This comment says that I have to copy in definitions for words when responding to single-word-requests etc.

There seems to be some discussion about this on meta but no definitive answers.

This question says that "A verbatim copy-paste from an online dictionary is unnecessary, only the link has to be provided." I thought that made sense but am being told that's wrong.

This answer suggests that "a whole main entry from a reference work" is too much.

This question states in large bold, "do not tolerate answers consisting primarily of text copied from other sources." The requested edits would seem to cause the answer to violate that admonition.

When one person contacted OED, they clearly said "It is fine to link to the OED, but not quote it at all." Tim claims OED is wrong but cites no more authoritative source. I agree with Trlkly's statement that some clear policy is needed.

Frank says "I now no longer add definitions copied from any copyrighted source, if I need to I will provide a link to the source (without including any material)."

Note that this meta question isn't about off-topic questions like "what's the meaning of this word that I could have easily looked up in a dictionary" but for questions like single-word-requests that are a bit harder to look up answers to via common reference sources. It seems unnecessary to paste in a definition especially when one can read the question or click the links to see what the word means.

I understand that link rot is generally an issue, though it seems like it should be less of an issue with dictionaries, and the link also always contains enough information that if a dictionary did change its format, one still has the word one's trying to look up and could just paste that into the search box. Batch editing for dictionaries that change URL formats could be possible too.

Dan Bron points to a post which says that answers should contain an answer and not just a pointer. I think that's not a fair criticism for the answer that comments on, which does contain the answer (the words requested). Had I just written something like "Try this, this, or this" that would probably fall short of actually providing an answer, especially if the word wasn't obvious in the URLs. A reader can look up the provided terms in almost any English dictionary or follow the links for one particular convenient dictionary.

In conclusion, I think that links to dictionary entries should generally be acceptable and (for copyright reasons) maybe even preferred over versions with pasted definitions as long as the meaning is clear in contexts like this when the word definition is a very close fit to what's being requested in the question. However, because some other far more experienced folks disagree, I'm bringing this up for focused discussion here.

  • This is a good question. +1. In this particular case, I think the answer is yes, but I certainly have applied this rule inconsistently myself, so interested in what others have to say, and I'm willing to change my mind.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 14:40
  • 3
    If nothing else, it is my experience that when you include the dictionary's definition within the actual body, the answer, if it is pertinent, gains upvotes. Seeing is believing :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 15:46
  • 5
    Seeing the inconsistency in the site's preferences, I agree that there's a case to be made here. Nevertheless, an answer which fully addresses the question by itself will always be better received than one which doesn't.
    – Anonym
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 16:44
  • 1
    Don't concise answers also tend to get upvoted? The one prompting the discussion very concisely gives a complete answer to the question asked, providing the words requested. Repeating the content of the question would seem to lengthen the answer without adding much additional value.
    – WBT
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 17:34
  • 1
    The only issue with not quoting a definition is that some words have lots of different definitions. This isn't a problem with, for example, the "impoverish" answer; you click on it and there it is. But if you provide a link and you're suggesting one of 20 different definitions for the word, then I think it would be beneficial to quote that definition in the body of the answer.
    – Nicole
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 17:48
  • @Nicole sure - but I did specify the intended definition where appropriate (e.g. "the verb form of") and the other two are very straightforward. I don't think the definitions should be always required, as is being asked about here.
    – WBT
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 17:55
  • I don't think they should be always required, but I don't think they should always be left out, either. I think anyone linking to a definition has to decide on a case-by-case basis whether they want to quote it as well.
    – Nicole
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 19:50
  • 2
    There's not much point in posting links to the real OED, because it's subscription-only, so most users won't be able to access it anyway. But since it is the definitive reference dictionary for English, I think it's often useful to post relatively short extracts from it here. Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 21:03
  • The advantages, for both the OP and other EL&U users, of providing an answer sufficiently complete to stand alone - that is, an answer that includes a personal perspective, supported by a block quote or quotes, linked to an established authority with citations in plain text (in case of link-rot) - seem fairly obvious. What are the corresponding disadvantages of providing such an answer?
    – user98990
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 22:41
  • @LittleEva some disadvantages, incl. as noted above, include: Copyright violation esp. w/"a whole main entry from a reference work," the disadvantages of "answers consisting primarily of text copied from other sources," unnecessary wordiness/length when the answers are a close fit for the request, and a higher barrier to posting answers that do fully answer the question. (With some exceptions, higher barriers lead to fewer contributions. For example, this requirement might lead to some single-word-requests going unanswered even after a visit from someone who knows the answer.)
    – WBT
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 13:54
  • 2
    Sorry, but I find that none of those reasons are real, in my experience here. There is no copyright issue - or the whole site would have been closed long ago. It's unusual for users to post long reams of copy/paste articles, and if it happens moderators can intervene. What "barrier to posting answers that answer"? Single-word-requests never go unanswered IF they remain open.
    – user98990
    Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 14:02
  • 2
    Your justifications for not adding the definitions for a word sound very like grasping at straws. Stop making excuses, just man up and say "mea culpa" :) :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 7:31
  • 1
    The advantages, for both the OP and other EL&U users, of providing an answer sufficiently complete to stand alone - that is, an answer that includes a personal perspective, supported by a block quote or quotes, linked to an established authority with citations in plain text (in case of link-rot) - seem fairly obvious. What are the disadvantages of providing such an answer? Or, posed the other way,what are the advantages of posting what amounts to a 'bald' answer? It seems to me that all benefit accrues to the person posting the 'bald' answer i.e., it 'saves' them time and effort. Period.
    – user98990
    Commented Jul 5, 2015 at 3:25

4 Answers 4


I frequently include relevant portions of definitions in my answers. My main reason for doing this is to produce a finished answer that reads as a self-contained explanation, rather than as a suggestion with links for further reading.

I don't like to rely on links to do anything more than provide a view of the source I'm quoting, in case readers want to confirm the accuracy of my quotation or check the source for additional context. Although many standard-reference sources seem quite stable, links can disappear or become garbled in unpleasantly magical ways, so there is always some risk that a link may become inoperative and reduce the value of an answer correspondingly.

The argument that block quotes make answers unwieldy would be far more serious if EL&U didn't have such a well-designed formatting option for block quotes. As matters stand, the shaded block quote is easy to recognize as such, neatly distinguishing the answerer's original wording from cited material and adding visual relief from what might otherwise be a hedge of monotonous black-on-oatmeal paragraphs.

Anyone who wants to focus on an answerer's word-choice suggestion(s) can readily skip the block definition(s) without fear of losing the thread of the original answer, and anyone who wants to see what the reputable reference work that the answerer chose for corroboration has to say about the meaning of a suggested word can read the definition while remaining in sight of the answerer's supporting argument (if any).

I have a difficult time taking arguments about copyright violation seriously when we're talking about citations of short blocks of text as part of a larger (and sometimes much larger) answer. In the first place, the legal notion of fair use is precisely about protecting the benefits to public discourse that result from a policy of content sharing that allows people to quote (with proper acknowledgment) useful ideas already in print; this is especially so when an answer is comparing different sources' ideas or citing illustrative examples from different years or decades.

But in the case of reference works, there is a further consideration: If I quote a sentence or paragraph from the Chicago Manual of Style or Garner's Modern American Usage and the advice strikes readers as offering sound and authoritative insight into the question asked, I have made a case in miniature for buying a copy of the book so they can conveniently consult it on other discrete questions. That's free publicity for a deserving reference work. In my opinion, properly documented quotations of small portions of published works in a noncommercial (and nonpaying) forum such as English Language & Usage do not compromise anyone's interests under copyright law.

As for the notion that copying and pasting block quotes is lazy, I have two thoughts. First, just because an answer includes a block quote doesn't mean that the quote got there via a simple Ctrl-C Ctrl-V operation. Despite being a slow typist, I type the vast majority of the block quotes I include from their original sources, which tend to be either Google Books titles that offer only a snippet of copyable/pastable text or actual print books that permit no block copying at all. Second, it is hardly reasonable to treat even a quick copy & paste operation backed by a link to the source as lazier than a link to the source without a supporting copy & paste operation.

Ultimately, each answerer gets to decide how complete to make each answer. Some will win the approval of voters who appreciate succinctness; others, the approval of voters who appreciate thoroughness. The variety of approaches is ultimately a good thing, since it serves readers who are looking for different things in an answer.

  • Well put, as usual. I agree with all of this answer.
    – user98990
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 23:51
  • Amount of usage is relevant to the fair use exception, but is not sole consideration. "Substantiality" is considered within the same "pillar" and we also need to consider purpose and character of use; nature of use, and the effect of use on the market value of a work, pursuant to U.S.C. Title 17 §107. There have been times where amount of use was overridden by those other factors, like Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises Also, regarding amount, we should probably to consider that the website as a whole gains more definitions with time.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 18:47
  • @Tonepoet: The question of "fair use" is indeed complicated, as in the 1985 Supreme Court case that you cite, where the special consideration involved The Nation magazine posting excerpts from a Harper & Row book before its publication and thus (arguably) stealing the book publisher's thunder and hurting the book's future sales. The emergence of the Internet has only complicated the situation for "fair use" claimants and opponents. Especially relevant issues, in my view, are (1) whether the content is available free online from the copyright holder, ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 19:31
  • ...(2) whether the "fair use" user profits monetarily from the content, either directly (in the form of site subscriptions) or indirectly (in the form of advertisements on the site), (3) whether the information is more readily accessible to interested readers in its original form online or in the form in which it appears at the "fair use" user's site, and (4) whether the content posted by the "fair use" user consists exclusively of a single copyright owner's content (that is, whether the content appears as dispositive authority or in the context of different views on the same point). ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 19:32
  • ... On all of these points, I believe, the state of the law in the U.S. and elsewhere is not well settled.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 19:32

My two cents:

Sometimes (or rather, a lot of times), a word means more than one thing. If you're making a case for the word you suggested, it helps if you copy-paste the relevent definition instead of leaving it to the OP to click on a link and wade thorugh the whole entry to find the exact sense you wrote about.

Oxford does have a system to link to individual definitions, but it's not perfect. They use it internally (when they cross-link), but you can't get a link to any specific definition readily (there's no 'share' button). Most other online dictionaries don't even have this feature internally.

Moreover, including the definitions makes life easier for everyone. It maintains the flow. For a single-word request with 10 good answers, I'd be considerably more annoyed if I had to click on 10 links or more to see what they meant.

Finally, the answer you linked to which says it's illegal isn't very clear about the version of the OED being talked about. I highly suspect it's the free online version that's illegal to quote. I think it's more likely they're talking about the premium/subscribed versions. (Notice that 'you can link' part could be the author's own words, not quoted from Oxford).

  • Again, that applies more for words that have a lot of definitions and/or where the definitions aren't a close match to those requested.
    – WBT
    Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 15:51

I fully agree with Sven Yargs' answer, but I would like to add, and illustrate, why including a block quote from the referenced source is, in my opinion, a good idea.

First is a practical consideration. I regularly browse this site on mobile devices. Some of the common references that are used here are decidedly unfriendly to anyone on a slow (or expensive) data connection. SE itself is quiet easy on the data, and when I want to see the two lines of text that encompass the relevant part of the definition of a given word, I'd rather not load in an external heap of imagery, scripts, etc.

Secondly, many references do not easily allow one to create a link to a specific part of a page.

Now, suppose that someone is looking for a concise way to describe the style of one's handwriting, I would probably answer along the lines of:

That would simply be hand. As Merriam-Webster shows:

5 a : style of penmanship : handwriting wrote in a fancy hand

I very much doubt the use of answering:
The word you are looking for is hand. See Merriam-Webster.
Because that leaves it up to the reader to read through all 12(!) definitions to see if there is anything in there that would render my answer useful.

Try it, and I predict comments that ask you to quote the relevant piece of the definition to corroborate your answer. Even from people that will not even click the link to start with; and I cannot disagree with them.

  • The question is qualified to situations where "the meaning is clear in contexts like this when the word definition is a very close fit to what's being requested in the question." I agree that where a word has a lot of definitions, it's important to be clear about which one is intended (and not just by a number). In situations where there aren't a lot of definitions, I would reach the conclusion noted in the question. Good point about mobile access!
    – WBT
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 15:05

This comment says that I have to copy in definitions for words when responding to single-word-requests etc.

Actually, the comment doesn't say that you have to, it merely indicates that you should:

quoting the definitions will aid in the long-term utility of your answer.

Consider it a "best practice."

It seems unnecessary to paste in a definition especially when one can read the question or click the links to see what the word means.

Even if link rot is unlikely to be an issue, there are a few reasons I think it's often best to paste definitions in:

1) It's easier for the reader to stay on-site, rather than jump to a bunch of different dictionary sites (think about how this problem might be compounded if, say, half a dozen people answer the question, and every one of them posts a link instead of a definition). What a pain in the neck!

2) Sometimes it's not the word itself that's the crux of the answer, but the meaning of the word. This is especially true when a suggested word has multiple meanings, some of which have little to do with the question. In your question, for example, you link to the word impoverish, which has two meanings: one is directly related to the O.P.'s question, the other more tangentially:

: to make (someone) poor
: to use up the strength or richness of (something, such as land)

The O.P. asked for a verb that means to make poor. So, if I'm only familiar with the second meaning of impoverish, then I might think you've made a weak suggestion. I generally appreciate seeing the pertinent definition in the answer itself, rather than having to go find it in the dictionary.

3) Many dictionary sites have a lot of ads (my computer will sometimes slow down significantly just by loading a page from M-W, for example). Posting the definition instead of the link can help alleviate this problem – it's a courtesy.

4) Without any discussion of the meaning of the word(s), the answer looks more like a comment than an answer. (There are other ways to address this problem besides pasting a definition, such as paraphrasing the definition, instead of copying it verbatim.) That's why I've always thought that an answer that says little more than:

"How about doohickey?"

is rather "thin", even if it aptly and precisely solves the single word request. I think something like:

How about doohickey, which is a word that can be used to describe something when we don't know the formal name for it.

would be better, particularly for a site that strives to "build libraries of high-quality questions and answers."

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