There’s been a lot of discussion already (e.g. here, here) of what kind of questions are too basic — and the rough consensus seems to be that if a question can be answered from just standard reference sites that everyone can be expected to know (e.g. Google, Wikipedia), and doesn’t encourage better answers in any way, then it’s too basic.

Jeff has even said he’s considering a new “reason to close”: something like

general reference: this question is too basic; the answer is indexed in any number of general internet reference sources designed specifically to find that type of information.

I’d love to see that implemented! But it isn’t yet… so in the mean time, how should we respond to questions like this? Close them for a not-quite-accurate reason, or tolerate them until “general reference” rtc is available? Politely explain in the comments why they’re too basic? Answer, or refrain from answering?

(Prompted by “What do a.m and p.m mean / stand for when talking about time?”)


8 Answers 8


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:



I dislike the flip answers such as "try google". They don't show respect for the poster. Usually the poster is naive about the site and its norms, and is easily put off by answers like this. It's better to answer the question briefly and then suggest to the user that other resources better answer the question. For example if someone asks

What does household mean?

A suitable answer would be

There are many definitions that can be found using the Google search define: household. Note that there is no space between define and the colon (:). Google will provide a list of definitions.

I like the suggestion of adding a new close reason for questions that are too basic, provided it informs the user where these basic answers can be found.

  • That 'suitable answer' is quite a bit to type (yeah, yeah - I know you could keep a copy in the clipboard). Why not give a one-line (or one-word, even) definition. Or Google it yourself and paste whatever link you find. Surely it's no big deal to do that. Why send the asker away if you don't have to? Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 4:18
  • @Fumble: What?! How is typing a paragraph more work than pulling up a site, skimming through the page and copying and proofing a definition?
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 19:22
  • @MrHen: Assuming we're still talking about dealing with What does xyz mean questions, I wouldn't even bother going to the online dictionary to check it was actually valid for the questioner. Just identify the link and send him there. Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 19:31

I was contemplating a very similar question myself, after reading that and several other trivial word-request or dictionary lookups.

There appeared to be a sort of consensus that those questions could be closed as off-topic for now, as done here for example.

It's a bit disappointing to see those questions you feel have no merit get voted up of course but there is a deeper issue here about what an SO site is trying to be. Some have said that the ambition is to become the primary link when someone types a question into google. I don't agree with this blanket statement, though I really dig how this place works and have already learned much in a short time here, I just don't see it as an alternative to, say, a dictionary. If your question can be answered by using an immediate reference source then that is probably already the best resource to use. We should do one thing really well. If we try to do more than one thing, like being a dictionary, that will be a detriment to other things we do, the unique things, the really great things... the reasons people came to be interested in this site in the first place.

  • I think the issue here is whether to accomodate 'trivial' questions that can be adequately answered with LMGTFY or other simple link. You've presumably already decided on that, and simply wish to discuss how to keep trivia out. Be that as it may, are you saying the primary argument against trivia is it makes too much work for the experts? That it makes their 'job' less interesting. That it makes the site less interesting for visitors who want to causually browse through old questions? I don't feel I must argue against the 'concensus', but I'd like to know the rationale. Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 15:44
  • btw - if we want english.se to become a site for showcasing our language in all its best forms, we should avoid typing things like try and do. I'll go and search now to see if that one's already been covered... Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 16:15
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers: What is language in its "best form"? We have certain standards and conventions that we follow in this site (with many still evolving), but one thing I would not want this site to be is a place where we arbitrarily elevate a usage over another, when there is no grounds for doing so. "Try and do" is a phrase I would not use in a formal publication, but at the same time it has a well-established history of native usage. (EL&U is not a formal publication; I would also not even use "I" in a formal publication.)
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 17:34
  • @Kosmonaut: That's clear enough, thank you. I really would like to achieve a better understanding of the site's standards, conventions, aims, etc. Is it in order for me to ask basic questions on these topics in the Meta section? It's unfortunate that in this communication medium (comments) the distinction between asking and disputing can easily get lost. I don't usually intend to offend, but I get the impression I am inadvertantly doing so far too often here. Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 17:48
  • @FumbleFingers: questions on meta are very welcome :-) Sorry if I’m one of the people who can get too disputatory too quickly — I tend to get fired up easily.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 17:52
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers: dilution of quality by trivial questions makes it duller for everyone, I think; but where it hits hardest is in how interesting the site seems to newcomers. When someone browses the front page for the first few times, they’re much more likely to get drawn in if most of what they find is interesting, and more likely to get put off if the first few questions they click through to are little more than (requests for) definitions.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 18:00
  • I have corrected my non-standard expression. ;) I hadn't noticed I was doing it. Thanks!
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 19:25
  • @FumbleFingers: It is definitely in order to bring up all of these sorts of things in meta.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 20:22

Having a new close reason for these is all well and good but prevention is better than cure. Nowhere in the FAQ is it explicit that questions that can be answered from a simple internet search are not welcome here. Being able to close general reference questions is great but it would be even better if we could prevent them happening in the first place. Shouldn't we update the FAQ to match the new close reason?

  • 1
    This is already a close reason-- this meta post is fairly old.
    – user10893
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 14:22
  • @simchona You haven't read my post. I'm not suggesting making it a close reason, I'm acknowledging that it's a close reason and suggesting adding it to the FAQ.
    – Waggers
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 14:26
  • The faq reports about the closing reasons. Having that reported in the FAQ doesn't prevent such questions are asked, though.
    – apaderno
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 17:09
  • @Waggers: I absolutely agree, and have asked a new meta question about this!
    – PLL
    Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 18:18

My opinion is to close them as off-topic. I tend to flag them as off-topic or ignore them but would much rather get clearance to simply flag them all for closure than wonder which ones really deserve it.

  • 1
    Strongly seconded, until a better close reason is available. I'll add that we certainly don't want to become a free look-up dictionary service, nor a copy of The Urban Dictionary (God forbid!).
    – F'x
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 20:26

Standard does not mean reliable. also google doesn't answer questions, users may have doubts as to whether google search results are credible or accurate. this should not be grounds for removal/closing, although, combined with other reasons, may affirm a closure.


I don't really get the fundamental objection to accepting 'trivial' questions. Is it that they dilute the quality of the site's more 'interesting' content? That they waste the finite resource of moderators' time? I genuinely don't know, and would be interested to find out to what extent all advocates of the proposed restriction agree on a single commonly-held reason for the action.

Speaking for myself (if I were King here, and resources were not an issue), I'd positively encourage the first Answerer to post a LMGTFY link wherever appropriate. And use an informal 'code of ethics' or tweak the rep system to discourage later viewers from adding any further posts. Unless they have something important to add that actually is relevant to OP (in which case they can remove the LMGTFY link, or hope someone else will if they don't have the rep).

I admit I'm a noob here, and if there is a 'mission statement' for the site I haven't read it (I did look, honest!). So maybe I don't get much of a vote. But I think the whole concept of the site is brilliant - it covers an area dear to my heart, and I'm somewhat fascinated by this weird combination of Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, what-have-you user interface features, that seem to evolve before my very eyes.

If my approach were carried through properly, all Google what does xyz mean queries might start coming straight through to english.se. So what? There are plenty of people to post a LMGTFY, and it's done & dusted. The site could start its own online dictionary word-by-word, gradually redirecting the LMGTFY links to what would eventually be the biggest & best language reference on the planet.

In short - come one, come all. Let the programmers figure out some more tweaks to the UI and data storage facilities so it all works out.

  • 4
    I was about to ask what the acronym meant...
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 23:47
  • that is discussed here: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8724/…
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 23:56
  • @z7sg: I've waded through quite a lot of that link, but I see no clear rationale or consensus. Again - who cares if lots of questions here are trivial? No-one has to read them or respond. The gems will still be here and I fail to see how they'd be much harder to find just because of low-grade stuff. And if e.se bounces a query straight back to Google the questioner will presumably just take the second link, safe in the knowledge that wiser heads have already decided there's no danger it'll turn out to be tosh. Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 0:34
  • @FumbleFingers: dilution of quality is a real issue, I think. I’ve seen it happen to the point of making a site slightly less fun and attractive to newcomers; I’ve read stories of sites that became unusable because of it. It’s one of those slippery slope, boiling-a-frog things: it’s easy to skip past one uninteresting question, or a couple, and then suddenly you wake up and the site is all “WHAT DOES ‘DOG’ EVEN MEAN OMG LALALALA!!11!!!”. Or something :-)
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 2:32
  • @PPL: I take your point but surely if posters are that dorky they wouldn't come here because they'd not be welcome. And why can't the UI include support for trusted users to 'hide' posts generally considered to be 'not very interesting'. Isn't that part of what the rating system is supposed to be for? Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 4:14
  • Further to which, isn't this site trying to become a repository of knowledge? I know those building up the knowledge base want to get their rocks off with interesting new stuff, but who decides what constitutes 'knowledge'? I think if someone asks to know something, by definition what they want must be knowledge. Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 4:23
  • @FumbleFingers: there is a clear consensus and it is mentioned in the FAQ that lmgtfy is not an acceptable answer.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 8:26
  • @z7sg: As mentioned in my answer, I haven't been able to find a 'mission statement' defining the basic objectives of the site. And I see nothing at all procribing LMGTFY in the FAQ - let alone the variation I suggest which would re-route the questioner with optimal query words to get his answer elsewhere. And I have suggested that if 'the experts' don't wish to see 'trivial' questions the site UI could be tweaked so only one person needs to rate it as 'uninteresting'. Others could just have the trivia 'hidden' by default. Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 14:23
  • 1
    Unfortunately, this isn't the appropriate way to handle a back and forth question debate. In your answer (disregarding comments) I counted 10 questions or statements that deserve their own unique dialogue. I don't feel like dealing with them. Your opinion seems to boil down to, "Deal with them by answering them." With this, I disagree.
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 19:20
  • @FumbleFingers This is from the FAQ: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5280/embrace-the-non-googlers It is not an 'official' document, it's just that you can read the general consensus out of the question which is highly rated, and the top answers.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 19:21
  • 2
    @Fumble: Okay, here is a good blog post I haven't seen linked yet. Maybe that will help.
    – MrHen
    Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 19:33
  • @MrHen: Thanks. Some very useful points made in that blog. I now understand a bit more about the technical issues involved in building a knowledge base of potentially vast capacity, with finite resources to manage classification, merging of duplicates, search facilities, etc. Maybe my LMGTFY ideas aren't even implementable, regardless of whether they were desirable. Commented Apr 6, 2011 at 23:39

If we accept the axiom that trivial questions are bad for the site, then the proper response to a general reference question is:

  1. Don't answer!
  2. If you have the rep, vote to close. (Until/unless the "general reference" reason is implemented, choose "off topic".) If you don't have the rep, flag.
  3. If you're the first person to vote to close, leave a gentle comment (not an answer!) along the lines of "Welcome to the site, but your question is a bit too simple; you could improve it by [x, y, z]." (This is presuming that the asker is new. If he's not, adjust the comment appropriately.)
  4. Have I mentioned DO NOT post an answer?
  5. If anyone else has posted an answer already, do not vote it up.

The point is not to encourage trivial questions. If you post an answer or vote up an existing answer, you're implicitly encouraging more questions like it.

As far as my opinion of trivial questions: I agree that if they're truly trivial dictionary lookups, then they're indeed bad for the site. They just clutter up the question list and provide easy and worthless reputation. (In the sense that the points gained from them do not actually reflect the posters' actual reputation-as-a-measure-of-expertise.)

The caveat is that not all "what does X mean" questions are simple dictionary lookups - it really depends on what X is. An example that has been discussed recently is the TL;DR question: yes, you can look up the expansion of the abbreviation in any number of places, but that's not the only thing it means/is used for.

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