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This subject came up in the town hall chat: how basic is too basic, and more importantly, how do we help users to write questions that are not too basic?

"Find in dictionary" questions

Can we come up with guidelines, a la the Good Subjective-Bad Subjective blog post, for asking "what does [x] mean" and "what's the difference between [x] and [y]" type questions? The Are Some Questions Too Simple blog post gives some guidelines for the answerer, but I'm hoping to come up with suggestions for the asker.

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One mark of the good dictionary questions is that they often start by quoting a dictionary! (Or two.)

[Bad] Is an avocado usually described as a fruit or a vegetable in English?

[Good] Famous Dictionary™ defines avocado as “…an oval green fruit with leathery skin…”, but in my country avocado is always called vegetable. Is this really different in USA?

[Good] I’m confused: This Dictionary™ says an avocado is a fruit, but That Dictionary™ says it’s a vegetable. Which one is right?

So as a suggestion for the asker: try a dictionary first. Type define: avocado into Google, and look at the top few hits. If those don’t answer your question (they don’t give enough detail, or you think they may not be accurate, or…), then it probably isn’t too basic to ask here. Plus, you now have some additional details: quote what you found, and explain why you’re not satisfied.

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    May I shamelessly plug my ZOMG question? It's more about origin than meaning, but I think it does illustrate your point. – RegDwigнt Feb 24 '11 at 12:16
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There is now a new experimental close reason, as previously discussed:

general reference

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.

Give that a try; we're evaluating the results. Also refer to the blog post on the topic with its handy chart:

http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/02/are-some-questions-too-simple/

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I'm with Jeff [Atwood] on "General Reference" questions. We should be about nuance and experience, not a substitute for a Pocket Oxford or Etymologies Online. It's one thing to talk about the subtleties and unwritten (mostly) rules of English, and quite another to simply be a LMGTFY service.

  • and we typically ban lmgtfy via the blacklist as well.. – Jeff Atwood Feb 24 '11 at 4:28
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    You misunderstand: I agree that general reference questions don't add value to the site and should be closed. What I want are hints, tips, tricks, guidelines, etc. that distinguish a good "what does X mean" question from a general reference "what does X mean" question. – Marthaª Feb 24 '11 at 4:47
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    @Martha: I'll try to clarify things in my answer a little later. I did understand what you meant, but I don't think I'm making myself understood at the moment. (I don't always articulate things as well as I think I do -- dementia is a <insert appropriate vulgarity>, but, on the upside, it's what gives me time to hang around places like this instead of making a valuable contribution to society.) – bye Feb 24 '11 at 4:57
  • I agree we shouldn't aim to be a substitute for Etymonline, but we have worked hand-in-hand with that site to make it better—often by answering questions deemed general reference by some users. – Callithumpian May 23 '12 at 12:01

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