As mentioned here, the General Reference close reason is dead. In its place, I've added a custom "off-topic" option:

Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. A list of these references can be found here: List of general references

Like all of the custom off-topic reasons, you can (and probably should) replace this with one that better reflects your community's tone and standards (and perhaps grammar). However, I expect you'll keep something very similar to this since General Reference questions have always been a problem here and are unlikely to go away any time soon.

That said, I strongly encourage you to better define the questions that fall into this category. I linked to your list because I think it's a good start (and likely to be very useful to the folks asking these questions), but it could use a bit of cleanup:

  • There are a lot of dictionaries; if the intent is just to give folks a choice, it's ok to have a few, but if there are specific reasons to choose one over another (particularly for specific types of questions, e.g. etymology vs. pronunciation), then that should be noted.

  • I'm not sure "Urban Dictionary" really belongs in the same category as OED, at least not without a HUGE disclaimer.

  • What sorts of questions are the "General Language and English Language Reference" entries supposed to answer? All of them?

  • Ditto for Style and Translation - these may be useful and/or capture some questions you'd prefer weren't asked here, but I don't quite see how these are "general references"; heck, right now y'all devote more words to damning Strunk & White than you do to explaining why I'd want to refer to The Chicago Manual of Style for anything.

Remember, the goal is to point both askers and casual readers toward resources that will help them find the answers to their own questions. Try hard to teach them how to fish - don't just point them in the direction of the ocean and yell, "food's thataway."

See also:

  • 1
    OneLook is a good one to include, since it points to so many of the others anyway.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 16:27
  • 1
    Online Etymology Dictionary - not exactly general reference in every case, but if a question is just a matter of a single search there, then I think it might count. Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 17:57
  • 3
    Any question that could simply be found by 'etymology (weird word)' or 'definition (weird word)' should be considered genref. Anything that needs a corpus search should not. Of course there can be lots of embellishment that renders a question not genref.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 19:02
  • 1
    There are lots of "young" usages which are noted in Urban Dictionary but which are not general enough for OED. It's a useful resource for certain enquiries, but it has to be used carefully.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 19:47
  • 3
    @AndrewLeach Marthaª did a great job of covering that in her answer. The list of general references should basically be structured as: Looking for X? Find it at Y. Example: Current slang terms? Urban Dictionary.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 20:12
  • 1
    @Mitch Corpus search such as Ngram Viewer is obviously not general reference if you are asking a question about meaning. But Anyone who asks "how common is the spelling 'Quran'" is asking a general reference question and should be pointed to online corpus search engines.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 20:41
  • 2
    @MετάEd: I don't think your latter case is genref because nGrams is a difficult tool just like other corpus searches; it requires judgement on how to interpret the graphs it gives on given input.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 20:56
  • 2
    @Mitch I get your point, but though you can ask some pretty sophisticated questions with Ngram Viewer it is designed for casual use. They've already done the advanced work behind the scenes, such as determining what OCR quality to accept in each subset.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 21:31

2 Answers 2


As I've said before, general reference means that there is a type of reference source that is specifically designed to answer that type of question. The list is actually pretty limited: dictionary, thesaurus, and encyclopedia.

Note, for example, that there isn't a standard place to look up "is this grammatical" types of questions, so even the simplest question of that type is not, strictly speaking, general reference.

I don't know if we want to endorse particular dictionaries or encyclopedias. Perhaps we could do something like:

If there is a standard type of reference source specifically designed to answer your question, then it is off-topic here. For example, the definition of a word should be looked up in a dictionary.

Or we could get more specific:

If there is a standard type of reference source specifically designed to answer your question, then it is off-topic here. For the definition of a word, you should look in a dictionary; for synonyms and antonyms, you should look in a thesaurus; and for explanation of basic language concepts (grammar terms, parts of speech, etc.), you should look in an encyclopedia.

  • 2
    What about actual grammars? They are neither dictionary, thesaurus, nor encyclopedia. And one can look up grammar points in them. If, of course, one wishes to learn the grammar, instead of conflicting opinions about the grammar. Pretty much all the points I make about rules and other syntactic and semantic phenomena are in McCawley's books, for instance. Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 2:18
  • 2
    @JohnLawler: I'm not sure how generally-available such references are. They're certainly not available online, which I think was one of the original points of General Reference.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 14:40
  • 2
    Anybody can start with the Logic Study Guide (logic is to language as math is to physics -- you can't understand the details without it) and the Verb Phrase Study Guide. They're intended as remedial guides for those educated in Anglophone schools, which normally teach nothing useful about logic, grammar, or language. 15 pages each, and free. With exercises. Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 23:30
  • 1
    @Marthaª when you respond to Dr. Lawler's initial comment you introduce a new criterion of "general availablity". From my perspective as someone with an OED login, a large number of questions are "general reference" when they ask about work etymologies and early usages. We might add one of "general accessibility" as well: there are large corpora which can answer many usage questions, but the casual user will find them difficult to use. The rub is that the available/accessible references are often of low quality, and a user with access to a better non-available reference could still help.
    – user31341
    Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 14:28
  • 1
    @JohnLawler In the alleged words of Feynman, "Physics is to math as sex is to masturbation". // Those are interesting links, but I doubt a user can query them as one can online dictionaries.
    – hunter2
    Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 9:28
  • 1
    That's probably true. Grammar is not like geography. You can look up a geography question on the web very nicely. But even if the two best grammars of English (McCawley, and Huddleston&Pullum) were online, you wouldn't be able to query them like a dictionary. Dictionaries are made for overall coverage of words, which are unitary enough. Grammars are made for overall coverage of patterns, which are not. Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 15:04
  • 1
    To return to metaphors, you can look up multiplication and trig tables online, but try "querying" the web about modular forms. There are tables, even. But they don't help much if you don't have the basic background. The fact is that English grammar is not taught in Anglophone educational systems, and people have to do remedial work to figure it out. Hence this group. Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 15:06
  • @JohnLawler: precisely, which is why grammar questions are not general reference IMO. If you have to have some inkling of the answer in order to look it up successfully, then it's not the sort of thing we can expect you to look up before asking.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 17:43
  • 2
    Well, then, questions about English grammar shouldn't be closed, right? Because the questioners clearly don't have much inkling (or is it many inklings?) about how to ask the question, we should expect them to be unclear and not penalize them for it. Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 19:49
  • @JohnLawler, The link modular.math.washington.edu/Tables/modjac/curves.txt is broken. Is there an updated link?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 17:56
  • I have no idea. Perhaps they have taken them down as insufficient. Commented Sep 27, 2015 at 19:42

I quite understand OP's reason for linking to our recommended references page, but to be honest I'm not sure we could ever expect any such list to suit our General Reference context. For example,

1: OED is an excellent reference, but it's not available to most people at a price they can/will afford.
2: Onelook, Wiktionary, Urban Dictionary, etc., are useful, but may contain highly dubious material.
3: Expecting casual enquirers to check a corpus before asking here seems excessive, to say the least.
4: Trying to find details about a specific usage in a comprehensive style guide can be very difficult.
5: Resources like The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language aren't generally available online.
6: etc., etc.

I've always adopted the principle that if I think almost all native speakers know the answer to a question, and/or I can easily see the relevant information without leaving Google's home page, after typing in a reasonably obvious search string, then it's General Reference. If I can't, it's not.

  • 2
    What's wrong with OneLook? It links to other dictionaries, many of them quite reputable.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 10:47
  • 1
    At least in the US and UK, I think most people can access the OED if they have a library card. public.oed.com/how-to-subscribe/does-my-library-subscribe
    – user28567
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 10:48
  • 3
    @snailboat - I can't, for what it's worth :) And even if someone could, I think it unreasonable to expect a casual enthusiast from a) knowing they can do so and b) going to the trouble to do so.
    – Lynn
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 13:22
  • 1
    What possible relevance could it have whether you had to leave Google's home page or not? Surely you're not implying that anything Google-able is General Reference?
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 14:10
  • @Martha: I surely am. If the information a questioner seeks is so commonplace that it can be read within one of the first few 2-line "snippets" shown on the Google home page following "search", I'm quite happy to define that as de facto General Reference. If it's actually necessary for the questioner to select and follow up one of those links to find what he's looking for, it might not be GR. Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 14:45
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    If anything Google-able is general reference, then we might as well close up shop and go home. EVERYTHING can be Googled.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 14:52
  • 4
    @Martha: I respectfully suggest that for most purposes, only exceptionally basic questions about the use of English can be definitively answered from Google's home page. If you need to follow up a link, the question is probably more complex. It may be unreasonable to expect the questioner to select the right link to follow up, and to isolate the requiored information from whatever he finds there. Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 15:00
  • 1
    @Marthaª: I tend to agree with FumbleFingers. Just about anything can be answered through Google with enough effort. I only closevote things that I can find with extremely little effort - because that usually indicates that the OP has not expended any effort in asking. Of course, it's all relative. Sometimes it's hard to find the right search terms if you don't know the terminology.
    – Lynn
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 17:47
  • @Lynn: Very true. For many of the really basic questions (those that I think should be on ELL, not ELU), it's easy for native speakers with a smattering of Google-fu to come up with a good search term. But the questioner (who obviously doesn't know the answer) might not really know how to make Google "deliver the goods". That's why I left myself some "wiggle room" by saying a reasonably obvious search string. Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 17:55
  • Agreed with @J.R.: OneLook is transparent in that it's just a search engine, although that means it's no reference for anything nor subject to improvement. Wiktionary, given its open process and strict rules, is way more trustworthy than websites which disguise themselves as dictionaries while being just content dumps (see also meta.english.stackexchange.com/a/7315/130551) and is also subject to improvement (see meta.english.stackexchange.com/a/7314/130551 ).
    – Nemo
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 9:17

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