I strongly disagree that "questions that can be answered using commonly available references" should be considered "off-topic" at all, but I can at least understand why someone would want to close questions that can be fully answered by trivially looking up a definition in an online dictionary, for example. But I also see legitimate questions about grammar, usage, and etymology—questions that are exactly what this site is supposed to be about, in theory—getting closed for the same reasons.

I suspect that some users are using "commonly available references" as a lazy way to get rid of questions they "don't like" without having to think too hard or work too hard. I trust that the irony inherent in lazily using a close reason that chastises the questioner for not doing their own homework is clear to everyone. In addition to being hypocritical, it makes the community appear intimidating and unfriendly and discourages participation by new people.

To solve this problem, I present the following multi-part proposal:

  • The "commonly available references" close reason should only be used if the question can be easily and fully answered using a free online resource.

Even if we insist that we're not going to help anyone who can't be bothered to look up the answer themselves, it is completely unrealistic, not to mention impolite, to expect questioners to possess an up-to-date copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or Fowler's Modern English Usage—or even, God help me, Strunk and White. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that just because a question can be answered at oed.com (£215 per year to subscribe), that's sufficient reason to close it. If we're going to close questions for being easy to answer elsewhere, it should actually be easy to answer them elsewhere.

And that includes basic grammar questions, too. This page lists no freely available grammar references; even if it did, it is not reasonable or polite to expect a questioner to go pore over an extensive grammar reference for help distinguishing between verb forms. If they knew how to do that, they wouldn't have asked the question in the first place.

  • If the software supports it, users voting to close a question as "reference" should be required to supply a citation showing where the answer can be found.

If you vote to close a question as Off-Topic > Other, you are given a text box to explain your reasons. Likewise, if you vote to close as Reference, you should be given a text box and required to provide a URL or other citation showing where the question can be easily and fully answered. If the question is too hard to be trivially answered with a citation, then the question does not have a trivial answer, and should remain open. And if you could do it but won't, if you refuse to expend even the bare minimum of effort necessary to copy and paste a dictionary.com URL... well, then maybe you shouldn't be voting to close questions at all.

And last but certainly not least, if we do absolutely nothing else, can we at least fix the grammatical orthographic error in "commonly-available references"? There should not be a hyphen between "commonly" and "available." It just makes us look bad.

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    Instead of just downvoting and running away, anonymous voters, how about sticking around and engaging about the merits of the proposal?
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 21:51
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    I agree with your point. It is a point easily appreciated by those of us who were poor spellers as children and were constantly told "Use a dictionary!" I was far too young to have responded, "If I knew how to spell well enough to find the damn word in the dictionary I wouldn't need the G--D--- dictionary!." Many people who ask questions at ELL are in the same boat. Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 4:31
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    @MichaelOwenSartin: Then perhaps they should be asking their questions on ELL, not ELU. A question about 'what is the difference between singular and plural forms' may be welcome there (you could ask on ELL meta); it is off-topic here. Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 12:19
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    There is no “grammatical error” in commonly-available references, unless you are pretending that it should be references commonly available, for only then would it become a matter of grammar. Your quarrel lies with matters orthographical not grammatical. The difference is non-trivial in the extreme.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 16:12
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    +1. I've only been on this site for about 3 days and already i get a sense of elitism.
    – Martin F
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 22:10
  • I suggest removing the "commonly-available" reference at the end as it is off-thesis (if not off-topic).
    – Martin F
    Commented Jan 18, 2014 at 22:14
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    @TimLymington: Are they likely to get a better answer at ELL than here? I doubt it. As to phenry's topic, I agree. Either provide a page with actual, vetted, online links to the references, or shut up about "commonly-available references". Most commonly available references are full of zombie rules and status concerns, anyway; many people still recommend Strunk and White, fergodsakes, and that's total bullshit. Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 17:13
  • @MichaelOwenSartin: in the age of Google, though, your invalid spelling would likely get identified as such, alongside a "Did you mean ...?" suggestion. Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 20:59
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    what's amusing is that often if I offer a word to a question that asks for one, someone at once asks me to go to one of those "commonly available references" and paste in a definition.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 30, 2014 at 23:59
  • There is one freely available grammar mentioned that you seem to have missed. But surely anyone who is a 'serious English language enthusiast', a linguist and/or an etymologist will have encountered and might be expected to remember at least a basic book on grammar. Collins Cobuild is hardly basic, but is still freely available online, I believe. Many other sites deal, often very well, with the basics. Nordquist has some fine articles. Grammar Monster is quite understandable. The BBC Learning English - Grammar, Vocabulary ... is good. This website is not intended to duplicate their services. Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 0:58
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    @phenry Well stated, I couldn't agree more. I am often put-off, even angered, by the level of elitist, "better than thou" attitudes of many of the veterans in this exchange community, like in no other. There is a serious epidemic of spite and passive-aggressiveness that goes on here, which I'd be willing to be could be diminished by 80-90% if so many people attempting to become part of an interesting group weren't so readily disregarded as being 'trivial' by the higher-ups (if not from themselves then fueling it for visitors, no one appreciates being rejected without being given a reason).
    – Sk Johnson
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 3:40
  • 'The "commonly available references" close reason should only be used if the question can be easily and fully answered using a free online resource.' I'd say that very few, if any, non-trivial questions can be fully answered, but that far too many questions don't include any signs of an attempt at the most basic of research. There are site guidelines meant to discourage such cavalier approaches to exploiting the site. And, @Sk Johnson, please note that ELU is not intended for basic questions. It is intended that it maintains certain standards. Should institutions like Oxbridge be ... Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 10:33
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    labelled 'better-than-thou'? According to certain criteria, of course, that's the whole idea. Better than average at chemistry, physics, poetry, music... English language. Not necessarily for better people. You're misusing language. There are many other sites addressing English language at more basic levels and in chatty ways. Freely accessible. Why does ELU have to become a clone? Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 10:33

1 Answer 1


You seem to be confusing 'what people should do' with 'what the programmers can fix'. Anyone with sufficient reputation can vote to close a question, and if enough people agree, the question will be closed whether the reason given is a good one or not: that's status-by-design. The available reasons you can give are not perfect; they overlap in some places and leave gaps in others. But if TPTB did implement your suggestion, it wouldn't reduce the number of questions closed; merely change the reason given for closevotes.

And I disagree with the implication that a question should be left open unless it can be proved to fit within certain parameters. This being a site for 'linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts' there will always be a few people who mistake it for a place to ask homework questions, or basic problems like 'where do I use is rather than are?'. Some of these would fit on ELL rather than ELU, but many would not (see https://english.meta.stackexchange.com/a/4155/8019). If a question does not show a minimum of research, it should be closed rather than transferred, regardless of whether a single online resource can be cited.

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    I think we are much much heavier on "English language enthusiasts" than we are on "linguists and etymologists". And as for "serious enthusiasts", that counts anybody with strong opinions on what is "correct", regardless of their origin. This is more usually a bug than a feature. Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 17:18
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    If this is a site for "serious English language enthusiasts," the world at large has not gotten the message. Despite the best efforts of the serial closers, the vast majority of questions we get are practical and relatively simple queries from non-enthusiasts, as has always been the case. And really, why should anyone expect anything different from a site called "English Language & Usage"? Why would anyone who sees the front page and the kinds of questions that are asked here believe that practical non-enthusiast questions are not welcome?
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 16:47
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    @phenry: What casual browsers believe does not affect the fact that ELU, like all SE sites, depends on the interest of experts to continue functioning. Whether a question is interesting does not depend on who asks it, but that cuts both ways; no site can answer every question asked on the subject of English, and the limits of this one are published criteria that exclude "simple and basic questions". There is currently a debate on ELL concerning which questions they should accept; you might like to take part. But homework-level questions here will (and should, IMO) be closed. Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 22:29
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    I would argue that my proposal plus the preexisting prohibition of simple proofreading questions are sufficient to take care of homework questions. All I am suggesting is that before people vote to close a question for being simple and basic, they should be expected to demonstrate that it is in fact a simple and basic question--a task that by definition will be, yes, simple and basic to accomplish.
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 22:41
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    @TimLymington - So the [homework] tag is just a lure for you to trap and humiliate the unsuspecting?
    – Martin F
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 5:37
  • @martinf: There is a difference between homework-level questions, which should be answerable by rereading your textbook, and questions set as homework, some of which raise interesting points. There is an ethical question about whether we as a site should encourage studants to farm their homework out on the Internet, discussed at meta.english.stackexchange.com/q/333/8019 and elsewhere; the [homework] tag is a result of that discussion. But it remains the case that What is the plural of this word? is no more welcome here than How do I calculate a sine is welcome on Maths.SE. (cont) Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 11:16
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    English Language Learners was set up for precisely this reason, and questions are closed because it is less humiliating for the question to be marked 'out of place' and possibly transferred than for basic flaws to be picked apart by experts (note that half the questions with the [homework] tag have in fact been closed). If you have any ideas about how to discourage basic questions, by all means suggest them; but the help page already has several paragraphs designed to do precisely that (english.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic). Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 11:28
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    Actually, @TimLymington, ELL was specifically not set up to be a dumping ground for questions that ELU doesn't want. If that is what ELL has become, then it has failed, and the beta should be shut down.
    – phenry
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 21:38
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    @phenry I'm answering your query – or rather demand – in your comment in the 'arose / arisen etc' thread here. To hopefully avoid third party embarrassment. I treat the 'general reference' close vote as both (1) what it says and (2) a nicer way of saying 'Simple and basic questions are valid and important, and ELL was set up to handle them; ELU assumes a basic level of proficiency in grammar and vocabulary, and evidence of personal attempts to research questions, especially attempts to see if they've already been answered'. Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 0:31
  • MετάEd states: 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. Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 0:37
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    @MartinF "There is a difference between homework-level questions, which should be answerable by rereading your textbook..." Yes, they most certainly should however in the real world the chances of a given textbook actually being a good one, at least good enough to be written clearly and not introduce confusion to the reader that only arose after having consoled the textbook... those chances are only about 50/50.
    – Sk Johnson
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 3:26

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