Recently a user posted this question on Meta.

I have noticed since then that users still tell OPs to use a dictionary (and not usually in what is considered polite language [something non-native speakers are especially attuned to]).

Just so we're clear what I'm talking about, if someone asks a question, "I don't understand what the word predict means, can someone help me?" Well, that question is a "look it up in the dictionary" kind of question, unless we get further context. in which case we ask for it.

But a question such as "I was reading a play and the play said "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." and I don't know what slings and arrows are because I thought they were something used to kill people like a bow and arrow." is not a "Look it up in the dictionary, you lazy OP," kind of question. It's a question that makes you stop and say, "OK, the language is being used in a figurative way and that's not something that a dictionary can solve, so I can see how a non-native (or even a native speaker) might not understand the sentence. As a senior user and someone knowledgeable about language and playing at being a teacher on this website, you understand this and post an answer. You are an ambassador of goodwill for SE, The English Language, and native English speakers.

I have purposely used Shakespeare as an example because I think that many users will recognize this and feel that "this is a question worthy of my time" and spend some effort on it, whereas if the question were referencing "Friends" "Seinfeld" or "Scooby Doo" people would be more likely to be dismissive.

1) If you're in a bad mood, in pain because of your medical condition, are feeling irritated about the quality of the questions, or don't feel like having compassion as a teacher, stay off the site for a while. Take a breather. Recharge your battery and come back ready to tackle the "unwashed masses." Try and "read into the question" and have a little compassion for learners or non-native speakers. Heck, I could use some of that at times myself...maybe even more than I already have.

2) Dictionary style questions are not automatic fits for ELL, closure, or snarky comments...especially not snarky comments, or ones that scold an OP, or otherwise accuse them of not using all their marbles to play "your game."

Can we have a healthy discussion about this and come to a consensus about comments such as "What did the dictionary tell you?"

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    I'm for healthy discussion, don't get me wrong, but I don't care who wrote it; if someone asks what "slings and arrows" are, and how they are related to misfortune (I mean, Fortune actually fired off the things... metaphorically) I'm interested in knowing that the OP actually knows what the real objects are before I start explaining the metaphorical ones. Also, I think you're mistaken. Most often, a look-up is a perfectly reasonable request. In your example, many would help the OP without the request. The times when culture makes "look it up" inappropriate are real, but few and far between. – anongoodnurse Dec 21 '15 at 3:47
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    yes...metaphorically, and that's something that people don;t know most of the time, which is what prompts the dictionary questions. Many of the dictionary questions are (for non-natives) quite challenging...what's the difference between cannot be answered by dictionaries easily by non-native speakers. I speak German as a second language but I had to ask a "what the difference between" question because dictionaries were no help. – michael_timofeev Dec 21 '15 at 4:38
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    You are an ambassador of goodwill for SE, The English Language, and native English speakers. There's your problem right there. You're operating on a faulty assumption. – deadrat Dec 21 '15 at 6:26
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    I think the problem is that many times OP does not say what they've tried in order to figure out their problem, in the absence of any info, the dictionary is the place to start and so it is suggested. If the OP gave sufficient context to let readers know exactly where they are in their search for an answer- what they know, what they don't know and how what they know confuses them then the dictionary would not be the first response. – Jim Dec 21 '15 at 6:27
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    @deadrat being polite and treating this website as a privilege is not a faulty assumption. – michael_timofeev Dec 21 '15 at 6:35
  • Neither being polite nor treating this site as a privilege is an assumption. The latter is not contemplated in your original assertion, and the more I think about it, the less I understand it. Being polite is a customary action born of manners, and I understood your phrasing as a declaration that people understand such to be their standard of behavior. History says that's simply not true. – deadrat Dec 21 '15 at 7:59
  • By the way, if you don't believe me, you have only to consult the voting on your question. And also by the way, I am not a downvoter. – deadrat Dec 21 '15 at 8:03
  • @deadrat my point in posting this was to get people thinking about this again and for those who do this kind of stuff to think about it. You are not someone who posts the "Look it up in a dictionary" kind of comments, and are not antagonistic towards others. I understood when posting this that it would get downvotes. I observed a question this morning that had this kind of behavior on it and just had enough. – michael_timofeev Dec 21 '15 at 8:23
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    I've given this topic some thought. I believe that you're on the wrong track if you think that people have the right concept but are rude (for lack of a better word) because they're tired or irritated and just need a breather. Some folks have a concept of the site that builds in the kind of behavior you're talking about, and they can't abandon the latter unless they change the former. Unfortunately they and their targets are locked in a deadly embrace, one side cursed with knowledge; the other, with ignorance. – deadrat Dec 21 '15 at 8:42
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    I try not to offend low-rep posters. I think it's unbecoming. It may also be unlucky. My only other superstition is not to park illegally in handicapped spots. The two may be related. But there are some moderators on this site who can attest to just how antagonistic a jerk I can be. – deadrat Dec 21 '15 at 8:46

I'm not sure what this question adds to the previous discussion. Of course, people should not be rude when asking what research the original poster of a question has done. I haven't seen many comments that I would consider rude. But I'm a native speaker, and you say that I may not be as attuned to rudeness as non-native speakers.

Without knowing the specific actual questions you saw, it's hard to evaluate the examples you give.

Taking this example: "I was reading a play and the play said "to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." and I don't know what slings and arrows are because I thought they were something used to kill people like a bow and arrow."

This actually is already better than a lot of the questions we get, in that it shows some level of research or prior knowledge as to the literal meaning of "slings" and "arrows." More commonly, questions don't indicate anything about whether the poster is totally unfamiliar with a word, unfamiliar with a specific literal use, or unfamiliar with a certain metaphorical use.

As for impolite language, generally my "formula" for these kind of comments is this: "What did you find when you looked up [word] in a dictionary?"

Maybe it is a little terse; please tell me if it comes across as impolite because of this, and also suggest what you would consider polite wording. I do try to avoid assuming that the OP didn't look it up, and I also want to ask in a way that doesn't seem like a rhetorical question, but encourages them to actually post the relevant definition rather than just responding with something non-informative like "I looked it up but I didn't understand how the definition applies."

If the post already has close votes, I may add another sentence before this saying something like "Questions here are required to show a certain amount of research effort; without adding more information, your question is in danger of being closed."

  • It's not a matter of the wording, it's a matter of recognizing how one should respond to questions and not treating all questions about word meanings the same. Questions in which someone asks the difference between words, or words in context are valid. Just as an example, asking what the difference is between instructions and directions or conversation and discussion are quite interesting and useful and shouldn't be shut down as "Look it up in the dictionary." (those are not actual examples but representative.) – michael_timofeev Dec 21 '15 at 8:27
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    @michael_timofeev: they will not be shut down if the original poster includes definitions. If they are shut down, they can be open again if the poster edits the question to add definitions. The point of this is not to permanently close to question, but to make it so that the answers will have to do more than just quote the dictionary definitions of whatever words are being asked about. (And to give the people writing answers guidance as to what more they need to explain.) – herisson Dec 21 '15 at 8:41
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    @michael_timofeev: also, you haven't said if you find it rude or not. Do you think my formulaic comment would be rude if posted beneath a question about the difference between "instructions" and "directions"? If I only ask for definitions, and don't vote to close, how am I shutting down the question? I'm trying to prevent it being shut down, and to make the answers more useful. It's not "Don't bother us, go look in the dictionary"; it's "tell us what you found in the dictionary so that we can write more interesting and useful answers." – herisson Dec 21 '15 at 8:46
  • I didn't put a link because I don't want to start a fight with anyone. – michael_timofeev Dec 21 '15 at 9:04

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