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I have noticed in many comments to questions regarding single word usage in particular sentence or phrase that a user with high reputation will say something that ultimately boils down to "use a dictionary". At times it can be downright sarcastic or rude to the OP.

Is this type of comment useful? Are we to assume that a question poster does not know what a dictionary is?

Would not be better to provide an answer, even if it is a simple answer? Perhaps after a direct answer is given one could expand on the theory of the word usage if they are so inclined.

  • Could you quote some examples, please? You don't have to link, or provide the author, but the text would be useful. – Andrew Leach Dec 4 '15 at 14:12
  • user 1: Did you look "word in question" up in a dictionary? user 2: Ya, you should just look that up That is one example I saw that stood out. I don't want to link anything because I do not think the users are trying to be intentionally mean. I just want to see other users opinions. – Skooba Dec 4 '15 at 14:14
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    In my experience here, I would say that it is not safe to assume that posters know what a dictionary is or how to use it. Also, it's basic research, so if it's not written into the question then we don't know what they have already done. – Kit Z. Fox Dec 4 '15 at 14:23
  • @KitZ.Fox would you say that this site for English speakers trying to refine their language skills, or ESL students, general non-English speaking persons seeking clarification, or a combination? If we are helping ESL type people would a dictionary be of any use to begin with? – Skooba Dec 4 '15 at 14:31
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    Yes, a dictionary would be a helpful starting point for a person to explain what part of a word's meaning or usage they don't understand. – Kit Z. Fox Dec 4 '15 at 14:35
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    Who this site is for is answered at the start of the Tour: English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. – Andrew Leach Dec 4 '15 at 14:36
  • @AndrewLeach It just seems to me that site as a whole has moved beyond that as there many questions that a person who call themselves a linguist or etymologist wouldn't need to ask. – Skooba Dec 4 '15 at 14:54
  • @KitZ.Fox I can agree that a dictionary can be helpful, but seeing as they have posted on this site they have not used one or have and found it not helpful. In either case I do think simply commenting "look in a dictionary" is proper. Either answer/comment in a meaningful way or down vote or close the question. – Skooba Dec 4 '15 at 14:56
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    But ELU isn't here to help "ESL type people". That's what English Language Learners is for. Accommodating their questions here on ELU doesn't help either this site or the misplaced querents in the long run. – FumbleFingers Dec 4 '15 at 14:57
  • @FumbleFingers Okay, so there is another Stack for that. I have seen there is a feature to migrate questions from Stack to another. I think then the most helpful thing would be to use that feature instead of just saying "look it up". – Skooba Dec 4 '15 at 14:58
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    Note, however, that questions which can be answered with a dictionary are off-topic at English Language Learners, too. – StoneyB Dec 4 '15 at 15:00
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    @Skooba That we accommodate such questions is a kindness. Perhaps it's a kindness too far. – Andrew Leach Dec 4 '15 at 15:01
  • @StoneyB That pretty much gets to the root of the problem I have with the comment. This would lead into another discussion of "How to keep the site for what it was intended". I am sure that is core discussion of all the founders and super users who frequent SE. – Skooba Dec 4 '15 at 15:02
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    Yes, if someone doesn't know what a dictionary is, we are to assume they don't know what a dictionary is. If they do know what a dictionary is, they can easily provide proof by quoting what they found when they looked in a dictionary. Or by, you know, not asking "what does spouse mean?" in the first place. This is a site for linguists and etymologists, not a site for people who can't google "wikipedia". – RegDwigнt Dec 4 '15 at 15:24
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    @michael_timofeev The dictionary questions can, but poor questions should be improved. If there's a good answer, then there is a good question in there somewhere trying to get out. The answerer has obviously got to the core of the question in order to write the answer, so they are ideally placed to improve the question. – Andrew Leach Dec 4 '15 at 15:35
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No Stack Exchange site is a tutorial service.
No Stack Exchange site is a research service.
No Stack Exchange site is a substitute for looking in a standard reference work.

I propose that any question which does not show elementary research be closed in short order. The current close reason contains enough detail to explain what can be done to improve the question:

Please include the research you've done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic.

Very often, there's a comment recommending recourse to a dictionary or other such commonly-available reference; and the closure banner links to a useful list at What good reference works on English are available?

Now, the question might arise as to how to decide between summary closure and a migration to ELL, since that path has been opened. That decision tree starts with the fundamental consideration "Is this a good question?" and its supplementary assistants, "Does this show research? Is the question clear? Does the asker actually understand what they are asking about?" That last one means is there some understanding of what the actual problem is, not what the answer is, of course.

If the question shows some understanding, but it's couched in terms which indicate that the OP is actually a learner (for example, mention of SAT or GRE, but other indications may appear) then it's a reasonable question for ELL. It could be migrated.

It may be that if a question is improved in order that it can be reopened, it's actually reopened and then migrated to ELL. But at least it will be a good question which is migrated. Bad questions should not be migrated; nor should they be answered. They should be improved before anything happens, and being put on hold is the way to ensure that things are done in the right order.

This may mean that the question box sidebar needs to be changed again.

Currently it says this:

Is your question about using English?

We prefer questions that can be answered, not just discussed.

  • Provide details.

  • Share your research.

If your question is about learning English, ask it on ELL instead.

If your question is about this website, ask it on meta instead.

visit the help center »
asking help »

However, that would appear to support the proposal that any question which does not show elementary research be closed in short order. And if additional comments help to point the OP in the right direction, so much the better.

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    In short: Off-topic questions are off-topic. It is as simple as that. That's what "off-topic" means. And anyone is welcome to verify that by looking up "off-topic" in a dictionary of their liking. – RegDwigнt Dec 4 '15 at 15:35
  • @RegDwigнt Yup. – Andrew Leach Dec 4 '15 at 15:36
  • @AndrewLeach perhaps to help with this, the sidebar might need amendment. – michael_timofeev Dec 4 '15 at 15:43
  • @AndrewLeach I think a few changes to the sidebar above could help reduce the number of dictionary questions, or at least make them into better questions. Is there a limit as to how long the sidebar can be...can a few extra clarification guidelines be added? – michael_timofeev Dec 4 '15 at 15:49
  • There is a limit, and SE staff were pushed to get the current wording under it. However, a new Meta question on changing that sidebar would be better than discussing it here. – Andrew Leach Dec 4 '15 at 15:51
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Don't regard "Did you look that up in a dictionary?" as a rude question. Take it at face value. It's a hint, a prompt.

Either the O.P. used a dictionary first, or not.

If not, a dictionary should have been consulted first. (Probably a few dictionaries, actually.)

If so, then results from that prior research should have been included, summarized, or at least mentioned in the question. Potentially, that can serve a few functions:

  • It demonstrates prior research was done, which in turn helps ward off negative comments and downvotes.
  • It helps people reading the question better understand where the O.P. is coming from, and where the confusion lies.
  • It saves people who want to answer the question a trip to the dictionary themselves.
  • It prevents the answers from going in several different directions that the O.P. doesn't want by clarifying what the question is really asking about.

In short, it's not a rude question, it's a fair question.


There's two sides to the rudeness coin. Personally, I think there's a degree of "rudeness" when a question is skimpy on details and scant on research. It's like saying, “I just want an answer to my question. I don't want to have to do any work myself, or put any effort into this. Everyone should just be able to figure out by osmosis what I already know, and what I still need to figure out.”

By the way, there's a reason I put "rudeness" in scare quotes. I don't think most new users are really being "rude" – certainly not intentionally. We live in an online society filled with tweets and snarky comments, where brevity is valued and thoughtful deliberateness is shrugged off. Newcomers to the Stack Exchange often don't realize that this site strives to be differernt.

Every help page on SE starts with:

We're a little bit different from other sites.

and exorts new users to:

Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do.
(emphasis added)

In a language forum, that "details about what you have tried" part means, “Did you look this up? What did you search for? What did you find?” – particularly when the question is primarily about the meaning of words or phrases.

As for how to pull this off and write good questions, I've already written about this in an answer to an ELL meta question. And ELL is probably where most "ESL students, general non-English speaking persons seeking clarification" should ask their questions – but that's another matter entirely.

  • Oh, and to address this part of your question: "Would not be better to provide an answer, even if it is a simple answer?" I think, "What did the dictionary say?" can be a simple answer. After all, teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime. We're a little bit different from other sites; we don't hand out fish here. – J.R. Dec 8 '15 at 10:30
  • Yes, but do it politely. I understand that high rep users can get tired and burned out and grumpy. And some questions are just plain lazy. But don't say something in a post that you wouldn't say face to face. – ab2 Dec 11 '15 at 3:58
  • @ab2 - "Did you look that up in a dictionary?" I'd ask that to your face. I'd ask that to my kids. I'd even ask that to your kids. I think I remember my third-grade teacher asking me that once. I don't think it's a "grumpy" response to a language question. What are you, stupid? Now that's a rude question. But, What did you find in the dictionary? – I don't find that rude. – J.R. Dec 11 '15 at 15:42
  • @ J.R. The question itself is not rude. The question itself is part of educating someone. But some users are sometimes extremely rude when they ask that question, or a similar one. I'm not going to mention names, and I don't mean you, but I cringe sometimes when I read the comments of high and medium rep users to a neophyte. – ab2 Dec 11 '15 at 19:10
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    @ab27 - Fair enough. I share your concern. I, too, have seen some comments that were maybe harsher than necessary. Yet I have seen what was intended as a helpful nudge get interpreted as a rude slight, too. Allowances need to be made in both directions; I just wanted to underscore that point. – J.R. Dec 11 '15 at 19:42

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