Also see: Proposal: Add a “too basic”/“uninteresting” off-topic option

It is clear that many close-voters use the "commonly available references" option as a catchall for questions that they just don't like for one reason or another, regardless of whether the answer to the question can actually be found in a commonly available reference. Not only is this capricious, unfriendly, and unfair, but by making it difficult for a reasonable person to determine what is or is not "off-topic" here, it actually encourages the submission of low-quality questions. This is exactly the situation that SE Community Coordinator Shog9 was hoping to avoid when he strongly urged us to clearly define what constitutes General Reference at this site—which we have never done. I therefore submit a proposal that, alone or in concert with the other proposal I am submitting today, will help resolve the current untenable situation.

I recommend that the "commonly available references" off-topic option be replaced with the following:

Proposed new off-topic option

When selecting this option, the close-voter will be required to supply a URL from a set of whitelisted domains. Initially, the whitelist should include the following domains, taken from our standard list: dictionary.cambridge.org, dictionary.reference.com, thefreedictionary.com, merriam-webster.com, oxforddictionaries.com, etymonline.com, onelook.com, thesaurus.com. Others may be added as appropriate. If the voter does not supply a URL, or the URL is not from a whitelisted domain, the system shall not permit the vote to be submitted. Shog9 expressly endorsed the whitelist idea during the recent moderator election, which leads me to believe that the Stack Exchange software is likely to support it.

This change will not impose a significant burden on close-voters. If a voter cannot find an appropriate link within about 30 seconds of searching, then the question is not General Reference, almost by definition, and should not be closed as such. If we explain clearly why a question is GR and show how easily it can be answered, it is more likely to help dissuade the OP and others from asking similar questions in the future than just mysteriously closing questions with a link to three dozen sources of varying quality and purpose. If they end up bookmarking the reference we send them to and returning to it in the future, we win and they win.

Also see: Proposal: Add a “too basic”/“uninteresting” off-topic option. I've tried raising these issues before, and nothing came of it. It's time for some straightforward, actionable proposals that can be accepted or rejected. I have made two separate proposals because I believe they can be effective singly or together, and should be voted on independently of one another. Personally, I would prefer to enact this one and reject the other one, but anything would be preferable to the current practice of saying one thing and doing another. On a website that's explicitly devoted to communication, let's at least make a concerted effort to say what we mean and mean what we say.

  • 5
    Only if it’s a LMGTFY link.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 1:31
  • @tchrist Maybe the SE software could automatically turn it into a LMGTFY link if it wasn't one already. Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 4:57

4 Answers 4


Worst idea ever.

If we give them the link, we are completely defeating the whole point, we are just doing what they want and training them to be gimme-the-codez beggars.

This has been raised many time before, and shot down every time for this very reason.

Furthermore, it dramatically fails the litmus test of whether it improves the quality of the site for now and for posterity. It does not. It waters it down to just another link-nest. We want people pointing to the site, not away from it.

As I believe it was Tim Lymington who expressed, more eloquently than I can, that there are nothing shy of an infinite number of questions that run:

  • What tense is this?
  • What is the plural of that?

We have no business answering those, nor tolerating them. They are ineffably trivial questions that help no one but the unstudious questioner who was too lazy to do any research and justs shows up here with a gimme. They just set up a pattern of broken windows. They drag the site down into triviality. They will drive everyone away who is capable of improving this site.

And it will never, ever stop.

There are, quite literally billions and billions of potential questioners out there all around the world, each an every one of them with the nearly limitless capacity of asking thousands and thousands of these questions.

ELU is not the place for those, and if it becomes such, you can kiss all hope of ever setting another quality answer goodbye, because that sort of mindless drivel by lazy gimme-the-codez posters will drive everyone away who actually knows anything.

This proposal asks for nothing less than this. It must be shot down if ELU is to stand any chance of making the internet a better place, not just of satisfying the selfish urges of those who cannot ever be bothered to look anything up for themselves, who cannot be bothered to propose their own theories and present their own research, or even formulate a question more complex in structure or thought than "What is the past tense of check?"

  • 3
    Has it been shot down? I posed a more discussiony version of this proposal several months ago and it currently has 16 upvotes. Shog9's plea to do essentially this has 17 upvotes. 13 votes here, 7 votes here, etc., etc....
    – phenry
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 22:53
  • 1
    This reason doesn't sound right to me. phenry's suggestion will just give them a link; OP will have to find where on the, say, Wiki page the answer is. If it's not there, OP can edit. It doesn't indulge laziness any more than a comment/answer with the link (or close as Duplicate), which is what is done now. And it's more helpful than just closing. It seems more likely to me that this will lead to more "reopen" Meta posts, edits because links do not answer question, etc. -- things that are not bad in themselves, but which may lead to things like less interesting questions getting bumped.
    – user39720
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 23:10
  • 5
    @dingo_dan, I'm with tchrist with this one: the point if saying look it up is so the querent learns the process and value of looking things up for himself. Let's not lose sight of the fact that it's a rare (and unusually incomprehensible) question indeed which gets closed as GR without additional -- and typically informative -- comments from fluent users, either pointing OP in the right direction, if not giving him the answer outright. We should also draw a distinction between GR questions which show no effort or research and those which do - the latter being received quite differently.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 23:24
  • 4
    @Dan That's a good point, and we should perhaps revive the Meta post on creating a "Needs more research" close reason.
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 0:18
  • 1
    @Kit, not sure if this is the question you have in mind, but I think Andrew Leach's answer to it is the perfect solution to the conundrum raised by this question and the related proposal. If implemented as a policy, it would ensure the standards of the site are maintained, without prematurely shifting the burden of research from the asker to the answerer (as I'm anxious phenry's "whitelist" proposal would).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 0:27
  • Note there is a related frustration being discussed at Meta.ELL as well.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 0:30
  • I don't understand how this creates broken windows or trains people to ask bad questions here. I already leave comments like this on most questions I vote to close for being answerable in a commonly available reference. I also downvote the question. A users who repeatedly asks questions that are closed and downvoted is on track for a question-ban.
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 0:34
  • @suməlic That was a couple of years ago. Let me please reconsider for a spell.
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 0:55
  • @suməlic What about like this?
    – tchrist Mod
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 4:18
  • @tchrist: yeah, that seems fine. And the answers on the linked question mention encyclopedias as one type of generally available reference.
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 21:36

The strongest argument in favor of this change is that it forces close-voters to mean what they say when they assert that an answer is available in a general reference. Unfortunately, to the extent that "closed: general reference" is a catch-all for questions rejected because they fall into specific (but unspoken) categories such as "closed: dumb question," "closed: nobody cares," "closed: poster hasn't shown enough effort," "closed: poster doesn't seem to know anything about the subject," "closed: poster should have asked on ELL," and "closed: it's probably a duplicate, but I don't want to have to hunt down the original question," it's a false and misleading category name that gives the OP—and a multitude of prospective questioners who may be poised to ask similar questions—no clear idea of what's really wrong with the question.

It seems to me that the first step that EL&U should take in assessing the success and usefulness of each of its close reasons is to ask and answer this question: "Who[m] is this close reason primarily designed to benefit?" If the answer is "Everyone," then the close reason really ought to benefit everyone—and not just the hard-working, devoted people who are trying to reduce the number of junk questions in the system. If the answer is "Posters," then each close reason ought to provide a clear and accurate explanation of what is wrong with the disabled question—not some vague disqualification that often doesn't fit the situation.

And if the answer is "EL&U moderators and clean-up crews," perhaps we should dispense with the pretense that we use the vague language of "closed: general reference" out of concern for the feelings of posters whose questions have been closed, and acknowledge that what we're really after is a way to quickly remove questions we dislike—not to turn such rejections into "teaching moments" to help posters who ask bad questions upgrade their questions.

But in that case, why provide an illusory explanation such as "closed: general reference" when the problem isn't that the answer to the question can be found in an unspecified general reference? Why mislead posters with a false reason when we could use a more honest formulation such as "closed: reason not specified" or "closed: other"? If the point isn't to help the posters in these cases, why give them a reason for the rejection at all? And conversely, if the point, at least in part, is to help them, why not tell them the truth about why we find their question objectionable?

Surely everyone on this site has had the experience of being put on hold or otherwise given the runaround—or of being rejected outright—by a bureaucracy or an automated system on grounds that seem flimsy, irrelevant, or generically dismissive. It's not a good feeling. I would much rather be told what's really wrong with my application, filing, or question than be given a reason that doesn't make sense. I think people who ask bad questions on EL&U deserve similar honesty, as a sign of respect. There are good, clear reasons to reject bad questions; why not use them?

  • 2
    Agreed with overall sentiment; in response to the final question: because those reasons aren't available to us. I would much rather "close as better asked on ELL", which I think would account for 90% of the questions we currently close as "GR". But I can't. I would much rather "close as not demonstrating effort or independent research", which I believe would account for another 90% of the questions we currently close as "GR", but I can't. I would be so grateful to be able to close as "Too Localized"... but I can't.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 8:33
  • 1
    There's already too many questions (clutter) that are really basic on EL&U. If a user is keen, and really wants an answer or help there are ways to help that person. And that user should be guided to make questions that fit the Q&A criteria. There should be more users editing, improving posts; including legibility and "interpreting" the original question but not rewriting it as if you were the questioner.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 9:04
  • "I would much rather be told what's really wrong with my application, filing, or question than be given a reason that doesn't make sense" I've been saying that for "years" regarding anonymous downvotes.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 9:08
  • @Mari-LouA: Unfortunately, very many people who say that (not you, I am sure) actually mean "I would like to be given an opportunity to argue with the person who downvoted me". Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 17:50

Not the best idea ever

Let us take this example of a question that is currently on the road to being put on hold: Present perfect or past perfect?

I saw this question in my review queue, it is a question which has been asked numerous times, but because of its title, it's damn difficult to find a duplicate. It took me about 15 minutes to find one, and one where the answer(s) are particularly helpful. Until yesterday, so to speak, I would have clicked GR (which it is, because there are hundreds of websites—some more excellent than others—dedicated to teaching basic English.) I defy anyone to say that is not a basic English question for this site, but now; if I've understood correctly, we are being asked to find the one link which specifically addresses the OP's problem before voting it on hold as GR.

When selecting this option, the close-voter will be required to supply a URL from a set of whitelisted domains.

Instead today what do we have? On this question we have one close vote saying it is "unclear", and two for "off topic", I've added my "this is a duplicate" close vote. Unless SE finds a more efficient quicker way for finding duplicate answers, I don't see myself spending 20 minutes or more looking for old questions that are related or are duplicates every time a basic English question is asked.

There needs to be a canonical post dealing with the present perfect, past simple and past perfect; something which StoneyB has prepared for ELL. We need to direct these type of answers to that post, but only after careful consideration, sensibly and not in an automatic knee jerk reaction. Which I confess, I have occasionally fallen into the trap of doing when selecting GR.

  • I do think we need more reference Q&As. But they take time to write when people could go and spend some effort actually looking themselves. Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 11:10
  • @curiousdannii EL&U's search machine is not the easiest, fastest way of finding questions that relate directly to OP's queries. I've grown to love its quirks and its idiosyncrasies over time....
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 11:16
  • Just because a question is "too basic for this site" emphatically DOES NOT MEAN THAT IT IS GENERAL REFERENCE! There are very basic grammar questions for which there is no general reference source, because most of the time, grammar questions are not the sort of thing you can look up. If you don't know that direct objects are called direct objects, the chapter in the grammar book titled Direct Objects might as well be titled Uradalmi Gazdaság.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 18:12
  • 4
    @Marthaª I have on more than one occasion found and posted duplicate questions, and voted to close questions for other reasons than GR. I have made an alternative proposal, and I have also explained why providing a single link is impractical. There is no need to shout at me.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 19:05
  • @Marthaª The point of General Reference is that it is for the OP to demonstrate that it is not GR.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 15:47

I think this is an excellent idea and I fully support it, provided that it can be done in a technical sense. I think General Reference is hugely misused, and ironically often applied to duplicate questions. This solution encourages the community at large to demonstrate that the question is in fact a general reference according to our nominal standard.

I'd like to also encourage close-voters to search the site for identical questions prior to closing a question that was asked before and determined to be on-topic then. I find closing a question as general reference in these cases to be extremely embarrassing.

Insofar as encouraging begging, they will beg in any case and a quick shutdown is preferable to a protracted comment chain and discussion on Meta about topicality. If I'm going to spend the time, I'd rather spend five minutes giving directions than five days arguing why they shouldn't have asked in the first place.

  • I agree with the sentiment that "they will beg anyway", which is honestly why I upvoted tchrist's answer ("billions and billions"). I also agree quick closure is the right solution. But I don't see how this answer is in support of quick closure; to me it seems to raise the bar on closing questions (which is the very object of phenry's proposal). This will make it harder to close questions. If one wants to spend 5 minutes giving directions, one can do that today, in the comments (which actually already seems to be SOP when closing as GR, because ultimately we are a courteous bunch).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 13:37
  • @Dan quick closure if it's the right reason. Often general reference is the wrong reason.
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 13:40
  • 1
    Kit, even when it's the right reason, this proposal does not expedite closure; it makes it incrementally slower &harder. In re: meta-discussions about re-opening questions, I don't see a flood of those and don't consider them a problem; in fact, if a user is engaged and aware enough to request re-opening on Meta, it's evidence his question may have underlying merit and be salvageable. In any case, if you're proposing the whitelisted-link would be sufficient evidence to preclude arguments on meta, then in the rare case a one-hit user comes to meta, simply provide the link at that time & end it.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 13:44

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