There was once a man who was renowned as one who knew English very well. And it wasn't just idle hear-say either, he definitely had earned the reputation. People would come from all over the country to study under him. Many times they would ask him what a certain sentence meant.

Invariably, his first question in response would be "What's the context?". Once they gave him the context he would give them an answer, and of course it was very easy to understand, since this man knew so much about English. One day, however, a man came to him and asked him "Sir, what does it mean when someone tells you to have a good day?" As usual, the sage replied "What's the context?" The man pulled out a slip of paper, and said "Here it is." The sage looked at it, and on it were the words Set thine house in order, for today thou shalt die. The sage's brows dropped in thought, but soon returned, and he asked the man if he were a Christian. The man said he was, and had always lived as the Bible taught. The sage was about to reply, when the man asked "Why do you always ask for the con-text? Here's the pro-text." So saying, he handed the sage another piece of paper which read It's April fool's day, O sage..

The sage got the point and achieved world fame because he no longer asked for the context unless he had to, but rather knew it from experience.

So what are the pro's and con's of asking for the context? How much should it be done and why?

Here are a couple answers where context was mentioned:

And yes, I realize that we don't qualify for the title of "Sage" (on this site), even at a regional level...yet.

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    Are you asking a question? Meta is intended to provide a forum for questions related to the site. It is not for posting stories.
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 0:25
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    No, I wrote it because I get tired of people asking for the context when it is pretty self contained. I saw it again just now and something snapped into inspiration. Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 0:30
  • This is a discussion question, more or less. Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 0:31
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    I see. Well, I'll reopen it if you edit it so that it asks a specific question about context. Convoluted parables don't make good discussion questions.
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 0:32
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    Can we get some more context as to why you're posing a parable as a question?
    – Robusto
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 0:37
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  • There, I think that basically covers what I'm trying to ask. @cornbreadninja, the answer that triggered this post is english.stackexchange.com/a/77731/62. I'm sure my answer you linked to contributed to this question as well :) Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 1:11
  • Hey I kinda liked this. We do allow pythons to choke on dogs (look, even Cerberus doesn't complain!) so I don't see why sages should not be allowed to choke on Christians, or whatever the moral here is. (Disclaimer: I'm saying this after Arlen edited the question to include an actual question, as rightfully requested by Kit.)
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 10:15
  • Would it be advisable to state the moral explicitly? Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 10:46
  • @KitFox, does it need anymore word to qualify for reopen? Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 11:09
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    I don't see that the little tale is relevant to the question. The question can be answered now though (Context is important, and it should be provided where it's necessary).
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 11:25
  • @Andrew Leach I'm unconfortable with 'little tale'. Is it 'tale' or what? Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 12:37
  • @Xavier tale = story
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 19:21
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    I'd rather more context than less. People tend to give less. So, right, I don't like seeing responses/comments/statements in answers requesting more context because the OP should have given some already.
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 21:15

2 Answers 2


Ask for context when the OP doesn't provide enough for you to answer. Why? So you can answer the question, obviously. The pro? Correct answers. The cons? I don't see any, do you? Do you really think there's some kind of widespread problem on the site where people are continually asking for additional context where none is needed?

In the first question, one might wonder: Did I see a photo once, or have I studied this artist's entire body of work? Asking for context seems perfectly appropriate. (The second question seems to have undergone various revisions and ultimately been closed, so analyzing it does not seem useful.)

  • It was just that some people seemed to be asking for context when it seemed clear to me, but hey, knowing context comes from experience, which no two people have exactly the same. Interestingly, I had a hunch (which proved to be correct), that it was talking about the Stonehenge, which I guess ties into experience :) Commented Aug 13, 2012 at 23:12
  • @Arlen: I think most of the time, when people ask for context, the question is inadequate – oftentimes woefully so. I stumbled into a great example of that this morning.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 14, 2012 at 9:32

My favorite word is pin, but what does a pin look like?

This is a forum about language; language is heavily context-dependent.

It would be hard for me to find an EL&U question that provided too much context. It would be easy for me to locate several that provided far too little.

So what are the pro's and con's of asking for the context? How much should it be done and why?

Context should be requested whenever an O.P. has provided too little. Otherwise, how can we be expected to steer the conversation the right direction? Pinning down the precise meanings of words and phrases is futile without sufficient context.

  • But if one divides the semantic content of every questions into sense and meaning, there is no need to add more context because the sense of a question is the thought that it expresses. Such a thought is abstract, universal and objective. So there is no need to add more context. Senses determine reference and are also the modes of presentation of the questions to which people refer. Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 12:43
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    @Xavier: I'll try to say it once more, plainly. If the question is about language (i.e., What does this word mean? What does this phrase mean? Are these two words interchangeable? How would a native speaker say this? etc.), then sufficient context must be provided.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 12, 2012 at 13:17

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