StackExchange is all about answering questions and spreading knowledge. However there comes a point where particular types of questions are getting asked repeatedly, despite being relatively easy to look up, that one wonders whether any actual learning is going on. What can or should we be doing about this beyond mildly prodding the questioner?

Obviously this thought was brought on by the current stream of "What's the difference?" questions, but it could apply to many other types of question. I've no objection to answering them, but I do begin to wonder whether I ought to be telling the questioner how to find out for themselves rather than let them continue with the lazy option.

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    You're kind of cheating the system here: questions with answers can't be directly deleted by the OP for good reason; and altering the body like this is against etiquette as the answers no longer reflect what was asked, potentially making answerers look foolish. If you want it deleted, leave it as is, flag it, and leave it to a moderator to judge. But defacing the question, that's a no-no. Aug 1 '11 at 15:10
  • As an alternative to deletion you can email SE and ask them to disassociate you from the content Aug 1 '11 at 15:16
  • @MrD: I did flag it as such a week ago, validly apparently. I got tired of waiting. Disassociation would still leave me passively supporting Jeff's behavior, and that's not something I find acceptable.
    – user1579
    Aug 1 '11 at 17:48
  • Please explain why this question should be deleted—we prefer not to delete content that will be valuable to other users in the future.
    – waiwai933
    Aug 18 '11 at 18:46
  • @waiwai: I can only repeat that I do not wish to passively support the bullying behaviour that has gone on unchallenged towards EL&U. If my content would be valuable to others in the future, that is supportive. Ergo... The alternative is to do something about the bullying, but I seem to be having difficulty persuading people of that.
    – user1579
    Aug 24 '11 at 11:20

With regard to the "What's the difference?" questions in particular, I think that these are perfect for a site like this.

While dictionaries (and thesauruses) can provide some indication of meaning and possible usage, English - because of its very large number of words, and its origins in (at least) two unrelated languages - is a potential minefield when it comes to subtle differences between apparently similar words.

Hence sometimes, the only way to find a decent answer is to ask it here.

As for questions where a comprehensive and unambiguous answer really can be found in a dictionary, I agree that these are of questionable value. And yet, if StackExchange sites aim to be the definitive source on a particular topic, can we ever avoid them?

  • Couldn't agree more! This question asking about the difference between different, divergent, disparate and distinct was summarily closed, but eventually reopened. I think it can be quite difficult to differentiate clearly with just a dictionary, since they don't usually go out of their way to highlight specific differences between closely-related words. Aug 4 '11 at 18:30

I ought to be telling the questioner how to find out for themselves rather than let them continue with the lazy option

Rhodri, before I post such questions, I always check with dictionary, and not one. In fact, all these questions have been with me for quite a long time - they all come from my collection of questions that I have acquired throughout the process of studying and practicing English.

Answers that I have already received here are of great great value to me. For example, the difference between "poignant" and "harrowing", or "successive" and "consecutive", or even "rock" and "stone" - the insights that I got there from the native speakers are just so enlightening! Besides, it's always good to see how different native speakers themselves view these points - from different angles, quite different from the way I would think. All of that can hardly be obtained from any dictionary.

Please, don't deprive me of such a wonderful opportunity.

Besides, please read (if you haven't yet) my answer to Robusto.

  • I am sorry, Rhodri, I don't understand, what do You mean by "missing some general case"?
    – brilliant
    Nov 30 '10 at 17:40

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