We've discussed before:

Are single word requests always welcomed questions?

Are word requests allowed?

The consensus of earlier discussions was that these questions are on the low end, but not specifically disallowed. However, the last few months of experience have started to bias me against these questions, so much so that I think we need to reevaluate our decision to allow them. I'm now of the opinion that single word requests should be either disallowed entirely or subject to much more stringent requirements.

The reasons are as follows:

  1. We get lots of them. Lots and lots.
  2. Most of them are uninteresting and of low quality.
  3. They have a high propensity to attract one-word answers and poor answers from newbie users.
  4. In chat, many of the most active users have complained about them. In other words, they attract less active users but repel the most active users.

I'm opening up the floor for voting on whether to ban single word requests entirely, or else for new guidelines that will help us separate the rare wheat from the depressingly abundant chaff.

I totally support dramatically reducing the quantity and increasing the quality of single-word-request type questions. Anyone have a proposal for what requirements we could add? –  nohat Jul 26 '11 at 18:27
We get a lot of bad SWR questions, but we also get a lot of bad questions for many other tags. (Cf. meaning or word-choice if you don't believe me.) I'm all for raising the S/N ratio on ELU, but any solution to the SWR problem that raises the bar for that tag should be fairly and evenly applied across the board. –  Robusto Aug 19 '11 at 12:55
If you think it was bad three years ago, just look at it now. Total travesty. –  tchrist Jul 13 at 16:47
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9 Answers 9

I mostly agree with Martha. I like the intent behind these questions but I am not happy with most of them. My personal favorite is: Is there a word to describe a highly desirable cursed treasure?

I feel that questions like that are perfect for this site. There isn't any way to look something like that up in a thesaurus and the concept described is extremely useful and interesting.

Another good example is What's the opposite word for “sin”? This question isn't actually tagged as a single-word-request but it essentially is exactly that.

My personal criteria for whether a single-word-request is worth having:

  • Do I instantly pick up a thesaurus to look for the answer? BAD QUESTION
  • Is the concept too narrowly focused a particular technology? BAD QUESTION
  • Is the question having difficulty describing the intended meaning? BAD QUESTION

  • Can I immediately relate to the concept being presented? GOOD QUESTION

  • Does the question provide a clear and understandable example of the concept? GOOD QUESTION
  • Is the concept distinct from similar concepts or words? GOOD QUESTION

Really, this tag is like any other. If we hack away at the "EL&U as thesaurus" perception I think we can turn it into an extremely useful category.

"word to describe a highly desirable cursed treasure" is a very well written question that demonstrates research. Goes back to OP doing some work, as I outlined in my answer here. –  Jeff Atwood Aug 10 '11 at 4:57
@Jeff: Agreed. My point was that the issue isn't with the tag itself. –  MrHen Aug 10 '11 at 12:48
perhaps updating the tag wiki to better explain the need for research would help? –  Jeff Atwood Aug 10 '11 at 21:21
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I think the key thing here is that we must require the asker to do some research.

Comparing, for example,

What would you call someone who makes no lasting impression?

Question is a single sentence.

7 Answers, all but 2 are a single sentence. The remaining two are.. TWO sentences.


Looking for a better term than 'benign envy' or 'mudita'

Question is 6 paragraphs, includes link and an illustrative image.

6 answers, most are multiple paragraphs and blockquotes and sentences.

It's clear that a lot more effort went into the latter question, and this site -- and the answers to that question -- are all substantially better for it.

This is also something we've noted before in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective:

Great subjective questions inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”. Great subjective questions tend to have long, not short, answers.

Therefore, questions which are extremely short, and inspire extremely short answers, are a bad sign -- how much can you truly teach or explain in a single sentence?

Worst case, is like playing Charades. "I'm thinking of a word. Three syllables."

Requiring the OP to show some research is key, and simple: what have you tried? and in what context do you plan to use this? The sidebar that appears when you ask a question also covers this:

Provide details. Share your research.

... relevant bit being share your research. And if you haven't done any, should you even be asking here?

+1 for all, but especially Worst case, single-word-request is like playing Charades. "I'm thinking of a word. Three syllables." –  Drew Jul 13 at 15:27
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Both my top question and my top answer are in , so I'm probably biased, but I strongly believe these are valid questions that should not be outlawed. Like all questions, however, context is king: the question needs to be as explicit as possible about the context where the word is desired, as well as why the words the questioner knows (if any) are inadequate to the purpose.

(I do think that GAFT questions should be closed with prejudice, and any fastest-gun-in-the-west answers they've gathered should be deleted. But I don't see this as a problem with the s-w-r tag; it's a general problem that can exist in any tag.)

please, take a look at this meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/2731/… –  Tames Jun 19 '12 at 18:45
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To me, it's the unanswerability of many of these questions that's the problem. They're not just subjective — they're mindreading, resembling...

  • Taboo — Guess away! I've got something really specific in mind, but can't tell you any of its synonyms. That would be cheating.
  • Catch Phrase — It should start with an E and have three syllables and rhyme with "aardvark," but I'm not allowed to tell you that in my initial question.
  • Outburst — Let's just list everything related to a topic!
  • Pictionary — You're asking for the name of a species of tree? No, definitely a kind of cloud. Fuzzy request, yet looks like words.

Examples of the confusing sort: A word for something you didn't know you'd like, Alternate words for paperwork, Better word for 'petition' when the request is a vacation

What makes a good ? I don't think it's that different from other questions:

  • Well-defined, distinct concept with necessary context presented; not too limited.
  • To answer will require a human, not just a reverse dictionary; an answer will need to not just list words but explain why a word or phrase is appropriate, and make associations that weren't easily searchable before.
  • Doesn't ask us to do all the work; presents a practical problem showing effort at solving it (the proofreading example we don't accept, "are there any mistakes?", is a lot like "can you rewrite this idea into a coherent word or phrase for me?" in terms of a bound on effort).

What to do?

I don't know if a faq change would really help us keep some of these questions and not others, since to me it boils down to "ask good questions." We could try coaching new users with comments on borderline s-w-r questions, especially before they get downvoted or closed. Maybe something like these:

  • "Could you tell us more about where you hope to use the word or phrase?"
  • "For this type of question, we usually like to know a little more about the words or phrases you've considered. Can you tell us why [x] or [y] don't quite fit the meaning you're looking for?"
I agree with "The answer will require a human, not just a reverse dictionary". I call this type of questions "wikipedia entries". –  Theta30 Feb 9 '12 at 17:45
please check this out meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/2731/… –  Tames Jun 19 '12 at 18:46
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When I see some of the questions tagged I always ask myself: Why is the OP limiting the answers to the one reporting a single word? Is there a practical reason for making single word requests, or the OP is just asking the question for amusement?

As the OP generally doesn't know if there is a single word that matches the criteria reported in the question, I think that the limit of a single word should be removed; thus, questions should not be tagged .

Request for phrases (including the phrases made of just a word) should not be accepted if:

  • There is not a practical reason behind asking that (as it should be with other questions)
  • The question is too generic, and it doesn't specify exactly the criteria that the requested phrase should match
  • The question is asking a synonym (or antonym) for a word when that synonym can be easily found in a dictionary

The second point should avoid situations where the OP doesn't describe too restrictive criteria, but then discard the suggested words for a non specified reason, such as "all words but that."

"There is no such word" is always a possible answer to a single-word-request, but I don't see how that would invalidate the whole class of question: "neither of your choices is appropriate" is a possible answer to word-choice questions, "nobody knows the origin" can be the answer to etymology questions, and so forth. –  Marthaª Jul 27 '11 at 5:13
Also, your reject reasons are all existing close reasons. There's nothing about them that applies more to single-word-requests than to any other type of question. –  Marthaª Jul 27 '11 at 5:20
"There is no such word" doesn't seem an helpful reply, and I don't see any case where the "give me a single word" restriction is being applied for a good reason. My point is exactly that: The existing reasons can already be applied for those questions. –  kiamlaluno Jul 27 '11 at 5:49
I think you're getting stuck on that "single" in the tag name. In 99.9% of such questions, the OP is not "limiting the answers to the one reporting a single word." To put it another way, "is there a word for [concept]" is not a restriction of any sort. –  Marthaª Jul 27 '11 at 13:39
In that case, the tag should not be used, or renamed. –  kiamlaluno Jul 27 '11 at 14:40
Uh, why? I think you're missing my point. –  Marthaª Jul 27 '11 at 14:45
In my experience, most of the questions tagged single-word-requests are requests for a single word; I don't think that asking the antonym of a word includes an answer that replies suggesting a phrase. If you are using that tag, I doubt users feel free to suggest a phrase, instead of a word; if they do suggest a word, then it's because they didn't find a single word that matches the reported criteria. It is similar to the case of questions tagged american-english. If the request is for a phrase, then the tag should be phrase-requests. –  kiamlaluno Jul 27 '11 at 15:09
The "if they do suggest a word" part was supposed to be "if they do suggest a phrase." –  kiamlaluno Jul 27 '11 at 19:23
Right now word-requests is a synonym of single-word-requests. Are you suggesting flipping that so word-requests becomes the master tag? –  MrHen Jul 27 '11 at 20:26
The “does this answer add value to this site” metric is exceedingly low on the majority of so-called answers to SWRs these days. They do nothing but copy out verbatim text pinched from this or that dictionary and add no original content whatsoever. These questions then degenerate into opinion-based list requests — or rather, the answers make it seem that way. –  tchrist Jul 13 at 16:38
@MrHen I would rather merge the tags, so to have just one. If users keep using single-word-requests, we can edit questions to change it to word-requests. As far as I recall, synonyms should be used when editing questions becomes a rush against the users who are adding the wrong tag. –  kiamlaluno Jul 13 at 17:15
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I am undecided.

On one hand, I personally loathe them; I don't think I've ever answered any. I hardly ever read those questions at all.

On the other hand, what will be left of us if we throw them out? The only questions here that interest me are the ones about linguistics and style, with a few high-quality exceptions. If we forbid half of what we receive now, will we still be considered viable by our Overlords? And what if we threw out all other uninteresting questions too?

As long as there are people who like answering these questions, perhaps we should keep them. Those questions are much of what we are about now. It is what many people liked when they joined us. Wouldn't we be doing them a serious injustice, if we suddenly changed policy so drastically?

Well, there's only 5 questions out of 30 on the front page that are single-word-requests right now. So I don't see us running out of other questions to answer if we get rid of them. –  JSBձոգչ Jul 26 '11 at 17:23
@JSBangs: I count 3/11 open on the second page. But I suppose that is less than half. –  Cerberus Jul 26 '11 at 17:53
Please check this out @JSBձոգչ meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/2731/… –  Tames Jun 19 '12 at 18:47
@Tames: OK + for your proposal! –  Cerberus Jun 19 '12 at 22:39
Will we still be considered viable by our Overlords? Is that really a good reason to consider whether something belongs here? Sounds misguided. Decide first on the content you want for the site. If there is not enough traffic for that defined content, so be it. Why try to simply work around the bean-counting of SE Overlords? What's the point of that? –  Drew Jul 13 at 15:40
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Here's my suggestion: questions which are just should be off-topic. In other words, any question where the asker says merely "Please give me a word that means X" should be considered off-topic, as we're no longer in that business. This is the majority of word request questions. This is part of and parcel of the existing strategy to refuse copy editing and "name my variable" questions.

However, I think we can leave a loophole for questions which combine word requests with some other question of linguistic interest, such as politeness or etymology. For examples, I offer the following questions:

Is there a polite alternative to "No thanks, I'm full"? (word request + politeness)

What is an English counterpart to the Japanese signal word, “Dokkoisho” uttered unconsciously in such case as sitting down on the bench? (word request + onomatopoeia, japanese)

What did they call illegitimate children in Old English days? (word request + etymology, Old English)

It may be a challenge to word this requirement in a way which is clear to new users, however.

I don't see what word requests have in common with copy editing. –  Marthaª Jul 26 '11 at 18:58
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These questions are not practical, helpful to others, fair, or educational. In additional, these questions are inherently subjective and don't lend themselves well to a detailed, evidence-backed answer. As such, I am against single word requests.

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EDIT: It's a long answer, I know. What can I say? I have free time on my hands.

First, I like resolving single-word-requests, they make my brain tick. It's good healthy cerebral exercise. The higher, more intellectually demanding questions I leave to the linguists and to the real enthusiasts.

Secondly, I believe they serve a purpose; many provide a rich source of information to visitors and they increase our vocabulary knowledge and understanding. Think of the number of times when we catch ourselves saying: "What's that word? It's on the tip of my tongue." I would like to think that any online research that asks: What's another word for [...]? Would lead that person to this site.

Having said that, there are moments when I think single-word-requests are the curse of EL&U. They can be so badly written. A poorly phrased question, lacking content and context, a visitor demanding (!) a single-word at all costs; only results making users feel cantankerous and irritated towards the OP.

Not all single-word-requests are of course straight forward, native speakers find it difficult themselves to write a clear, unambiguous description. Compare the first original copy of this question: Describing the type of family a person belongs to with it's final and 7th edited version

Now compare the first version above with this single-word-request A women's accessory...what's the word? The answer was obvious but only because the description was accurate and detailed. The OP's question couldn't be answered by looking in a dictionary, so she came to ELU and immediately got the answer she was looking for.

But I digress, above all single-word-requests are fun to participate in and really involve the whole community especially when the questions are; simple, grammatically correct and more importantly, open-ended. Look at this example Idiom for magic object (or idea) that fixes everything Yes, OK. It wasn't a single-word-request but the principle is the same and it drummed up a huge number of visits in two days. Personally, I had never heard of "a gold bullet" or "deus ex machina" before, and found the OP's question very useful.

To sum up, single-word-requests are like the typical crossword puzzles you used to find in newspapers; they can be taxing and extremely hard to resolve but the pleasure and satisfaction in finishing one is immensely rewarding, or they can be uninspiring, overly simplistic and bland. Hardly the stuff of vocabulary expansion. In writing this answer I was reminded of a comedy sketch entitled Crosswords by the British comedians; The Two Ronnies. (A comedy duo whose comedy routines I was not particularly fond of as a child but have recently rediscovered and now love.) I think we can all relate to the businessman's frustration (Ronnie Barker) with his fellow commuter traveller (Ronnie Corbett).

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