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This question highlighted a humorously incorrect use of Elizabethan-era English in a television commercial and asked how it was incorrect. In the original version of the question (since edited), the questioner added "(Hint: the problem is with the verbs.)" This question was then closed as "off-topic," with the following reason given:

Proofreading questions are off-topic unless a specific source of concern in the text is clearly identified.

Do you see what's wrong here? (Hint: the problem is with the part about "unless a specific source of concern in the text is clearly identified.")

Throughout the Stack Exchange network, you will find a strong disdain for "do my homework for me"-type questions, in which the questioner is clearly more interested in getting an answer than in understanding it. The prohibition on homework questions is fairly widespread, with different sites phrasing it in different ways:

  • On photography – “fix my picture” questions are off topic, (but specific technique requests are allowed).

  • Stack Overflow is about programming, but programming questions you’d solve on a whiteboard or that ask what’s wrong with a large block of code are no good.

At ELU, "do my homework for me" questions most often come in the form of questions that give a sentence or a paragraph and ask "What's wrong with this?" One pictures a student in an English class who's been handed an assignment and decides that asking people on Stack Exchange to answer it for free is easier than figuring out the answer—or even understanding the question—herself. It is to deal with these kinds of questions that the "proofreading" close reason exists.

This ELU blog post explains nicely the circumstances under which the "proofreading" close reason is appropriate:

At the same time, EL&U-SE has a policy that prohibits proofreading questions. Does this mean that we don’t want to help people get better at English and that we’re only here for discussing obscure questions about grammar? Of course not! The entire point of EL&U-SE, and every other SE site, is to help people learn about the subject matter. The reason we don’t allow proofreading questions is because there is nothing to be gained by a simple proofreading question—true, a sentence will be improved, but the author does not benefit from experience, nor does the community benefit, as it is statistically unlikely that some other person will come up with the same sentence.

Certainly, we could identify all the errors in a piece of writing, but that doesn’t teach the author about pronoun-antecdent agreement, about idiomatic uses, or about the differences between to, too, and two. We’d love to teach our friends about these things so that they can benefit in the long-term. So while we don’t allow general proofreading requests, proofreading requests that identify a specific area of concern are welcome.

[...]

In summary, proofreading questions, when they identify the area of concern, are welcome on EL&U-SE.

A big problem we have on ELU, and I see this in action almost every day, is that of moderators or close-voters deciding "I don't like this question" and then selecting whatever close reason seems to be closest to the reason they don't like it. That's not how it's supposed to work. If the proofreading reason says "unless a specific source of concern in the text is clearly identified," and the question clearly identifies a specific source of concern, then you don't get to use that reason to close the question. If you can't find any close reason that fits, then maybe you shouldn't be voting to close the question at all.

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    I take it you're one of the (currently 3) users who've voted to reopen (I'm another). Generally speaking I'm not interested in the finer points of Elizabethan "grammar" - but since that one is actually topical, I think it's perfectly reasonable to ask how Shakespeare might have phrased it (as an informal joke over a pint down at The Mermaid, I mean - not in one of his actual plays! :) – FumbleFingers Feb 17 '14 at 5:23
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    The first (Elizabethan English) question has been re-opened, although I suspect that the objection was mainly to the quiz nature of the question. "Do you know? Cos I'm going to tell you anyway." – Andrew Leach Feb 18 '14 at 11:02
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A big problem we have on ELU, and I see this in action almost every day, is that of moderators or close-voters deciding "I don't like this question" and then selecting whatever close reason seems to be closest to the reason they don't like it.

Feel free to call out specific instances of this when you encounter them (just as you did here) but I think part of the problem is that there are a large number of terrible questions that deserve to be closed but the closed reasons don't give us quite the right excuse. So we just pick the closest available and call it good. (The current popular two seem to be Proofreading and General Reference -- ever since we were chastised for suggesting migration to ELL.)

The fundamental question around closing posts like these is whether answering the question will help anyone other than the person asking the question. In the question you linked we can all learn a little about Elizabethan usage so it seems fine but most of the questions closed are of the form:

What is wrong with the sentence? [Example goes here.]

This has a sister form of:

Is [example A] better than [example B]?

Neither of these are inherently interesting and, by their nature, limit answers to content that is very unlikely to help anyone other than the asker. Therefore, I think most questions of this type should be closed. (The linked Elizabethan question just happens to be interesting in spite of it matching the pattern.)

This leaves us with choosing an appropriate Close Reason. But, unfortunately, most of the Close Reasons are confusingly worded or poorly bucketed. Sometimes we can get away with a General Reference closing but if that fails the only other suitable catchall is Proofreading.

What we really need is, "This question is worded in a way that makes it unhelpful to others with similar questions." There used to be a Too Narrow option that fit relatively well but I suspect it was removed for being a catchall.


By the way, people are obviously free to disagree with my desire to close many of these questions and I think the push and pull is healthy. My main point is that I disagree with this:

If you can't find any close reason that fits, then maybe you shouldn't be voting to close the question at all.

If I cannot find a close reason that fits it is because the close reasons aren't doing their job. The goal is to close terrible questions; the reasons are there to help posters understand why their posts were closed and offer advice so they can avoid posting terrible questions in the future.

To phrase this another way, a bad question should be closed and it is better to close a bad question with a slightly incorrect close reason than it is to leave it open and encourage more bad questions like it.

It is not, however, okay to close a good question just because it happens to look like a bad question. I would argue that your linked question is an example of that.


To extend this post even further, the reason I care about this is because EL&U has a serious problem with its question quality. Over the past two days, the Close Votes moderation queue has been so full I couldn't make it through without running out of votes. The Unanswered section is hovering at 300 questions. We have 70 questions with no votes and no answers.

This suggests that EL&U is:

  • Asking lots of uninteresting or unexciting questions
  • People are not downvoting these bad questions
  • People are not voting to close these bad questions
  • People are not upvoting answers
  • People are posting answers in comments instead of answers in answers (usually because they find the question uninteresting or are too lazy to verify that their answer is actually correct)

The problem isn't that we are closing questions with the wrong reason. The problem is that we aren't doing anything with questions that no one wants to answer.

  • +1 for running out of votes on the Close Votes moderation! Same thing happened to me. There is a specific run of questions by a single poster who is asking style questions that could easily be looked up in a manual of style! – David M Mar 2 '14 at 6:37
  • Actually, ELU has one of the highest percentage of answered questions in the network, with only 4 non-beta sites ranking higher--none of which has even a third as many questions as we do. The average non-beta SE site has an unanswered rate higher than 14 percent. Ours is less than 1 percent. Close queue? The Stack Overflow close queue has more than 100,000 questions in it. I think we can manage with 30. If these things are a measure of question quality, you've proven exactly the opposite of what you set out to show. – phenry Mar 3 '14 at 18:02
  • @phenry: Hang on; you are complaining about our way of doing things but then note that our stats are better than other sites? So... our way works? In any case, I think EL&U does have a serious problem concerning question quality. Whether other sites have a worse problem isn't really that relevant. EL&U should easily have less than 150 Unanswered questions. We should care even if other sites don't. – MrHen Mar 3 '14 at 19:41

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