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Many people at ELU seem to view the relationship between seekers and givers of knowledge as being essentially transactional in nature: the job of the questioner is to state his or her question simply and clearly, and the job of the answerer is to provide an answer that fulfills the questioner's requirements as nearly as possible, provided that the question itself meets certain minimum standards. To this end, they are quick to close questions that they feel are "bad," sometimes resorting to ill-fitting close reasons in order to do so, as though the questioner has failed to fulfill his or her part of the bargain by submitting a question that does not measure up to what they have decided are the minimum standards for questions. I believe that this view fundamentally misreads the dynamic underlying ELU and the rest of the Stack Exchange network, by omitting any consideration of some of the most important parties in the relationship: those who will come later.

When Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky founded Stack Overflow, their vision for the site was "Experts Exchange that doesn't suck." Experts Exchange is a programming Q&A site that had gained a reputation for underhanded tactics such as showing up in Google searches with what looked like freely viewable answers that were actually very difficult to access without paying for membership. Stack Overflow, Jeff and Joel decided, would do well by doing good: it would succeed by offering something of value to the programming community without charge, making it freely available not only to regular users but to casual Googlers as well.

This ethos has been engineered into the sites of the Stack Exchange network at a low level. In addition to the well-known "anyone can ask a question" feature, these sites are designed to surface content on search engines so that if someone goes to Google or Bing with a question about programming—or photography, video games, cooking, English, whatever—and a question like it has been answered somewhere on the network, they'll see that question and have easy access to the answer. Get a few of your questions answered that way, the theory goes, and you'll get to know Stack Exchange as a resource, and eventually you'll start participating yourself, and maybe you'll explore the rest of the network and find a site where you're one of the experts who can answer questions rather than just a supplicant who asks them. By any measure, that strategy has worked fabulously well, and is likely to continue doing so.

When we answer a question at ELU, therefore, we don't just provide an answer for the person who originally asked the question. We provide it for the hundreds or even thousands of people who might benefit from our answer in the future. And that obligates us to look for ways to provide the best answer we can, even if the way the question has been asked isn't entirely to our liking.

So suppose someone comes along and asks whether it's better to say "It is cold outside" or "It is frigid outside." We could respond by brusquely replying (in a comment, probably) that they both mean pretty much the same thing, and vote to close as General Reference, because get a dictionary, dummy. That's one way we could handle it. Alternatively, we could say that cold comes from the Old English ceald, and that frigid derives, ultimately, from the Latin frigidus, and is cognate with the French frigide. And we might observe that English seems to have so many more pairs of synonyms for basic concepts than most other European languages do. And we might note that whenever you come across a pair of synonyms for a basic concept, it's likely that one of the words will be of Anglo-Saxon origin and the other will derive from French or Latin, and that when that happens the Latinate word is invariably perceived as "fancier" than the Anglo-Saxon word. And that's because for several centuries after the Norman conquest, French was the language of the nobility in England while English was the language of the commoners, and even today the French-derived words in our language are generally perceived as being appropriate for a more formal register than their English equivalents, and isn't it interesting how the royal ambitions of William the Conqueror continue to affect the language we use everyday a thousand years later. And just like that, we've written a kickass answer that is likely to educate and entertain literally thousands of people over the next several years. And all because instead of just seeing a bad question, we chose to see it as a question that could—logically, reasonably, and in a way that gives the questioner the information she needs—lead to a good answer.

"But phenry, won't a permissive attitude toward subpar questions be bad for the site? Instead of teaching people how to write better questions, you're just enabling them." You know what? I really don't care. I'm not a teacher, and this is not my classroom. My role is not to punish people for writing questions that aren't up to my standards. It's to make the world a better place by increasing the amount of knowledge in it. When you vote to close a question because you just don't like the way it was asked, the person you're really punishing is the guy who comes along a year from now who could have benefitted from a really great answer to that question, but doesn't get it because the first guy didn't recite the proper incantation when asking it, and we told him—in essence—to go away because he sucked at asking questions. That shouldn't be what we do.

When someone asks a question that you just don't like, instead of reflexively voting to close it, make an effort to find the diamond in the rough. Instead of closing as General Reference, consider whether there are nuances or connotations worth exploring that wouldn't necessarily be clear from a terse dictionary definition. Instead of closing as "unclear what you're asking," consider addressing both of the possible interpretations of the question, and explaining the difference between the two. Instead of closing as "primarily opinion-based," consider exploring why different populations might disagree on the appropriate language to use in the given scenario, and how those populations differ from one another. And if all else fails—if you ask for clarification and the original questioner doesn't respond in a reasonable amount of time—remember that if you have enough reputation to vote on closing questions, you have enough reputation to edit them too, and consider taking that bad question and making it into a good one yourself. Yes, it's more work than reflexively voting to close, but no one ever said making the world a better place would be easy.

  • You don't care? I don't care that you don't care. – Matt E. Эллен Feb 18 '14 at 16:38
  • And I don't care that you don't care. Well, that was fun. – phenry Feb 18 '14 at 16:39
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    I care. – Mitch Feb 18 '14 at 16:41
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    I hate to think that this smart, thoughtful post may inadvertently have contributed to the replacement of the General Reference close reason with the Fail to Show Research close reason. The GR close reason invited controversy over what constitutes "general reference," but at least it tried to explain why a question might be fundamentally unsuitable for EL&U. In stark, bureaucratic contrast, the Show Research close reason doesn't address the usefulness and legitimacy of the question itself at all; it just refuses to consider those issues until the poster supplies the obligatory documentation. – Sven Yargs Aug 9 '18 at 20:57
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Yes, it's more work than reflexively voting to close, but no one ever said making the world a better place would be easy.

This is (at least) the second time you use such hyperbole to describe what is accomplished on EL&U. I find this hyperbole to be at best unhelpful to your cause.

I don't like closing questions, and will rarely vote to do so unless the question is answered in an adequate way, either in comments, given answers, or a good duplicate (which means I've scrolled through it, and found a good answer to the OP's question, discernible without too much effort on the OP's part. But I do care. I've often answered questions simply for lack of these existing answers.

You say,

I'm not a teacher, and this is not my classroom.

Please know that this is likewise not your website. Although I empathize with you quite a bit, I find lengthy diatribes not only wearying, but counterproductive. You can't browbeat the community into meeting your standards. It's a community. That's also the model.

  • ...which is why this is tagged for discussion, and not as a proposal. I plead guilty to being provocative; I wish to start a conversation about the way certain things are done here that I believe are harmful to the site and its user base, and that's going to mean challenging some beliefs and preconceptions. Either my point of view will carry the day, or--as is far more likely--it won't. But I certainly don't apologize for trying to get the discussion started. – phenry Feb 18 '14 at 20:38
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    @phenry - Wow, has it been a long time since I wrote this. Not sure why this popped up, but I apologize right now for the tone of this answer. Browbeat away! Hyperbolize! You do it with more style, passion, and conviction than anyone else I can think of. I know I came mighty close to being a follower before, but you've been gone too long. :-( – anongoodnurse Dec 23 '15 at 6:37
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It's a very long "question" (diatribe, more like), so I can't begin to address all the points raised. But I will make a few pertinent observations...


Even blatantly Off Topic questions aren't immediately closed - for five days they're On Hold. And although we normally think in terms of the Original Poster editing to get a "salvageable" question re-opened, there's nothing to stop other users with sufficient rep from doing this.

Let's not forget that quite often, the Original Poster is simply a "drive-by" who's never going to come back to fix a badly-framed question. Although our OP here (phenry) votes to reopen a lot of questions, I can't say I've ever noticed a case where he's edited the question text to address the reasons why it was closed (I myself sometimes do this, particularly when I see that the OP hasn't been back to ELU for several days after asking the question).


Obviously there is room for disagreement over what constitutes "General Reference". For example, I personally think Professor of/in English is GR because it's trivial to search Google Internet or Books and compare the numbers (although as I write 17 hours after it was asked, only one other person has agreed with me). But the question clearly doesn't interest the community; there are no net upvotes for the question or answers.


Taking just that particular "preposition use" question above, I would not have closevoted if it had been asked on English Language Learners. Indeed, if it had been asked there, and closevoted by others, and the OP hadn't revised the text, I'd probably have edited it myself to ask why we favour "of" over "in" for the specific context being queried. But that's just my ELU/ELL distinction.


Finally, whilst I realise people will have their own reasons for voting or not voting, I find it rather surprising that a user of over 3 years standing, complaining here about how ELU works, should have cast barely 300 votes in all that time. How are future visitors supposed to know if answers are good or bad, when the people who (hopefully) do know don't vote?

  • I'm sorry that you've chosen to make this personal, but if my voting record isn't where you'd like it to be, it's because I've had a few prolonged periods of absence from this site due to other commitments (notably for a year and a half between early 2012 and mid-2013). I believe you'll find that my vote totals for the week and the month are well in line with those of other users with similar levels of activity. – phenry Feb 21 '14 at 23:34
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    @phenry: I did preface that final section by acknowledging that people may have perfectly valid reasons for not voting. And even though it may not seem like it to you, the primary purpose of making that point at all wasn't to make a personal attack - it was to encourage other users reading it to think "Oh! maybe I should vote more often!". This question just gave me a chance to slip it in, that's all. I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused. – FumbleFingers Feb 21 '14 at 23:48
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If you wished to discuss what people do on ELU, this would be a good place to do it. If you wish to discuss (and deprecate) what other users think, it is not. Your belief also appears staggeringly arrogant and unsupported by the evidence; but, as you say, you don't care about that. Your opinions, and the reasons for them, are your business alone.

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    Well now, that's a strange thing to say. If this is "not the place" to advocate for a point of view in an effort to influence how people think the site should be run, then that would seem to eliminate much of the justification for having a meta site at all. As to whether I'm "arrogant," well, that's a common gripe about this place, so maybe it just means I'm fitting in. – phenry Feb 18 '14 at 20:25
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When we answer a question at ELU, therefore, we don't just provide an answer for the person who originally asked the question. We provide it for the hundreds or even thousands of people who might benefit from our answer in the future. And that obligates us to look for ways to provide the best answer we can, even if the way the question has been asked isn't entirely to our liking.

I would go even further and say that this is the explicit purpose of asking and answering questions. If a question is not answerable in a way that helps future visitors then it is a useless question and should be removed so we can focus on the questions that will help others.

The primary audience should be future visitors; not the individual who actually asked the question.

So suppose [...] asks whether it's better to say "It is cold outside" or "It is frigid outside." We could [...] vote to close as General Reference. [...] Alternatively, we could say that cold comes from the Old English ceald, and that frigid derives, ultimately, from the Latin frigidus, and is cognate with the French frigide. [...]

You could add all that detail but you shouldn't for a few reasons.

  • The person who asked whether to use cold or frigid doesn't care about your details. They want an answer to the question they asked.
  • The people who land on the page by searching (our future visitors) will click based on the question being asked and users who would care about all that detail already know the differences between cold and frigid. So they are unlikely to ever read all those details.
  • EL&U is not hoping to replace the dictionary. It is also not hoping to replace the General Reference etymology sources. So we close stuff that people can just look up elsewhere to free up content creators to spend their time answering interesting questions that bring in future visitors looking for interesting details.
  • EL&U is not here to teach people the basics of English.
  • EL&U is not here to teach people how to use a dictionary or look up basic etymology. We don't need to give them a link to the General Reference; we just need to tell them they can easily look it up on their own.

"But phenry, won't a permissive attitude toward subpar questions be bad for the site? Instead of teaching people how to write better questions, you're just enabling them."

We don't close bad questions because we are trying to avoid enabling poor posters. If a good question exists underneath a poorly written question we can edit it to bring it up to our standards and then answer the question.

We close bad questions because they sit around and never get answered. Or people rush to post really short, crappy answers in order to farm reputation. Or post what they think is a really good answer only to find out that the question was asking something else entirely but due to terrible quality it was ambiguous.

You know what? I really don't care. I'm not a teacher, and this is not my classroom. My role is not to punish people for writing questions that aren't up to my standards.

It is, however, my role. I volunteered for that role by voting to close questions, editing posts and voting on posts. I am not perfect; I make mistakes; but over the years of trying to improve the quality of EL&U I have built up patterns of behavior defended by what I consider very good reasons.

And, for the record, closing or downvoting a post isn't an attempt to punish users. It is an attempt to guide the proactive, content-generating users toward the most likely path for success. "Don't look here; there isn't anything valuable here. Go that way instead."

It's to make the world a better place by increasing the amount of knowledge in it. When you vote to close a question because you just don't like the way it was asked, the person you're really punishing is the guy who comes along a year from now who could have benefitted from a really great answer to that question, but doesn't get it because the first guy didn't recite the proper incantation when asking it, and we told him—in essence—to go away because he sucked at asking questions. That shouldn't be what we do.

Wrong. The person who benefits the most from closing a terrible question is the one who would have mistook it for something interesting when it was actually crap.

What I find a little amusing about your entire premise is that you seem to want to hide really interesting information underneath a really terrible question. Why not ask a really interesting question and then put the information there? That way the person who is looking for the interesting information can actually find it.

When someone asks a question that you just don't like, instead of reflexively voting to close it, make an effort to find the diamond in the rough.

I do. But most times there isn't one. I have repeatedly posted a detailed answer to a rather simple question just because it fits well. I have edited bad questions into good questions and watched the interesting answers roll in.

But that doesn't mean I should let terrible questions lie there and distract people from the interesting things we have to offer.

Instead of closing as General Reference, consider whether there are nuances or connotations worth exploring that wouldn't necessarily be clear from a terse dictionary definition.

And if there isn't any nuance or connotation worth exploring? Then what?

Instead of closing as "unclear what you're asking," consider addressing both of the possible interpretations of the question, and explaining the difference between the two.

This suggestion is bad because it makes it harder to search for things and makes future duplicate hunting a royal pain. There isn't any reason to rush to answer the question instead of calmly, patiently, asking for clarification.

Instead of closing as "primarily opinion-based," consider exploring why different populations might disagree on the appropriate language to use in the given scenario, and how those populations differ from one another.

I also disagree with this. "Primarily opinion-based" is the answer. People asking questions here (and future visitors looking for answers) are looking for a concrete, definitive answer. Distracting them with lots of detail about the various possible answers isn't inherently helpful.

And if all else fails—if you ask for clarification and the original questioner doesn't respond in a reasonable amount of time—remember that if you have enough reputation to vote on closing questions, you have enough reputation to edit them too, and consider taking that bad question and making it into a good one yourself. Yes, it's more work than reflexively voting to close, but no one ever said making the world a better place would be easy.

Yeah, we do this. Or, some of us do. But sometimes bad questions are just bad. And that's why we close them.


As a further note, the world will not weep if we accidently close a question that could have been saved. EL&U is a site driven by community posted content. When we run out of questions and topics to post about then we can start being more conservative in closing posts down. Until then, all that interesting stuff you know about English can be added to a relevant, good question somewhere else on the site.

There is quite a bit of value in cleaning out subpar material. I brought up quite a few reasons above but the fundemental reason is that the community content creators only have so much time to post content and they are already struggling to keep up with the current demand. Why make them answer yet another thesaurus question?

The other main reason to get rid of crap questions is because they are boring. They are boring to read; they are boring to answer; and the answers are boring to read. You argue that anyone can turn an uninteresting question into an interesting answer but this just isn't very common. Most people don't want to do that. And, because so many of the questions are boring, we risk losing our true experts -- the ones who are only engaged by the very interesting questions. Now, those really, truly interesting questions often sit in the Unanswered queue for months.

Which leads me to the final challenge for you: If you really want to write up some interesting answers, go find the interesting questions. You don't need to waste time turning an uninteresting question into an interesting answer; there are enough interesting questions already ready to go. Start there. When you run out of those, we can talk about closing too many questions.

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  The person who asked whether to use cold or frigid doesn't care about your details. 

How do you know whether the OP (or any reader, for that matter) would be interested in learning the details or not? You are maybe not interested in details, but many people have highly inquisitive minds and most of those people do actually want to know the juicy details.

  The people who land on the page by searching (our future visitors) will  
  click based on the question being asked and users who would care about 
  all that detail already know the differences between cold and frigid. 
  So they are unlikely to ever read all those details.

Actually, I found this site because I read the snippet of text highlighted in Google's brief descriptions and I was intrigued by the context of the discussions being had, not the wording of the question that started the discussions. Such discussions are often developed over long periods of time and by the continued efforts of people in this community who occasionally revisit, reconsider, and respark old discussions with new ideas or changing perspectives.

  EL&U is not hoping to replace the dictionary. It is also not hoping to 
  replace the General Reference etymology sources. 

Which is exactly why just giving straight-to-the-point answers, simple answers should not be the default response protocol followed. If the OP is concerned with the difference between synonyms enough to bother coming here to ask about it, then they must be seeking something more than just the basics.

  So we close stuff that people can just look up elsewhere to free up 
  content creators to spend their time answering interesting 
  questions that bring in future visitors.

What brings future and return visitors is the opportunity to participate in whatever discussions they might stumble-upon while exploring the site and the added bonus of the enjoying the rewarding feeling one experiences when carrying out acts of kindness or helping others. The questions that kick-off some of the most fascinating and informative discussions to be had on a subject; But the questions themselves tend to be very poor flagships for purposes of generating interest anew.

  ...looking for interesting details.

But, wait... didn't you just say that visitors don't care about phenry's details? Details or no details, which is it? You've contradicted your own previous answer.

  We close bad questions because they sit around and never get answered. 

Precisely why those particular questions should be left open to debate or be promoted with additional exposure to more and more people, in the hopes that it will eventually become an answered question. Closing unanswered questions just appears, to me, to be the equivalent of sweeping the dust pile under a rug instead of out the house... a hiding away of anything not pretty and perfect.

  And, for the record, closing or downvoting a post isn't an attempt 
  to punish users. It is an attempt to guide the proactive, 
  content-generating users toward the most likely path for success. 
  "Don't look here; there isn't anything valuable here. Go that way 
  instead."

And who decides for the world at large whether/in what other people will find something of value? Especially since much of what becomes most valuable to people are those things that they are allowed to explore freely and ponder over for long periods of time. Not allowing simple questions/answers to sit and stew in people minds for some time will never generate new value for something else, once removed. Potential value is lost not redistributed.

  Wrong. The person who benefits the most from closing a terrible 
  question is the one who would have mistook it for something 
  interesting when it was actually crap.

Arrogant, much? You keep suggesting that you think your opinion should be the law. What makes you so sure that you would know what the rest of the world thinks about something?

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    Please note that StackExchange is not a discussion forum, and answers, even on Meta, should primarily address the original question. You can reference other answers in yours, but this quickly becomes confusing, because posts do not appear in chronological order, and because that is the purpose of comments as opposed to answers. I encourage you to take the site tour and review the help center. – choster Dec 18 '15 at 22:29
  • Which is why I quoted what I was responding to. So you're telling me a rebuttal to the OPs suggestion is OK but a rebuttal to the rebuttal, which is therefore in favor of the OP's suggestion, is not OK? Well that doesn't seem very fair to the OP. – Sk Johnson Dec 20 '15 at 16:47

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