(Major rewrite since the ELL proposal has been reopened)

I propose we start allowing questions we previously deemed General Reference, since they’ve nowhere else to go. We can migrate them if ELL ever graduates to a fully fledged site.

General reference is a dubious close reason. If we try hard enough, nuances can be found in the most poorly worded of question, and we can answer them from each perspective: as an expert in English and as a teacher of English. Questions don't have to have only one right answer, that's just preferable. Having two does not make the question "not constructive".

  • 6
    No. I'm very glad that EL&U means there's at least one place in the SO universe where lazy questions receive the treatment they deserve. Most other SO sites allow the most cynical gaming of lazy and stupid questions, giving them multiple upvotes so that people can gain rep from basic answers.
    – itsbruce
    Oct 16, 2012 at 22:53
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    Perhaps sadly, not every question in the universe has a home on some SE site. This doesn't mean we should redefine the site we have to accommodate this wave of off-topic questions. ELL failed, so those askers will need to look outside SE unless that changes. Oct 17, 2012 at 15:53
  • Yes, Matt, I agree; and I propose to allow also the questions already asked. +1
    – user19148
    Oct 17, 2012 at 18:41
  • ELL has been re-opened. :)
    – apaderno
    Oct 18, 2012 at 19:16
  • @kiamlaluno I've just seen! Oct 18, 2012 at 19:17

3 Answers 3


The argument in favour of closing as GR is that ELU is not a place to little by little collect the entire OED, one answer at a time. Thus, posting dictionary definitions (the archetypal GR case) doesn't "improve the internet". What it does do is give someone who doesn't have a clue about how to look in a dictionary a free ride.

The argument against closing such GR questions is that English learners often have a hard time with dictionary definitions, nuance, or usage. They are often starting from the position of a Chinese-English dictionary or Arabic-English dictionary or whatever, where single words are translated for single words, and simply don't have enough information to make decisions or to understand what they read. They need a native speaker's advice.

The thing is, we often can't tell if a person is just lazy and hasn't looked in a dictionary, or is confused by what their dictionaries are telling them. So we should close as GR, until they demonstrate what their misunderstanding is.

The problem is, closing these questions as GR probably doesn't actually help anyone. The user will simply leave because we failed to help them. When we auto-post a dictionary entry, the user often THEN takes the time to explain what they don't understand. If new users are not guided into better-explaining their problem, they will often just give up.

So in principle, we should close as GR. In practice, all those Officially On Topic questions that were not well-asked will be closed, when they could instead be answered for lots of reps.

  • This goes back to the need for constructive comments, though. We have to encourage good edits to improve bad questions. I've tried at least once or twice to turn a bad question into a good one (or at least better), but the edit was declined. The reason provided was that it wasn't what the asker was looking for (although IIRC what the asker sought was grounds for closure, catch-22). I'm not sure if it was just a poor effort on my part and whether I should try again. I don't know any better ways to actively improve GR-type questions.
    – Zairja
    Oct 17, 2012 at 2:22
  • @Zairja — if you were changing the question to something suitable but different to what the asker wanted to know then you could reasonably ask a new question :D Oct 17, 2012 at 8:18
  • You had me up until "So we should close as GR, until they demonstrate what their misunderstanding is." I think it should be obvious (but fear few realize it) that behavior around closing doesn't act as stated. Closing almost always results in being shut down entirely, unless someone complains loudly in meta. But I'm just complaining here, I don't have an alternate solution.
    – Mitch
    Oct 17, 2012 at 13:07
  • How about instead of closing, we take a proactive position and modify the question (hopefully with the OP's help but often not)?
    – Mitch
    Oct 17, 2012 at 13:10
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    @Mitch: "it should be obvious"... I mean, that's what I wrote, right? Users with closed questions give up because they don't know what to do next, and the question eventually gets deleted. That is a problem, but I'm not sure how to better engage these users without just allowing everything. Oct 17, 2012 at 13:38
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    @Mitch: re: instead of closing: It's often the case that a GR question gives so little information that you can't even discern what the OP needs beyond a dictionary. "What's the diff between cat and dog?" Besides the obvious, how can you edit or answer this? "What does 'toast' mean in 'Alright. This chick is toast!'?" There isn't usually much to work with. Oct 17, 2012 at 13:41
  • Re "Obvious" - by that I mean ostensibly 'closing' is intended to convince the OP to edit and be considered for reopening. But that process is broken: there's no 'unvote to close', so there is too much inertia in a closed question staying closed no matter how much it is edited after being closed.
    – Mitch
    Oct 17, 2012 at 13:49
  • Re: instead of closing, yes, some questions are dumb, little to work with. But your toast example could just be a very pedestrian version of Yoichi's questions, all excellent. So I'm suggesting (possibly) that we treat such questions as if they were from Yoichi, trying to look behind to see what could be the good question. Why 'toast'? The dictionary doesn't explain.
    – Mitch
    Oct 17, 2012 at 13:52
  • @Mitch: I just found out in the podcast, if 5 people review a question as "do not close" then any close votes on that question get expired. This doesn't affect closed questions, just open questions with close votes. Oct 17, 2012 at 21:43
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    @MattЭллен: Yes, there's a -way- to unclose, but it is much too difficult or rather much too .. it is much too difficult for the OP to edit in a manner to convince people to vote to reopen. In fact, for the OP to edit their question to the point where it would -not- be voted to close at all, that would not be enough to convince people to vote to reopen. The OP has to lobby for opening hard. Who is going to bother revisiting a question once voted to close? Really, it is too much to expect.
    – Mitch
    Oct 17, 2012 at 21:52

Your premise is wrong. Basic questions have never been what the site is for. Whether they are closed GR or closed OT, basic questions should be closed.

Stack Exchange is a growing network of individual communities, each dedicated to serving experts in a specific field. We build libraries of high-quality questions and answers, focused on each community's area of expertise. (from SE/about)

The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts. (from English.SE/faq)

Look at the first few words of The General Reference close reason:

This question is too basic

I have no problem using GR to close questions that are too basic.

Closing GR does sometimes create arguments. I also have no problem closing questions that are too basic as OT. This is an experts site. Questions which are too basic are OT.

To those who might object to closing GR because basic questions can't always be answered by "link[ing] to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information": Sure they can. There are non-SE sites out there designed specifically for English language learners. Those can be linked to ELL questions.

So close OT, or close GR, but close the question.


I'm seeing in this question a misunderstanding of the General Reference close reason, and I'd like to make clear what it is actually meant for. Here's the close text for GR:

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.

The emphasis is on the single link to a standard internet reference source. In this respect, a lot of basic grammar questions are not general reference; there is no standard reference source available that explicates on the various rules (or lack thereof) of English. Instead, what the Internet has is piecemeal information on grammar—it's there, but it's not necessarily findable. Such a grammar question could be basic, but it is not GR.

In contrast, a real GR question would be: What does "dog" mean? Dictionaries are well-known to be standard references for definitions, and there are many broad and relatively complete dictionaries available online for free.

I should also note that generally, Stack Exchange welcomes basic questions. The SE sites are intended for experts, but they are not meant to exclude amateurs:

It has long been established that no question is too entry-level nor too basic. Everyone is welcome. But, in these earliest days, we are DESIGNING a site for experts. To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and challenging questions, not the basic questions found on every other Q&A site. Remember, the pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around! http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/07/area-51-asking-the-first-questions/

The GR close reason reflects a weak compromise, if you will—it says "if it will take you 5 seconds to look up the answer, it's too basic", but at the same time, it doesn't say that basic questions are prohibited completely.

Anyway, this post is more intended as background as to what GR was meant for, and what the general SE stance towards basic questions is, and isn't meant to advocate any particular position. If we do decide that we've going to move the boundaries of what constitutes too basic, we should do so independently of GR.


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