9

In the proposal to merge ELU and ELL, the asker in passing mentioned:

On the other hand, many native speakers actually ask questions such as single word requests which should not be the focus of ELU anyway.

Very shortly afterwards, and with complete absence of chalance, another member inquired after this remark as follows:

What's wrong with single word requests?

I’m moving that discussion here lest it overwhelm the other question. For not only is this a fine question in and of itself, it is one which I feel we should periodically reassess.

To that end, here were some of our previous discussions about this problem. Most include postings by Community Managers and Site Moderators concerned with this grave issue that confronts us all.

As you can see from reading those, single word requests have always been a problem on this site, and the situation has if anything gotten worse as time has worn on.

Let’s finally do something about it

My own personal opinion is that we should get rid of these if at all possible, and severely curtail and restrict them if not. It doesn't matter whether the request is for a single word, a phrase, an idiom, a proverb, or any other related “guessing-game style” of request.

No matter what guise they take, these are all a drain on our site quality and a drain on our community’s time, both moderator time answering flags and that of the general community running the review queues.

These posts do not fit with the SE model. They are mere guessing games. Often the most highly upvoted “answers” are mindless copypasta with no original text to speak of. They draw one-liners that are essentially unexplained and unsupported single-word answers that get automatically flagged for low quality. And everybody and his dog, and his neighbor’s dog, thinks they should add yet another one-liner “this is my opinion” suggestion years down the road, even though that one was already given a long, long time ago.

These are not answers worthy of our site.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that all requests for words and phrases are fundamentally a poor fit for the SE format. They're just guessing games and popularity contests, too broad and opinionated.

They draw low quality contributions and copypasta. They drive away the very experts we seek to attract, for these are not expert answers well suited to a site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English-language experts.

Usually there is no research. People haven’t bothered to look at a thesaurus or even Google. These almost all wind up being thinly veiled requests for writing advice, programming advice, and shaming advice.

But you know what? We have no reason being in any of those three businesses here. That’s why I say good riddance with bad rubbish! Let’s get rid of them and move on.

But what I say isn’t that important. The important matter is. . .

What does the community say about these?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Dec 5 '16 at 20:46
  • If the answer isn't worthy of the site, then the question probably isn't either, and it should probably be closed. Now (the real question IMO), why isn't it closed? And if the Q shouldn't be closed, why not just use the DV button on the A? – Mazura Jul 29 '17 at 20:10
  • @Mazura Pretty sure that an incipient site-rename to writingrequests.stackchange.com will perforce render moot all futile querulations of true purpose – tchrist Jul 29 '17 at 20:38
  • serious English-language experts. Eh, typo? It's enthusiasts. "These are not answers worthy of our site." and then you go on to talk about questions. Which is it (or are you just using headers underneath)? - Same suggestion years down the road, even though that one was already given a long, long time ago. Then it either 'adds nothing to the previous answer' or is someone's fault for deleting it the first time. Maybe I'm just reading too far in between the lines, in that we can't just do away with SWRs, so we just want a place that says we get to delete crap that we don't like? – Mazura Jul 29 '17 at 21:14
  • 1
    @Mazura The problem isn't that we aren't deleting crap we don't like. The problem is that we aren't deleting crap. Writing requests, crossword requests, joke requests, puzzle requests, and it's-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue requests have no place here. They should be closed and deleted with neither prejudice nor mercy. They trivialize us into a gaming site not a site for people serious about matters of English linguistics. – tchrist Jul 29 '17 at 21:22
  • "[The SWR] tag is for questions seeking a single word that fits a meaning." AKA, writing requests, crossword requests, etc. By the tag's own description, and its mere existence, we have a place for all of those here by default. – Mazura Jul 29 '17 at 21:43
  • Bravo! You did exactly the right thing in closing that duplicate question and migrating the answers to the older question. I could kiss you! – Mari-Lou A Aug 3 '17 at 0:27
19

TL;DR

Single-word requests are not the problem, they are just the kind of questions where some problems (in particular lack of guidance) predominantly manifest themselves. Only addressing these problems will lead to actual progress.

Some of the criticism described in the question is specific to single-word requests, but it is either not an actual problem or only applies to a small subgroup of problems.

The General Problems

The following problems are not specific to single-word requests; they are just more prominent in them. Banning single-word requests on their account would not solve these problems and we would get fed up with other question types soon. Rather we should address these problems in a more general matter.

Lack of Guidance for Askers

I think that many users asking single-word requests can actually produce good single-word requests if they receive proper guidance, preferably before asking.

Unfortunately, we do not have many ways at hand to provide users with guidance before they ask a question. Okay, there are tag warnings but they are broken. This problem is not specific to single-word requests; we see it with all sorts of questions. It’s not even specific to this site; on Let's Plan the Second Iteration of the Stack Exchange Quality Project!, the top answer and many more address this very problem. Instead of banning single-word requests, where this problem is very notable, we should lobby for a general mechanism to give askers guidance.

What we can do ourselves is give askers better and early guidance. As askers are not automatically informed about close votes (or even closure), we should help them with comments as early as possible. There was an attempt to create a repository for pro-forma comments, but it didn’t really take off. We really need some sort of resource for reviewers (and other power users) to make it as easy as possible for them to properly guide askers – not only for single-word requests.

Lack of Guidance for Answerers

Many of the above problems apply to answerers as well, however in addition I witness many high-reputation users leaving the following canned comment from the low-quality queue under single-line answers¹ for single-word requests (or the slightly modified one if the answerer has the comment privilege):

This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker.

This is misleading as those answers are not proper comments. Moreover it does not provide any guidance whatsoever as to what is wrong with the question. We have to educate these reviewers that rather should not choose a comment and even better write a fitting comment themselves (or upvote an existing one).

Disposing of Bad Answers

When I obtained access to the review queues, I often skipped single-line answers¹ because I didn’t know whether I should flag them for deletion or not. Past discussions on Meta did not yield clear information, so I asked a question myself. Unfortunately many of the answers skipped one of the cases, but as a general tendency I would say that the community favours quick deletion.

While this outcome causes many reviews, these reviews are particularly easy. Single-line answers¹ on single-word requests can be clearly identified within seconds. So, I really do not see the reviewer and moderator load as a problem, as long as we all agree that immediate deletion is the best course of action for these answers.

¹ more precisely: answers without reference or other backup.

Answers in Comments

This wasn’t mentioned in the question, but this is something that annoys me about many single-word requests (and other types of question). These lead to long, unnecessary, and unproductive comment strings, loss of structure and quality, and they lead to moderation work.

In my opinion, this should be addressed by clearly banning answers as comments and agreeing that they are free game for flags. If sufficiently many users raise a non-custom flag, such comments can even be deleted without moderator intervention – but then we need to agree upon this. However, this should be discussed separately.

“I want this to be an expert site”

There seems to be a pattern on Stack Exchange sites (in particular language sites) that a group of high-reputation users wants them to be an expert-questions utopia. They want to gerrymander the scope such that it only allows for questions they are interested in. This is a bad idea.

As soon as a site has reached a certain popularity, it will automatically attract non-experts asking non-expert questions, and this is a good thing because it keeps the experts (who are most likely to ask expert questions) entertained. Moreover, while a single non-experts are less likely to ask expert questions, non-experts in total are more likely to do so due to their sheer number.

Unfortunately, not all experts are entertained by the same sort of non-expert questions, so most experts have to live with some non-expert questions they do not care about, be it single-word requests, questions on punctuation, or trivial grammar questions. If we want the site to strive we have to live with a portion of questions that we do not like. And the good thing with single-word requests is that they have their own tag and can thus be easily ignored.

Besides, I do not think that single-word requests are non-expert questions: Most of them cannot be answered with a dictionary or thesaurus (and I find it silly to require people to put a boilerplate statement that they searched a those, if it is not obvious what keyword they should look for). They need somebody whose vocabulary already contains the word – a feature most likely to be found on an expert.

Now, what can we do about all of this? Raise awareness and accept that we do not have to like every question on the site.

The Specific Non-Problems

While most of the problems with single-word request can be addressed and are not specific to them, there is some critique that I do not consider an issue:

The Guessing Game

These posts do not fit with the SE model. They are mere guessing games.

I beg to disagree. Of course, we can only make an educated guess as to what really helps the asker, but that applies to all Stack Exchange questions to some extent and at the end of the day, it only decides about which answer will be accepted, if any. What answers the question as posted is not a guessing game (at least for good single-word requests), can be evaluated by voters, and is useful to future visitors.

More than once, I was looking for a word and found it an answer in a single-word-request that was not the accepted one, because the question was about a sufficiently general problem.

Copypasta

While it’s inherent to the nature of single-word requests that answers are little more than a dictionary quote, I do not consider this a necessarily bad thing. The challenge lies in connecting this information with the question. Also, we are helping the asker and possibly future visitors.

“writing advice, programming advice, and shaming advice”

I do not see how this applies to more than a tiny fraction of bad single-word requests that should probably be closed. It’s not a problem of single-word requests in general.

Conclusions

  • Do not ban single-word requests in general.

  • Pressure Stack Exchange to give us some mechanism to inform askers and answerers before they post anything.

  • Install clear and easy guidelines for reviewers and other power users to reduce the reviewing workload.

  • Accept that each of us has to live with some questions that we do not particularly find interesting.

  • 6
    Jeez, I almost want to give you money for this spot-on answer. And your point about "different experts will find different types of non-expert questions entertaining" was an eye-opener for me, it caused some reflection on some of my positions. – Dan Bron Dec 5 '16 at 15:03
  • 2
    Exceptional answer. The three areas were major improvements are needed are the guidance in asking and answering, and the getting rid of bad answers. + 1 – Helmar Dec 5 '16 at 15:46
  • As far as I've gotten, this is fascinating, but... any chance you could shorten it? – aparente001 Dec 10 '16 at 5:18
  • 1
    @aparente001: Well, it has a TL;DR. Otherwise: Probably no. Life has given me to understand that I am the sort of person who tends to overly concise writing. – Wrzlprmft Dec 10 '16 at 6:24
  • I can't judge. But if you want to leave the long answer as is, could you put a summary version at the top or bottom? I was finding it edifying but was having trouble making it all the way through. – aparente001 Dec 10 '16 at 6:29
  • 2
    @aparente001: TL;DR stands for too long; didn’t read. It is a summary. – Wrzlprmft Dec 10 '16 at 6:31
  • Didn't you post a question on ELU about an Academia tag, and didn't I answer it? I can't find it. – aparente001 Dec 10 '16 at 6:32
  • I bet you could tighten it up if you tried. – aparente001 Dec 10 '16 at 6:32
  • 1
    TL;DR: This is a bad idea. SWRs have their own tag and can thus be easily ignored. OPs need somebody whose vocabulary already contains the word. Answers can be evaluated by voters and then become (more) useful to future visitors. E.g., more than once, I found what I was looking for in an answer to a single-word-request that was not the accepted one, because the question was about a sufficiently general problem. – Mazura Jul 29 '17 at 19:55
  • 1
    Bad (IMO) single-word requests are a tiny fraction, and they should probably be closed. It’s not a problem of single-word requests in general. Pressure Stack Exchange to give us some mechanism to help us close stuff, and banners or something to help guide new users, and accept that each of us has to live with one another. – Mazura Jul 29 '17 at 19:55
  • @Mazura To the contrary: virtually all single word requests are indistinguishable from crossword-puzzle requests, writing requests, and other “pick-me! pick-me!“ list-enumeration requests, and so are off-topic on a site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Feel free to initiate an Area 51 proposal to create a new Stack Exchange site that can serve those who come seeking such trivialities. – tchrist Jul 29 '17 at 21:28
8

I accept that we see a ton of bad SWRs every day that show almost zero research effort. Those bad apples shouldn't make us ban the "requests" concept entirely.

Sometimes even tech-savvy users like me find it difficult to google certain things. So it's very helpful to ask experts in the language.

IMHO, SWRs, and the like, should remain on ELU. And we should focus more on how we can reduce the number of bad ones.

  • focus more on how we can reduce the number of bad ones - I'm all ears. I think the 'new' requirement (contextual example) does a fine job. It's that no one is enforcing it except one or two mods. – Mazura Jul 29 '17 at 19:59
-7

I don't think this issue is an easy one before English Language and Usage (ELU) clearly sets its target audience and strategy. Almost all the guidelines on ELU are vague and grey except for those on a request for proof-reading and translation. That's why there are disputes and arguments among users. Some are more lenient and others are more strict. For example, we have a close reason for Single Word Request (SWR) questions as follows:

Questions on choosing an ideal word or phrase must include information on how it will be used in order to be answered. For help writing a good word or phrase request, see: About single word requests

The above close-reason means

  1. You need to write an example sentence where the word or phrase would be used. There are many questions that don't have it and still remain unclosed and answered by users. Examples are abundant in SWR Tag and Phrase-Requests Tag.

  2. It excludes idioms and expressions request. They usually contain some context for users to suggest idioms or expressions. I don't think they are problematic as long as they have detailed context for which the idiom or expression would be used.

As a compromise for the time being, I'd like to suggest we close all SWR questions that don't have any example sentence. We need to post a comment requesting the OP to come up with an example sentence and if they don't respond, let's close them. I think it is a good start before considering banning all the SWR questions immediately.

  • 6
    I don't see the need for an explicit example sentence if the word that is asked for and its context is otherwise sufficiently described. In my view there are ways to include information on how it will be used without an example sentence, even though the tag wiki excerpt suggests otherwise. Furthermore closing every second SWR or more would likely put an unsustainable strain on the review queues. – Helmar Dec 5 '16 at 15:57
  • 2
    You misunderstood me. (1/2) I think the close reason wording is totally fine, in fact include information on how it will be used should be our close guideline, not the strikter one given in the tag excerpt. If anything, we should change the latter. Our highest voted SWR with nearly 200 votes has no example sentence and still the meaning of the word that is sought is completely clear. Here – Helmar Dec 5 '16 at 16:08
  • 3
    (2/2) That is why I think we should follow the rule as intended and not necessarily as written. If the usage is abundantly clear, there is no reason for closure. Regarding the review queues of course it concerns me. We don't have the reviewer pool Stack Overflow has and opening up a new major influx of reviews could actually lead to clogging up the queues, making the overall community moderation less effective. – Helmar Dec 5 '16 at 16:11
  • Every second was a guess about the number of SWRs without example sentence. Admittedly I haven't checked the actual numbers, but I'd guess it's a lot of them. – Helmar Dec 5 '16 at 16:12
  • 1
    (1) Of course I know, it's about 50-60 SWRs a week, about 10 a day. It's an information provided in the tag list. (2) I said we don't have the reviewer pool of Stackoverflow, not that we don't have any pool. It was to indicate that comparing the influx of questions on SO with us is comparing apples and oranges. (3) We really don't have that many reviewers the recent review page provides that information and I regularly have a look at it. Some of our reviewers even seem to explicitly avoid the close queue (or more positively put, they focus their energies in other queues). – Helmar Dec 5 '16 at 16:19
  • First item: english.stackexchange.com/tags your calculation is not valid, we have live data. – Helmar Dec 5 '16 at 16:20
  • @Helmar You may be right that example sentences are not always needed (though they should still be strongly recommended.) What about specifying what word class the OP is looking for? I think that should be considered essential, even more so than an example sentence. – curiousdannii Dec 7 '16 at 8:35
  • @curiousdannii I agree, the word class is part of that information. However if it is a question of the what is this item called?" there is no need to write out *I am looking for a noun. – Helmar Dec 7 '16 at 8:37
  • @Helmar Do you mean for questions with an image of something, or which clearly describe a physical object? Those are the simplest SWRs, but they're not very common. Most SWRs I see could be for both nouns and adjectives. – curiousdannii Dec 7 '16 at 8:39
  • @curiousdannii yes I did. They might be rare, I just wanted to point out that the word class can be abundantly clear without being spelled out. – Helmar Dec 7 '16 at 8:40
  • @Helmar The whole point of this post was to counter-propose an idea to let some questions be asked as long as they meet some guidelines. That's all. Even if a question has an example sentence or specific part of speech, if an answer is too easy to come up with, they should be closed. My point is SWRs should follow the existing guidelines more strictly than before in order to survive., . – user140086 Dec 7 '16 at 8:46

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .