Also see: Proposal: Require a whitelisted URL to close as General Reference

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 a new off-topic option be created that reads as follows:

Questions that are too basic or uninteresting are off-topic. For more information, see: (new Help Center page)

The new Help Center page would give guidelines for determining whether a question is too basic or uninteresting. Please use the answers to this question to start building content for the new Help Center page.

I think that closing questions for being "too basic" or "uninteresting" is a horrible idea that will never work, for reasons I've expressed at length elsewhere, but I do not believe it can reasonably be denied that that is, in fact, what we do. That being the case, and pardon me for being blunt, the current system—in which voters decide first that a question is "bad" and then pick a close reason as a cynical ex post facto rationalization for turfing it—is dishonest and makes liars out of those who willingly participate in it. We owe it both to the greater Internet-using public and to ourselves to explain simply and accurately why we choose to close questions.

With this new option in place, we'll be able to limit use of the General Reference option to questions that can actually be easily looked up, rather than sending the OP on a wild goose chase looking through online dictionaries for help with their comma splice problem, except that they don't know it's a comma splice problem because we closed their question as GR rather than telling them that it's a comma splice problem.

So if you've been looking for an option you can use to close questions you just don't like, here it is at last. Use it in good conscience. Own it.

Also see: Proposal: Require a whitelisted URL to close as General Reference. 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 reject this one and enact 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.

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    After you suggested this in the comments of your previous question, I went back through Meta and learned there actually had been a "too basic" close reason, and it was actually that which eventually evolved into General Reference. Funny enough, GR was spearheaded by Jeff Atwood (though I think I read somewhere he's since changed his mind about it). In other words: I support this proposal philosophically and have upvoted it, but also philosophically we already have this tool: General Reference.. One reason for the change was "not sufficiently interesting" was not sufficiently diplomatic.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 22:26
  • Given that we have a very limited number of custom close reasons, this proposal would need to replace an existing reason. Which would you replace with this (or combine this with)?
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 22:43
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    @AndrewLeach - ouch, we only get 3 custom reasons? Well, I almost never see the SWR option get used, so maybe that one--although if the other proposal fails, we might as well mash this one together with GR as an all-purpose "you suck, go away" option, which is what some here seem to want anyway. (Ideally, though, we should just conduct a wholesale renovation of the OT options like Shog9 asked us to do almost 18 months ago.)
    – phenry
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 23:00
  • Note there is a related frustration currently being discussed at Meta.ELL as well.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 0:29
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    @DanBron So gen ref doesn't actually need a ref?
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 2:15
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    @Mitch, TLDR: the reference in "general reference" is general. If I wanted to supply a specific reference, I would do so -- in an answer. Basically the GR close-reason is a challenge to the OP to demonstrate he's done a modicum of research, because the question, in and of itself, is obvious to English linguists, etymologists, and serious enthusiasts (or, weaker, simply native speakers). The GR banner links to a variety of resources where the OP can being his research, if Google proves insufficient, which it does not in the majority of cases.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 2:26
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    @Mitch, if that reasoning doesn't satisfy you, consider that the GR close-reason literally evolved from "Too Basic", which itself evolved from "Insufficiently Interesting", which was proposed by Jeff Atwood after a few years' experience with the experiment he called StackExchange. The names were changed to protect the innocent (from insult), but the sentiment remains. GR = too basic to hold the interest of the question-answering community.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 2:29
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    I am all for a new Help Center. "This is too boring" sounds really rude to me. I wouldn't be able to close vote for that reason. Which is your whole point, I presume? Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 3:22
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    @DanBron: if that is true, then the entire description of the GR close reason is, to put it bluntly, lying. (I don't believe you're correct, at least not anymore: note that the GR close reason was removed from most other SE sites, because most other SE sites can't refer people to the dictionary. The "general" in GR refers to the fact that the source must be generally-available, i.e. not something where you have to visit the local university library and search through their dusty reference stacks to find this one book that may address the issue.)
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 19:47

3 Answers 3


Perhaps what we need is an insufficient research close reason. We can and should downvote for a lack of evidence of research, but there's no legitimate close reason for that. Maybe there should be?

@AndrewLeach wrote a great post earlier this year about showing research. Here are some quotes:

The answer to "how much research is needed?" is "Enough to show:— that you have done some; that you understand what you are asking about; and you can explain all of that to people who have no prior knowledge of the problem at all." Every question needs at least one of those criteria to be satisfied; most need more than one and many need all three.

Asking good questions takes time. Questions should not simply be thrown together, and it's very unlikely that they can be templated and simply adapted from one to the next. All the research is unique to each question. Even writing this answer, which is heavily based on something already written, has taken a surprising amount of time. Invest in asking to realise a useful return in a comprehensive answer. I would certainly expect someone producing questions for ELU not to manage more than two per day before becoming worn out with the effort.


You're right users do abuse the general reference option to close questions because sometimes to actually explain the reason why in the "other reasons" box which pops up is, at least for me, problematic. It's easier to click GR especially if I can't find a duplicate.

There can be several issues which summed up will justify to my mind that a question needs to be put on hold. The theory being the OP has the time to improve their question. The OP can comment on his post and ask for clarification, and users can help the OP to write a more detailed and thought provoking question. I see plenty of comments posted which are helpful, and plenty which contain the actual answer(s). In other words GR is a shorter way of saying

Unfortunately, your question is considered too basic for this site by five users, please try to do some minimal research first and explain why you are still confused. We will be only too glad to help you, if we can. Thank you.

The truth is, that many newcomers are akin to Hit&Run users. They shoot a question and then disappear, forever. Should we deliberately keep their "off topic" questions open, if we can't formulate a comprehensive reason every single time? Why? If the OPs themselves cannot be bothered to comment, ask why or to edit their posts in the first place?

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    Remember that Stack Exchange is intended to benefit the entire Internet, not just the people who ask questions. A correct, useful, generalizable answer that adds to ELU's store of quality knowledge makes ELU a better resource, whether the user who asked the original question is ever seen again or not.
    – phenry
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 19:27
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    @phenry and that's perfectly fine when the question is clear, useful and the OP has invested a modicumof effort. I'm all for exploiting the interestingness of a question, for supplying tips, advice, guidance, in depth knowledge etc. etc. But there also needs to be some "meat" attached to a question.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 20:54
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    I agree. At least some sort of followup? One comment by the posting party to clarify? I know that Google is not a reference, but at least give us a hint that you tried that search and got this result and that result and can't figure out which one is proper.
    – SrJoven
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 0:40

The reason you're looking for already exists, and it's called "general reference". Personally I would word it a little differently, but fundamentally I wouldn't change it.

"Linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts would already know this and/or be able to quickly look it up in commonly-available references."

We have gone to pains to define what constitutes a "commonly-available reference" on this site. It isn't all-inclusive, but it's a good starting place for someone doing research.

And I personally also consider "common usage" to be a reference of sorts. This site cannot benefit from answering questions that would be obvious to any native-speaking grade-schooler. That's (partly) why ELL exists, and the lack of a "belongs on ELL" close-vote reason still mystifies me.

(Edit to add) I think this close reason (particularly with the new wording) also covers the "insufficient research" problem, which is a big deal with a lot of these questions.

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    One reason for the lack of a migration route is that ELL is (perhaps inexplicably) still in Beta. Another reason is that questions would get migrated which are actually off-topic there too. However, your proposed rewording is attractive.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 12:52
  • @AndrewLeach - Yeah, it's the "perhaps inexplicably" part that has me puzzled. And I could've sworn there was a close reason for ELL for a little while - a special exception or something. Some would be migrated and closed, but isn't that true for any auto-migration option? (Perhaps that's a question for Meta SE.)
    – Lynn
    Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 13:45
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    The entirety of this question is devoted to explaining why "general reference" is not synonymous with "too basic" and how we make liars out of ourselves when we pretend that it is.
    – phenry
    Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 16:26
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    @phenry If you think our words don't match our actions (ie you think us liars), there are two ways to resolve that issue: change our actions to match our words, or change our words to match our actions, which is what Lynn is proposing here.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 16:53
  • @DanBron - that's exactly what this proposal is intended to do--although I believe Lynn's suggested change would make things worse than they already are, as it relies on a presumption that is itself a fiction.
    – phenry
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 16:41
  • @phenry - If your issue is with the site's charter, as defined in the very first sentence of the "What this site is about" page, that's a larger issue. I don't even disagree; I espoused a similar principle during the ELL Definition Phase. But given the charter as it currently exists, and the creation of the ELL site precisely for the more basic questions, I stand by my recommendation.
    – Lynn
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 22:32

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