In the few days that I've been using this site, I've noticed that many questions have answers that feature a direct copy-paste from a popular dictionary. Note that I am discontent not with citing dictionaries in general --- nothing is more helpful than a quick definition --- but I am taking issue with some posters copy-pasting 10+ lines from an online resource, and using that more or less as the entirety of their answer. Here is an example.

This strikes me as lazy and poor practice in several ways:

  • A verbatim copy-paste often occupies many lines, adding clutter to the answer.
  • A dictionary definition usually includes several possible meanings of a word: if the intended, relevant denotation is not highlighted, then the answer may create further confusion.
  • A verbatim copy-paste from an online dictionary is unnecessary, only the link has to be provided.
  • It follows that if the answer consists only of a copy-pasted definition and perhaps a superfluous or trivial remark, it would be more appropriate as a comment with a link to the definition.
  • Finally, if a question can be adequately answered with a copy-paste from a dictionary, then the quality of the question itself is more than dubious.

What should be done? My opinion is that posts consisting of little more than a copy-pasted definition should generally be flagged as unhelpful, or if the question demands exactly a copy-pasted definition, then users should nominate the question for closure. If a helpful answer nonetheless contains a long copy-paste, I think the answer should be edited: only the relevant portion of the copy-paste and a link to the definition, as well as any explanatory remarks, should be retained.

  • 2
    Yes, that practice is controversial. The copy-paster really should have some value-add commments about the copy-paste to make it worthwhile.
    – Mitch
    Jan 2, 2014 at 13:37
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    You have some good points, but I don't think your example provides much support for them. The answer you have a gripe with is essentially a more fleshed-out and rigorous version of yours to the same question. One way to look at it is that she is less lazy than you, because she bothered to include a citation to support her answer.
    – John Y
    Jan 4, 2014 at 15:03
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    If I look at the time stamps, the it was answered in full before NewB answered with a conclusion identical to the one in the accepted answer. I think the question here at meta is valid, the complaint about the example less so.
    – mplungjan
    Jan 5, 2014 at 5:17
  • 2
    There's a long and old discussion among many meta threads about using cut and paste from dictionaries.
    – Mitch
    Jan 5, 2014 at 16:07
  • Quite frankly I view any answer which provides, or even just discusses, the meaning of a word without quoting a source of some kind as a potentially low quality answer. I would have expected your answer to say, "Do you mean manifest defined here as:..." Obviously there are always exceptions, but I tend toward always including a quote unless there's a good reason not to, rather than the other way 'round.
    – Jim
    Jan 6, 2014 at 7:33

6 Answers 6


There are times when a decent answer might consist of a 10-line copy-and-pasted dictionary entry, coupled with an insightful sentence or two. Not every answer need be a lengthy treatise.

That said, I like your insights. My biggest beef with the answer you point to is one of formatting; I think the answer could be much improved with some simple edits. For one, there's no need for a URL to clutter up an answer; for another, copy-and-pasted material should be put in a quote box. Also, the quoted material need not take up so many lines.

I won't bother to fix the answer on the main site, because that would tamper with the illustration for your meta question. But I'll show how it would look after I made a few edits which I think produce a more aestethic answer. In my opinion, that makes it a more acceptable answer, too; one may be too much of an eyesore to be all that helpful. I'll show both of them below, first the improved, and then the original:

The meaning of emanate as listed by Oxford Dictionaries is:

emanate (v.) [no object] (emanate from) (of something abstract but perceptible) issue or spread out from (a source): warmth emanated from the fireplace; she felt an undeniable charm emanating from him.

  • originate from; be produced by: the proposals emanated from a committee

  • [with object] give out or emit (a feeling, quality, or sensation): he emanated a powerful brooding air.

I do not think emanate, the way you have used it, fits any of these meanings. Neither sentence seems correct. Is manifest the word you are looking for, maybe?

The meaning of emanate as listed by http://www.oxforddictionaries.com is:



  1. [no object] (emanate from)

    (of a feeling, quality, or sensation) issue or spread out from (a source):

    warmth emanated from the fireplace

    she felt an undeniable charm emanating from him.

  2. originate from; be produced by:

    the proposals emanated from a committee

  3. [with object] give out or emit (a feeling, quality, or sensation): he emanated a powerful brooding air.

I do not think emanate, the way you have used it, fits any of these meanings. Neither sentence seems correct. Is manifest the word you are looking for, maybe?

I'd rather not get into the debate about whether the comments in this particular answer have enough substance to merit upvotes. The main point I want to emphasize is that copying can contribute to a valuable answer, provided it's done neatly.

It might also be worth noting that the original link goes to the dictionary homepage where the material was taken from (the visitor would still need to type in the word to find the definition). The link in my "improved" answer goes directly to the entry for word in question.

  • 1
    I agree that neat, well-formatted copying can certainly be beneficial. One of my major gripes with copy-pasting is also the inherent poor formatting of the pasted answer.
    – Newb
    Jan 4, 2014 at 17:12
  • 1
    Definitely. Formatting the pasted text to match the dictionary is often the longest part of the answer process! But it actually makes the answer clearer, especially if what is pasted is pared down to just what is necessary.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Jan 6, 2014 at 18:59

Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. In fact, there is a dedicated close reason that says just that.

It takes five high-reputation users to close a question, though — and during the holiday season a lot of people are taking a break from the site, so closing can take longer. Nevertheless, the question you linked to already has four close votes. And I have just added mine.

If you stick around to get 3000 reputation points, you will gain the privilege to vote to close (and reopen) any question yourself. At your current reputation level, you already have the privilege to flag posts as off-topic. This will get them additional attention from the community and mods alike.

flagging a post as off-topic

  • Is this really an answer to the question asked? It involves closing a question because one answer is low-quality. Granted, if the bad answer is sufficient, the question should be closed; but it isn't always so. Jan 2, 2014 at 22:48
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    @Tim: I assume that everyone can see if a dictionary link answers a question or not. If the question is perfectly fine and it's the answer that is low-quality, then flag the answer. Obviously.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 2, 2014 at 22:50

A verbatim copy-paste from an online dictionary is unnecessary, only the link has to be provided.

In general an answer should be somewhat self-contained, because links wither and die.

This has been explicit policy on other SE sites I've participated in, though I haven't checked ELU specifically.

  • 3
    That's true --- dangers of link rot should be avoided.
    – Newb
    Jan 5, 2014 at 3:00
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    Moreover, why should I need to go visit another webpage for you to make your point? That's why I believe it's often a good practice to paste an excerpt within the answer.
    – J.R.
    Jan 6, 2014 at 2:57

I regularly resort to this practice and endorse it only if the online dictionary in question is Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and the excerpt is made following fair-usage provisions for copyright.

OED is a subscription-based dictionary and it is mostly only university students, faculty, and library cardholders who have access to it. OED's lexicographers are generally more learned than English.SE's contributors so I am usually comfortable in deferring to their presentation of relevant material.

  • 1
    +1, I don't really understand the reason why anyone voted down the answer, though. Jan 4, 2014 at 19:07
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    I don't think the OED is the "only" resource that has more expertise than the ELU community. Other dictionaries, like Macmillan, may not be quite as comprehensive or as scholarly, but I'd still consider them reliable, and worthy of quoting in an ELU answer. Some of the wiki dictionaries are probably less authoritative still, but I'd still quote from them if their content matched my own anecdotal experiences.
    – J.R.
    Jan 4, 2014 at 19:26
  • 1
    Also, the OED is a dictionary and, as such, a book. You can buy a physical object with "Oxford English Dictionary" written on the cover. No subscription is necessary and any lover of the language should own a copy.
    – terdon
    Jan 5, 2014 at 15:14
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    @terdon do you mean to suggest that any lover of the English language should re-prioritize their finances and bookshelf space to make room for a 20-volume, $1000 set?
    – user31341
    Jan 5, 2014 at 16:17
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    @jlovegren of course not, and has it really reached $1000? Wow! Thankfully I have access to my Dad's dog-eared copy. My point was that the OED is a book, not an internet service. I was just going all luddite on you is all. Having now seen the price I think I'll eat my words, luddite sentiments and all.
    – terdon
    Jan 5, 2014 at 16:22
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    @J.R. I sometimes think (albeit with one or two prominent exceptions amongst our members) that just about any scholarly resource has more expertise than the ELU community. :) As for Macmillan, I do like them quite a bit more than I do for M-W (at least in its online presence), but just try looking up words like catachresis or tarn there. Those aren’t even particularly recherché terms, either. For some words, and for some purposes, only the OED will do.
    – tchrist Mod
    Jan 5, 2014 at 17:50
  • @terdon, A lack of players in the field caused a monopoly in price and it wouldn't have been surprising even if the price had been twice of that.
    – Pacerier
    Sep 30, 2015 at 3:15
  • @tchrist, How does OED derive its definition and why are the methods better when compared to Webster?
    – Pacerier
    Sep 30, 2015 at 3:15
  • @Pacerier they use the same methods, but OED does it better. To quote from their website: The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— past and present—from across the English-speaking world.
    – user31341
    Oct 1, 2015 at 0:50
  • ... As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from Dictionaries of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings. You’ll still find present-day meanings in the OED, but you’ll also find the history of individual words, and of the language—traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books.
    – user31341
    Oct 1, 2015 at 0:51
  • Yeah, the only problem is it's all in British. This is the one dictionary I avoid using.
    – Mazura
    Jun 26, 2017 at 22:44

I can't deny that I had slight misgivings earlier today when I posted an answer consisting almost entirely of copy/pasted text from 3 different dictionary definitions. I decided it was okay because...

1: Not everyone can access OED, which has authoritative and often highly relevant definitions.
2: I figured my highlighting of certain specific elements in those definitions might well be enlightening.

People look for different things on ELU. Someone else answered the same question as me above, at the same time, with what seemed to me no more than a comment (There is the (humorous) definition millihelen). As I write, that answer has 8 upvotes, but mine (which I felt made a serious attempt to answer the question) has only 3. Let the voters decide!

  • I upvoted millihelen because I couldn't help it. But I also upvoted yours precisely because it was a serious attempt to answer the question and I couldn't, in good conscience, upvote the humorous one and not yours too.
    – Jim
    Jan 6, 2014 at 7:27
  • Upvotes are for useful answers; sometimes humor is useful. If I already know the "textbook" answer, but someone comes up with something funny I haven't seen before, I might upvote the serious answer and not upvote the serious one. My point? A highly-upvoted humorous answer isn't necessarily shameful.
    – J.R.
    Jan 6, 2014 at 13:01
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    @Jim, J.R.: I hadn't come across millihelen before, and I can't deny I would have upvoted it myself if it weren't for the fact that it already had far more votes than my answer, and it was effectively just a link. Anyone who didn't recognise the reference would have to actually follow the link - I think it's generally better to include at least a brief definition in the answer text itself. Jan 6, 2014 at 14:18
  • Yeah, at the time I upvoted both answers they were at 2 and 1.
    – Jim
    Jan 6, 2014 at 19:50
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    FF: I agree that the millihelen answer could be improved with a copy-and-paste into the answer itself. I was only addressing the lament that sometimes seems to occur when a humorous answer starts getting more votes than a more serious one, as once happened with the famous umbrella question.
    – J.R.
    Jan 7, 2014 at 1:42

I think some questions call for answers that are largely quotes from a single source, such as a dictionary. Most notable among these are the pleas for a single-word where the definition quoted shows the closeness to the questioner's definition.

I agree with @starwed that inclusion of the definition, along with the link, makes the answer self-contained and therefore more helpful.

Sometimes there are multiple terms that fit the bill, and in those cases a list of the terms with a hotlink to each defining source is preferable to a recitation of nearly identical definitions.

I also agree with the OP that a quote of many widely divergent definitions sheds more confusion than light.

I only hope that my short answers with quoted single word definitions, and my multi-definitional quotes that circle a concept are not the answers that she or he is upset by.

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