I've been lurking on ELU for around six months now, and in my time here, I've seen many, many questions being closed due to being off-topic. More than any other SE site. I've browsed the meta for why this is so much more prevalent here than elsewhere on SE, and the main reason that I've found is that people reason that if an answer can be quickly found elsewhere, it's not worth answering here.

But why? The internet is full of resources from dictionaries to grammar help sites to etymology resources to thesauruses to rhyme finders... I would argue that there are virtually no questions that an average person would want to know about language that aren't already answered somewhere on the internet already. So then why does this site exist?

I want to contribute positively to this site rather than increase the plethora of rejected questions. But every time I think of something I want to ask, I chicken out from fear of downvotes or rejection, and eventually I just spend the extra time to find it somewhere else online. Is this really how we want new users to feel at this site? What kind of questions are we looking for here if we don't like questions that can just be looked up somewhere else?

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    Re "every time I think of something I want to ask, I chicken out from fear of downvotes or rejection": I'm not contradicting your point but that thing you wanted to ask, do you think you could have found a good answer by googling? And did you at least try? If the google answer wasn't good, say that and why in your question, then we'll definitely have something to go on. – Mitch Dec 29 '14 at 21:27
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    How other sites choose to close questions is up to them. Closing may seem hostile, but it's not. ELU is different in that failure to consult a dictionary is a reason for closing, and it's pretty easy to figure out who did inadequate research before posting. But plenty of other sites don't tolerate low quality questions; some get labeled as homework, when there's no evidence it's a homework question. This question has been addressed often before, e.g. Proposal: Add a “too basic”/“uninteresting” off-topic option... – anongoodnurse Dec 30 '14 at 4:36
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    ...Show Me the Reference!, General Reference = general clairvoyance?, Google is not General Reference, Basic questions are not so basic and many more. To close is a community decision; so is reopening. Answer and ask the questions you like. If they're helpful, they will stay open and get up votes. – anongoodnurse Dec 30 '14 at 4:54
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    OP: "I would argue that there are virtually no questions that an average person would want to know about language that aren't already answered somewhere on the internet already. So then why does this site exist?" Very good question. From meta posts herein: To answer questions that are not available in General Reference. Mostly the "good" questions herein expand on very sparse etymology results and reverse dictionary requests. (very broad brush to paint, but I'm willing to be proven wrong.) – SrJoven Dec 30 '14 at 18:41
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    As @SrJoven implies, the difference is between “already answered somewhere on the internet” and “already answered in what can be considered an easily available and obvious place to look”; e.g., if you’re looking for the meaning of a word, a dictionary. ELU, for whatever reason, gets a higher ratio of questions that can be easily answered by a simple lookup in an obvious place, and such questions are generally not tolerated on any SE site that I know of. A question like “What number does oxygen have in the Periodic Table?” would be closed on Chemistry, too. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 31 '14 at 20:18
  • Don't ask here if you can find it somewhere else. The difference: here, it wastes someone else's time, and is unhelpful to future visitors. Googling, you get your answer quickly, and others never sweat. – moonkey69420 Jan 4 '15 at 3:10
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    I agree with this, and hesitate to do anything here with the attitude towards unwanted questions. I'm coming from Stack Overflow where questions are welcomed that have answers elsewhere. – Michael Gazonda Jan 7 '15 at 2:58
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    @SrJoven So then to contribute here, someone must already know what's available in general reference and what's not? – Michael Gazonda Jan 7 '15 at 3:00
  • @MichaelGazonda It depends on what you mean by "Contribute". One doesn't have to establish the distinction of General Reference if one wishes to provide an Answer, or upvote a Question or Answer. Nonetheless, not all answers are likewise good answers, and are subject to downvotes for limited value as answers or contributions to the site. Nor does one necessarily need to look in a dictionary before actually submitting one's first question, or the next three. Though, they deserve to be asked what is unclear about what's found in a dictionary. – SrJoven Jan 7 '15 at 14:32
  • @SrJoven I find few questions that are subject to the scrutiny that you claim should be found. – Michael Gazonda Jan 7 '15 at 17:17
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    I agree. A lot of questions seem to be closed here for we-are-so-clever-you-are-so-stupid-go-away-stop-bothering-us type reasons. @medica, when I have the time I generally do vote to keep reasonable questions open or to re-open them, but the sheer volume of questions in the closing queue outweighs both my limited daily vote quota and my available time. – A E Jan 8 '15 at 10:43
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    @medica I agree that some people could easily find answers in a standard dictionary, but many people don't know which online dictionaries are more trustworthy. If I came to the internet for the 1st time I would rather trust a site called 'English Language & Usage' than Yahoo Answers or other non-professional sites claiming to know everything: it's easy to find conflicting views on subjects. ELU questions are answered by people highly qualified in linguistics, languages & programming. Why would a questioner waste time reading other sites? ELU should be pleased to be the authoratative voice. – Mynamite Jan 12 '15 at 13:35
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    @Mynamite - but on out recommended sources page, we list decent dictionaries. I understand tat Google is different in other countries, so it's less reliable. But I don't think this should be a let-me-google-that-for-you site. That gets so old so fast. But I'm not in charge of EL&U. – anongoodnurse Jan 12 '15 at 16:34
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    @medica The recommended sources page is not easy to find, it requires 3 levels of clicking and some scrolling to reachthis, which is not even an 'official' list but some answers to a closed question. Maybe it would help new users (and therefore all users) if there was a link from the home page to an ELU approved list. (This is not a dig at you medica, just that you happened to answer my comment - it is aimed at all moderators). – Mynamite Jan 12 '15 at 22:22
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    @Mynamite - I've made the comment before: I'm all for revising the help page. It's nearly useless for this kind of information. – anongoodnurse Jan 13 '15 at 3:31

As others have stated, it is a delicate balance. I personally am dismayed by the number of subpar questions we get here, many of which display a marked lack of any understanding of English. I sometimes wonder if most of the "good" questions have already been asked and answered. I've read that in a formal system, performance tends to "normalize" over time, and early results become outliers. I don't want to believe that about ELU, but the feeling is stubbornly persistent.

I also will note that, given the raft of bad questions we do get, it's hard not to be reflexively censorious about those that are merely on the border and could be salvaged instead of savaged. If I visit the "close" queue and see nothing but "look it up" and "duplicate" questions, it's very difficult not to have that color my thinking about the next question in the queue which may have some redeeming facet. We're only human here.

Note that question-closing is not about malice. It is much more likely to be about fatigue and (understandable and still human if less forgivable) impatience.

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    I upvote in sorrow, because I too am dismayed by the number of subpar questions we get. But I think there are probably vast numbers of "good" questions still unasked here. And very likely there are lots that have actually been asked, but don't have "good" answers - primarily because no-one noticed them against the backdrop of unresearched/trivial questions, and ELL-level questions that are only really relevant to non-native speakers. – FumbleFingers Jan 12 '15 at 18:55

Is this really how we want new users to feel at this site?

I don't think we would want people to be fearful of downvotes, per se, but certainly the voting system gives good reason for thoughtful consideration before posting something.

I think you also need to consider the broader StackExchange mission:

We build libraries of high-quality questions and answers...

SE sites are designed to help people get expert answers to interesting questions; they're not intended to be landing pages for trivial answers that you can find on your own elsewhere. If you were able to find the answer yourself with a modest amount of research - that's good! If you can't, or if you found an answer and you're not sure if it's right, or you found an answer but don't understand it - that's when the experts are here to help.

Having said all that... once you cut out the basic language questions (which go to ELL) and the questions that can be found through other sources (which get closed as 'show the research'), that does seem to leave us with a particularly narrow band of viable questions.

  • "SE sites are designed to help people get expert answers to interesting questions; they're not intended to be landing pages for trivial answers that you can find on your own elsewhere." - Are you unfamiliar with the site called Stack Overflow?? – Michael Gazonda Jan 7 '15 at 2:55
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    @MichaelGazonda - SO's help files clearly state: "Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do" and say "Questions you haven't tried to find an answer for (show your work!)" may be closed. Telling what research you've done is the equivalent of showing your work. The same rules apply here as there. Whether they are enforced routinely is not a question I can answer for SO. – Lynn Jan 7 '15 at 5:01
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    Looking at questions on this site reveals that very few questions "show their work", yet remain open. – Michael Gazonda Jan 7 '15 at 17:15
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    @MichaelGazonda - I'm not sure what point you're getting at. If you're questioning the rules themselves (i.e. you believe showing research is unnecessary) then I think that would be better suited to another meta question. If you're observing that the rules are not enforced 100% consistently, I would agree, but I don't think it's relevant. It's like observing that speed limits are not always enforced. You can't have a cop on every corner doling out speeding tickets; that doesn't change the law or invalidate the speeding tickets that do occur. – Lynn Jan 7 '15 at 18:31
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    The relevancy has to do with what it says to new users such as myself. When I have a question closed for being "off-topic" when I see similar questions up-voted, I question why. When I am told that I need to "show my research", yet other questions that don't show their research are up-voted I question why. When I'm told my question is easily answerable by reading a dictionary yet I did reference a dictionary first I wonder what it is that's really expected of me. It seems that I'm being asked to conform to imaginary expectations that are unknowable to me. – Michael Gazonda Jan 7 '15 at 18:51
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    @MichaelGazonda - I'm sorry that you're frustrated; I do think there's room for improvement. But it does sound a little like you're trying to infer the rules of the road by watching how other people drive and how the cops enforce (or don't) the rules, rather than learning the rules of the road by reading them. People are imperfect; people disagree; questions get up or down-voted for all sorts of reasons. – Lynn Jan 7 '15 at 19:01
  • @Lynn, We are not observing that "rules are not enforced 100% consistently", we are observing that "rules are consistently not enforced more than x% of times". There's a huge difference, so do not strawman it. I observe 99% of people within speed limits while 1% doesn't. On SE, the ratio isn't anywhere near 99/1. – Pacerier Apr 13 '16 at 22:04

The internet is indeed full of resources so it is not unreasonable to expect people to look at them before asking in here.

There are good reasons for that. One is that nobody (including me) wants to be somebody else's Googler. A second is that we don't want to be answering the same questions over and over and over again - especially when an answer can be found by spending a few minutes with Uncle Google. One example that we see often and irritates the hell out of me is "what is the etymology of X?" questions, that are easily answered by looking in a dictionary. This is a "willing to help people who try to help themselves" stance.

Regarding your fear of asking questions... if you have done some basic research, and either don't really understand the information you get, or it doesn't directly answer your question, go ahead and ask. I doubt you will have any problems.

One thing I will say. I have been on this site for nearly 3 years, and it is very rare (only once I think) that I see a question being closed and disagree with it. If we close more questions than other SE sites, it is because we get more questions that deserve to be closed.


Because if they can find it somewhere else, they should have done it in the first place instead of making others waste their time on the question, whose answers will not benefit anyone in the future (because they could have found it somewhere else easily!)

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    I'm confused. How are you (or anyone else) made to waste your time answering questions you think are worthless? Why don't you just, well, not answer them? I don't see what compels you to spend time answering if you don't want to. – A E Jan 8 '15 at 18:02
  • @AE I don't think Daemon meant made in the sense you're referring to but rather the fact that people reading questions feel responsible for providing an answer. Having said that, I disagree with such. Instead for downvoting, I simply ignore the question. The grading is unaffected since I upvote the good questions instead. – Konrad Viltersten Jan 10 '15 at 18:21
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    @Daemon While I see your point, I think you're oversimplifying an aspect here. The part "they can find it..." is very tricky. Some people won't even try to google, that's true. But some actually do - they just fail to convey that. And who's to decide if they did their best or not, really? Maybe someone isn't as bright as we think they are and they've put a lot of effort already, even though for us it appears to be way below acceptable level... – Konrad Viltersten Jan 10 '15 at 18:24
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    @KonradViltersten I agree with your 2nd comment. If a person doesn't know that the origin of a word is called 'etymology', how are they going to search for it? – Mynamite Jan 12 '15 at 13:26
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    @Mynamite I got into such unpleasant situation myself when I asked for the etymology of "shotgun". I hadn't realized that "shot" can have other meanings than "an act of shooting". SE needs to get better at deciding if we are supposed to chase down the slackers (risking bashing on the good people) or be tolerant to the former (avoiding said bashing). – Konrad Viltersten Jan 12 '15 at 18:38
  • @Mynamite: the information is usually available in a dictionary; many online dictionaries even label the section "word origin." People who don't know how to use a dictionary should learn before they ask questions on this site about the meaning or origin of words. – herisson Oct 31 '15 at 8:51
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    @sumelic Lynn's answer quotes the SE mission to "...build libraries of high-quality questions and answers..." and to provide "expert answers". If I were googling for an answer to some query and I saw a site that claimed to be expert in the English Language, why would I waste my time going to lesser sites? People on this site, myself included, have been reprimanded for using the site in the 'wrong' way. New users who may not know much about language should not be rebuffed simply because they're not as expert as the experts. – Mynamite Nov 2 '15 at 1:18

There's a clear problem with this site in that a lot of the disagreements that occur have to do with disjunctions between various systems of traditional grammar and various linguistic schools of thought. Given that, a question such as "What is a verb?" could well get an answer such as "There is no such thing as a verb." Or, more realistically, "What is the definition of a verb?" could get dozens of answers, none of which is actually satisfactory.

So in that sense, there is no such thing as a basic question. Looking at common references in relation to even the most basic issues ("What is the definition of 'here'?") reveals disagreements and contradictions. So judgements about the value of a question are really mostly judgements about the value of the questioner or the spirit in which the question is asked.

If I ask "what is the past participle of 'to show'?", I think a good answer would acknowledge that the theoretically correct answer is 'shown', but common usage drifts towards 'showed'.

I don't think there are any bad questions, just bad answerers. A bad answerer is so wrapped up in their own assumptions that they do not even consider the many implications of the question.

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    I think it's actually pretty rare to have that kind of debate over theories here. More common are debates like whether English has a "perfect tense" or "subjunctive mood" or whether they are nonsensical terms invalidly stolen from Latin. – curiousdannii Jul 6 '16 at 15:05
  • Traditional grammar describes a 'perfect tense' and a 'subjunctive mood'. So any debate about these terms must draw upon a non-traditional perspective. Whether the assumptions and theories behind a viewpoint are articulated by the poster or not (they rarely are) is beside the point. – Dunsanist Jul 6 '16 at 15:22
  • I agree for the most part with what you say about grammar questions. I wish we got more questions like that, instead of single word requests or proofreading. A question like "what is the past participle of "to show" is primarily lexicographical, and therefore the question should include the results of looking up the term in a dictionary. If you're asking such a question and you know that you want information about the relative frequencies of the two forms, you should say so explicitly! That's a more interesting and difficult question to answer. – herisson Jul 9 '16 at 17:48
  • I consider a question to be "bad" if it does not clearly state the requirements for an answer, and there is an obvious or uninteresting answer that people are likely to post. The problem with just posting a question like "what is the past participle of 'to show' " without any further research is that someone probably is going to just answer "There are two, shown and showed" (hopefully with a dictionary reference). Now, you seem to have said this would not be a "good" answer without more information. I agree. [...] – herisson Jul 9 '16 at 17:54
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    But it's not just the fault of the person who wrote the answer; I think the people writing the questions also have a responsibility to explicitly, and not just implicitly, describe what a good answer should be like. – herisson Jul 9 '16 at 17:54

A lot of the problem I see is in clique voting, particularly certain groups within the site voting for the people they like and don't like, rather than the questions themselves, which will likely put a lot of people who would otherwise ask good questions off. This is probably as much a personal gripe as anything else, but I feel it important to mention.

Another is that I feel there needs to be more codification in a formal setting that's easily findable by new users (that is, not in Meta, but perhaps in the tour, or at least in the FAQ or something that can be very easily linked to new users and marked as authoritative) of what is expected in questions (what's expected of answers seem to be more straight-forward -- at least when people are acting in fair and and unbiased manner), so new users at least have an idea what is expected when they post questions. There should also probably be guidelines for what makes a good question on EL&U, as opposed to what might make one for, say, ELL, or Writers.SE.

At present it's often totally baffling when you post questions that prompt very interesting discussions on the English language, and to your mind are educating users, only to have them heavily downvoted. This certainly isn't an issue specific to this Stack Exchange site, but with the more established sections, like Stack Overflow and Super User, the same problems aren't so readily apparent.

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    Do you have any evidence of block or clique voting? – curiousdannii Jun 1 '16 at 22:03
  • @curiousdannii It's a community wiki. If you disagree with it then you're welcome to edit it. It certainly seems very strongly that way, which was the point I was making. I wouldn't exactly expect to find evidence: that's not the way the voting system works, and people know it. The votes don't particularly tally with the questions and there is a high correlation between disagreements with users in comments and other parts of the site and downvotes... – Peter David Carter Jun 1 '16 at 22:29
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    You're making the claim, you provide the evidence. I've never seen any hint of unfair voting like this. – curiousdannii Jun 1 '16 at 22:50
  • If I have seen things it is only what my own experience has taught me and I make no claims to the universal, though others might. Yet, it seems that in your response there is an element of defensiveness which in itself seems to constitute corroboration of the hypothesis -- as a soldier ant may move to the defense of its own collective hive, or the hive it perceives as its own collective, so is the seeming of your answer. But if your seeming is different that's ok. You don't need to argue or ask for evidence, but only edit the wiki, as I have left it open to you for expressly this reason... – Peter David Carter Jun 1 '16 at 23:13
  • just feels kinda depressed about this whole thing, really – Peter David Carter Jun 2 '16 at 0:13
  • ceases to care about anything – Peter David Carter Jun 2 '16 at 0:13
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    The concept behind a community wiki is that the answer to a question may become outdated, or it is so broad that contributors are asked to complete the work. Users should generally agree that the answer is correct before they edit it. Here, you are expressing your personal experience. There are no facts, there is no information which might become outdated, or links that may rot over time. At least this is how I understand CW. More info here – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '16 at 4:58
  • Saying that, it's always a good idea to provide real-life examples. I am by nature an easy-going person, but if I see something on EL&U which bothers me, I bring with me the facts. I try to provide more than one example. If there is only the one incident, I brush it off because we all have our quirks and off days. If the unregulated or unfair behaviour is repeated then it must be signalled. Please provide evidence of favouritism. – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '16 at 5:04
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    I am particularly interested in your last affirmation that thought provoking questions are "heartily downvoted". It should be easy to prove this statement. – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '16 at 5:07
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    @Mari-LouA Peter is (almost certainly) referring to his question about LC's Jabberwocky, which was deleted as "unclear what you're asking", and which he's lamented the loss of ever since (he other Meta question of his which you just commented on, in re: "permanently deleted questions" was a third-order derivative of that Jabberwocky question). – Dan Bron Jun 2 '16 at 5:45
  • @DanBron Oh, I see. I thought the user had seen other users' questions being "heartedly downvoted". Well... I have tried to understand the question, but it really is confusing. And I'm not sure it really belongs to EL&U, asking when a jabberwocky is not a jabberwocky, isn't really about the English language, is it? E.g quote: ... how does the metaphorical import of a Vorpal Sword morph and reapport itself then mingle with the thing-frames which are apparent over the narrative arc of our everyday lives when we are thinking of things other than, for example, a spork? End quote. Pardon? – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '16 at 5:52

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