going to a dictionary. But I've seen questions closed as "general reference" where it looks to me like the poster is asking for something beyond the dictionary definition: he wants to know about connotations or subtleties of meaning or proper usage in context.

"What does 'not even close' mean?" was recently closed as "general reference". How so? How would you look that up and where? A Yahoo or Google search turns up plenty of examples, but the poster is looking for examples but an explanation of meaning. Maybe you have a "dictionary of idioms"? I don't.

I've seen many questions closed as vague or unclear, that I thought were quite clear. If you don't understand a question, why not help the poster to refine it by asking clarifying questions, rather than just slamming it closed. In a few cases I've seen votes to close on questions that I thought were completely clear. I think the person voting to close was confused, not the poster. For example, I forget the question now, but it was criticized for not asking a clear question, but if you read the title the question was quite clear. It was like the person voting to close ignored the title and just read the body of the question, and then condemned the poster for failing to repeat the title in the body.

Well, etc. I think posters should be given the benefit of the doubt, innocent until proven guilty.

  • 2
    You point out some good reasons to hold back from voting to close. Unfortunately there are way too many crap questions, where the OP didn't even try (that is a real big reason for voting to close). Anyway, there are lots of democratic mechanisms here...with enough rep, you can always vote to reopen.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 22:55
  • 6
    I just stopped participating, unfortunately. One question I asked got "protected" after 4 answers and 10 hours, so that killed the discussion instantly. And one of my answers, which got a few votes, was closed. It was about pluralizing SMS (english.stackexchange.com/a/51383/15003). It was closed as an exact duplicate of What is the correct way to pluralize an acronym?, which covers one example: ATM. That's the same category, but not an exact duplicate. I gave examples usage and data with mine. If someone searches "plural of SMS" they'll never find that acronym page. Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 22:59
  • 4
    @ThinkingStiff Protecting questions doesn't prevent answers; it prevents poor answers (or tries to). And here, I think we tend to link questions as duplicates so that there is one repository of great information for each topic, rather than each case within a topic. No, searching for "plural of SMS" won't lead to that acronym page. But it will lead to your question, which contains a link to the acronym page.
    – user10893
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 0:03
  • 2
    @simchona Then why close it? Closing it implies it's no longer valid (and may be deleted). Most likely, no one else will answer this question or upvote either the question or answer. Why not just "See Also: <link>"? And for the game-play aspect of SE sites, it makes me not want to to spend time answering questions (which haven't not been asked before, i.e. not duplicates), knowing that they may be inexplicably closed. Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 0:10
  • @ThinkingStiff Questions closed as dupes get merged, not deleted, after some period of time.
    – user10893
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 0:12

Other users have already replied about the specific question being referred. I will reply without referring to the specific questions that were shown in the front page when you asked this question.

First, you are referring to the questions shown in the front page, which is a localized situation. It could be that two months ago Stack Overflow had more closed questions shown in the front page, or that another SE site has, in average, more closed questions shown in the front page than EL&U. Meta Stack Overflow is getting questions that should be asked on Stack Overflow, and the number of closed questions on that site is now 4,843, which doesn't include the number of closed questions that have been already deleted.
Searching for closed questions on Stack Overflow returns me more than 5000 questions, while searching for closed questions on EL&U returns me 1,353 questions. Considering that Stack Overflow has been created 3 years and 4 months ago, and EL&U has been created 1 year and 4 months ago, I would say that in average, Stack Overflow got more closed questions per year than EL&U. You could object that Stack Overflow have more questions (2.4 million) than EL&U (12 thousand), but that has also the effect that questions that should be closed are not easily caught when the site gets more questions per day.

The reason EL&U can have more closed questions is that users ask on EL&U questions that should not be asked on it. While it's quite easy to understand when a question is about programming and programming tools, it is (for the new users) sometimes difficult to understand if the question is about the language, the culture, or simply a question written in English. For example, if you ask "Is a narwhal a mammal?" that question is not about English language. The part about English language is the definition of mammal (but a question about that would be closed as "general reference"); the part asking if a narwhal is a mammal cannot be answered only knowing English language, as you should know something of biology to answer that.
Another example of question that doesn't belong to EL&U is "Why do you see statues of an elephant close to a mule, in Washington D.C.?" The question is a cultural one, not about English language, as the elephant and the mule are the symbols used for two of the political parties in USA.

Another explanation is that, being English language a topic that interests also people who are not programmers, EL&U is getting users that don't have an account on other SE sites. This means that those users sometimes ask the kind of questions that are not acceptable in any SE site (e.g. questions that are asking for an opinion, or for a list).

  • I hadn't yet read this comment, but I came to the same conclusions about why EL&U gets more off-topic questions. I updated my question with some thoughts on this. Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 5:56

I think that EL&U is a community where [almost] only the 100% on-topic questions survive. (Basically, if there's any doubt that it's on-topic, it probably isn't). I think this is good; it sets a high standard for posts here, and high standards are what separates the Stack Exchange network from other Q&A sites. Some of those questions might be good, but if they aren't on-topic, you can kiss them goodbye.

Then again, I can definitely see how EL&U could appear hostile to new users. There is a lot of "semantical nitpicking", but I think that the high-rep users are just trying to maintain a high standard of quality.

  • 1
    It does seem to be working, since EL&U has one of the higher question counts of the SE sites. That's what made me curious and prompted the question. Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 21:56
  • I think you are right, about the desire to maintain a high level of quality. @ThinkingStiff After I read your question, I browsed through some of the content on other public beta SE sites where I am active. I did a bit of ad hoc (heuristic?) analysis, as the prior answers here were sufficiently quantitative. Findings: Some of the comments accompanying question closings are truly SCATHING on other public beta sites! I won't cite examples, because I know that the motivation was desire to maintain quality, which is a struggle, particularly while trying to achieve adequate site activity levels. Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 18:15
  • One more thought: Interesting is nice, but not consistent with Q&A site objectives. I am not unsympathetic (look at all this verbiage of mine, case in point)! It is difficult for me to rein myself in. My first impulse on reading your question was to think many of the same things you expressed. Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 18:18
  • 2
    @FeralOink I have a clearer understanding of the site's objectives now (I think!). I updated my question with more information. Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 5:53
  • I agree about the phenomenon that ELU has a higher percentage of closings than other SE sites.
  • I think that there is a great tolerance for misspellings and grammatical solecisms in questions and improper word usage, especially since many questions would presumably come from the ESL community.
  • In my opinion, there are quite a larger percentage than the rough estimate of 40% that should be closed because they are, I say euphemistically, poorly thought out questions. The closing reasons are just not enough for all the many reasons some questions are 'undesirable'. That may be elitist but the culture here has supported things like 'no lyric interpretation' questions.
  • Pretty much any of these undesirable questions could be answered/discussed/searched for on some other site.
  • No lyrics seems obvious, but why not the etymology of the word visa? In the FAQ under What kind of questions can I ask here: Etymology (history of words’ development). Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 21:50
  • 10
    ELU expects some -minimal- effort on the part of the questioner. 'visa' is probably easier to look up via google 'visa etymology', than it is to do here. To elaborate, asking 'what is the etymology of X?' is a boring unwanted question here when the best answer is simply a LMGTFY. If there is no google mention of the word (especially a new word) or a question about a discrepancy between different etymologies, now -that- is a useful question here.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 11, 2011 at 22:31
  • 3
    I agree with this in every regard. The second bullet point is something that I have an issue with. I thought similarly, until I read the pamphlet announcement for EL&U which I found confusing see meta.english.stackexchange.com/a/2187/4915 Seems like some of the perceived overzealousness problem is due to the matter of the site's intended audience. (I STILL don't know what an English professional is....) Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 18:02
  • I don't think it has anything to do with intended audience. The audience is self selecting: people who look at the name and think they could ask or answer questions. I personally want to answer (and ask) interesting questions, and those that I think are stupid but also match one of the closing criteria, I'll vote to close with little hesitation.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 18:58
  • 1
    @Mitch It seems like the tagline "...for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts" sets up somewhat of an intended audience. I updated my questions with more thoughts on this. Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 5:48
  • 1
    @ThinkingStiff: sure it's a setup for the intended audience but that's not what the reality is (and I don't think it should be the entire intent). I don't want the tagline to be 'for people to ask stupid questions that are answered already (stupidly) elsewhere' and then -that- to be the high standard for most questions to be worse than.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 14:34

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .