Reading through questions I often notice that a lot of the answers are not 'single word'-answers. Instead they give a combination of words describing the requested topic. Some users however take the tag seriously though and try to either force it into a single word, however these are (obviously) of poorer quality often than the multi-word expressions. A typical example is for example this question, forbidden fruit is a perfect fit, however the closest 'single word' would be fixation (though a 'no such word exists' answer would make even more sense I guess).

So, should multi word answers on questions be downvoted? Or should the be renamed to (or a better description to make clear that are actually not about 'single words')?

  • 2
    Bah, I just think we should all downvote single-word request questions and answers till they leave the site. On principle. This also makes it easier to decide which questions or answers to downvote. Simple. Jun 29, 2015 at 23:24
  • 5
    @Araucaria What's wrong with single-word requests?
    – Alex
    Jul 2, 2015 at 12:08
  • 1
    @Alex - Too many of them are banal, and those have given the rest a bad name. Most of them don't say much about the context, don't display a lot of prior effort, don't explain why a single word is needed, and many of them ask about some really obscure things that make you scratch your head and wonder, "What makes this person think there'd be a single word for that?" Moreover, they prompt a parade of suggestions, many of which would sound out of place in anything other than an ELU single-word-request. They've had a bad rap for a long time.
    – J.R.
    Jul 3, 2015 at 23:41
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    I use downvotes sparingly. My philosophy is, "If the answer is out and out wrong such that it would do the user a disservice if that answer were to be used then I downvote. If the answer is just mediocre then I just don't upvote." Over time the good answers will rise above the poor answers and the wrong answers will have negative scores and could even get deleted.
    – Jim
    Jul 8, 2015 at 1:03

5 Answers 5


We already have for users searching for multi-word expressions, so a rename is not in order. The tag really is (supposed to be) about single words, and that should be taken into account when writing an answer to a question with this tag. (Questions may be tagged with both to emphasize that either a single word or a multi-word phrase would serve.)

If you see a multi-word response to a question tagged only with and not with , and it looks like a good answer aside from this, the first step I'd advise is making sure that the original poster really wants a single word.

The simplest way to find out is if the original poster actually says something about a "single word" in the question, title or comments. (Many of these questions ask for "a word" or "the word" for something, but this wording is somewhat less clear, and might potentially encompass a multi-word phrase.) And on the other hand, the original poster might say somewhere that they would accept a multi-word phrase.

If the original poster hasn't made it totally clear in their writing, I would then check the history of the post to see if the tag was on the question from the beginning, or if it was added later by an editor. (For an example of the latter, look at the history of this question.) If the tag was added later, and the original poster only used vague terminology like "what is the word" or "give me a word," I personally wouldn't consider this evidence enough that only a single word is strictly acceptable. In this case, you might want to leave a comment below the question asking the original poster for clarification.

All of the above is basically to remind you that it's possible that the mistake is not in the answer, but the tag. In that case, a downvote for this reason would clearly be inappropriate; the tag should be changed.

But what if it's clear that the tag is correctly applied? It is up to you how to use downvotes. Personally, I would generally not downvote answers that are good aside from this issue. Such answers are in my opinion useful, even if problematic, because people who find the question later might not have such stringent requirements.

In some cases, even when the OP explicitly says they want a single word, they end up going with a phrase. See this question, where the questioner talks about a "single word", but the accepted answer ended up being a two-word phrase.

  • 1
    Good answer, sumelic. I included the following in my attempt to answer the linked example question, provided in this OP.: That’s an awful lot to ask of one solitary word, as a result of which (as I write this), of the 7 answers submitted, the only two that have positive votes are multiple-word answers, while the other five answers, all of which have suggested single-words, have received no votes at all. it can be frustrating at times when I try to adhere to an OP tagged: single-word-request, when multi-word responses get all the votes. Still, if two words work better ... what's a user to do?
    – user98990
    Jun 29, 2015 at 21:06

I'd venture to guess that 90% of the time when a question is tagged , the only reason the tag isn't added as well is because the questioner doesn't know that such a tag exists.

So no, don't downvote a multi-word answer to a single-word-request question just for being multi-word.


All this time I thought the question was about giving multiple answers to a single word request, that is, a list of possible single words that might fit the specifications. This often happens, sort of a shotgun approach hoping that at least one of the words in the list is correct. This is frowned upon at Stackexchange (multiple answers by the same author in one answer) because it makes it difficult to judge and compare against others (lists = bad). I don't think it is terrible, but I understand that it isn't a rule-based use of the system.

But that's not what this question is about. This is about giving a phrase as an answer to a question that explicitly asks for a single word or has the tag single-word-request.

Phrase answers to single-word-requests are very acceptable and should not be downvoted. Usually the OP is in a state of lack of knowledge about the concept (either as a non-native speaker where a dictionary search can be misleading) or the native speaker looking for the 'right' word. And in such a state, they shouldn't be held firm to the desire for a single word. Not all concepts can be expressed as a single word, and though it does not answer the direct request, to say 'no, a single word doesn't exist' or 'an accurate way to say it is with a phrase (a single word doesn't capture the nuances)' is solving the OPs problem (even though sidestepping what they explicitly request).

For example, suppose I ask "What is the single word for 'unrequited love'?", the best answer is "There is none, you really want to use those two words.". The question's assumption is just wrong and it's best to solve the bigger problem rather than try to shoehorn something inappropriate just to answer the letter of the question.


Should I downvote multi word answers on single-word-requests?

Not necessarily, but you should think long and hard about upvoting an answer that does. Above all, be consistent.

How should I vote?

Be consistent with your scoring. Everyone votes a little (or a lot!) differently; however, to make this process work, everyone must be judicious in their OWN voting consistency - don't worry about matching other peoples' votes, or be coddled - this is your say.

Whichever way a user decides to vote is fine, provided they're willing to consistently adhere to their own criteria.

  • Ah, right. Phrases, not multiple words.
    – Mazura
    Jul 11, 2015 at 1:16

It's interesting to note that the alt text for the downvote arrow is "this question is not useful."

If the answer is useful for anyone, not necessarily the OP, then it should not be downvoted.

Reserve your downvotes for wrong, misleading, and inapt answers.

  • @Mari-LouA- depends on whether the question provides a means for winnowing to one or a few words that fit the specified connotation. A broad question about "give me a word for really sad," is going to mean either 45 answers or a few lists
    – stevesliva
    Jul 23, 2015 at 6:26
  • I think my computer must be acting slow or something, I didn't see your comment when I deleted mine. I deleted it once I realized that the OP's question was about answers that are made up of phrases instead of a single-word. Judging by Mitch's post, I wasn't alone in thinking that!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 23, 2015 at 14:00

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