The description for the "General Reference" close reason states,

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.

Many people interpret this to mean that all "LMGTFY" questions should be closed as general reference. They will post comments to the effect that they found the answer "without ever leaving the Google search page", as if that were some kind of ace in the hole.

I believe this is an incorrect use of this close reason. The main problem is authority: if you don't already know the answer to your question, you have no way to evaluate whether that first Google result is actually correct1. This is especially problematic with usage questions — it is very easy to get misleading or downright incorrect usage information from Google search results.

A comment on a previous question stated it pretty well:

When you google something, you usually find something quickly and easily. That's what Google does. But how do you judge the quality of what you find? Unless the search results contain a link to a general reference site, it takes some work, and perhaps some guessing, to determine which site contains the best answer.

If we send away users to play a guessing game on Google, we're not making the internet a better place. Basically, if you can't post a link to a standard reference source (and a search results page is NOT a "standard reference source") which definitively answers the question, then you shouldn't be closing the question as general reference.

Or am I way off base?


1 The sorta-exception is GAFD/T2 questions, where the first result is likely to be from the effing dictionary or thesaurus that you should have checked in the first place; but in this case you're just using the search engine as an interface to the dictionary. The reason you know you found a correct answer is not that it's right there without leaving Google, but that it comes from a "reference source designed specifically to find that type of information".

2 GAFD/T = Get A F[expletive] Dictionary/Thesaurus.

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Let's see a few examples of questions closed for general reference for LMGTFY which shouldn't have been. –  MετάEd Jan 18 '12 at 21:14
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@MetaEd: the question that prompted this has not been closed yet, but it does have 3 votes for "general reference": english.stackexchange.com/questions/55184/… (Note that I'm not saying this is an exemplary question or anything, just that if it's general reference, it must be a very obscure source, and I dearly wish one of the close-voters would post a link to it.) –  Marthaª Jan 18 '12 at 21:22
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I'm not sure this is ironic or not, but what does 'GAFD/T' mean? I googled for it and the closest relevant thing was 'Google Apps For Domains'. –  Mitch Jan 19 '12 at 2:28
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@Mitch, GAFD/T = Get A F[expletive] Dictionary/Thesaurus. –  Marthaª Jan 19 '12 at 4:47
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For example, if you try googling the rules about when to use except and when to use except for, you find almost nothing but incomplete and wrong answers. –  Peter Shor Jan 19 '12 at 7:28
    
I thought that linked question was ridiculous! The only answer that got in before it was closed was more about the meaning of the word "most" than about the specific thing being asked (whether the word "found" was necessary/desirable). –  FumbleFingers Jan 19 '12 at 18:39
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@FumbleFingers: I stand by my comment, i.e. please post that proverbial single link to a reference source that definitively answers the question. Otherwise, I'll be forced to conclude that the question was closed not because of objective reasons, but subjective knee-jerk ones. –  Marthaª Jan 19 '12 at 18:58
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@Marthaª: People learning English surely learn "Where is it?" pretty early on. We can argue forever about why we don't normally (but can if we want) follow those three words with at, found, situated, positioned etc., but in the end it comes down to nothing of great consequence, IMHO. –  FumbleFingers Jan 19 '12 at 19:24
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The fact that it's not interesting to you, @FumbleFingers, doesn't mean that it can't inherently be an interesting question. It seems to me that you're voting to close because and only because the asker is not a native speaker of English, which IMO is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. –  Marthaª Jan 19 '12 at 22:17
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@Marthaª: I don't have a problem with your position. I'm only one voice here, as are you. If more people agree with you, then your position will carry the day. But I have to be honest and say that if I were to change my position (unlikely, actually), I don't think your general tone would exactly incline me to make that move. –  FumbleFingers Jan 19 '12 at 22:42
    
@Peter Shor: I would be very surprised if a question on usage of except/except for got closed as general reference. It looks like usage including "for" has gradually increased over two centuries, for no reason that's obvious to me. –  FumbleFingers Jan 20 '12 at 2:06
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I believe you mean GAFTAD. As the coiner of the term, I feel I have to go all prescriptivist on your ass. Don't make me trademark this. –  Robusto Jan 21 '12 at 11:41
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@Robusto, the evidence in that transcript seems to point at lots of prior art of the "GAFD" and "GAFT" variety, so getting a trademark might be problematic. :) –  Marthaª Jan 21 '12 at 15:37
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Sigh. My lawyer will be in touch. ;=) –  Robusto Jan 21 '12 at 15:51
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I agree, apart from this bit: "Only if it leads directly to a website that can be considered a general reference should a Google search count as such.". Answers should be useful not only today but also on the future. A search result today can be different from a search result next year and that direct lead may now appear many pages later, after incorrect pages, or gone altogether. –  Hugo Nov 15 '12 at 5:25

9 Answers 9

up vote 18 down vote accepted

See JSBangs on why "basic questions are not so basic".


I see your point. I definitely think Google is not a general reference as intended. Only if it leads directly to a website that can be considered a general reference should a Google search count as such.

When I joined this website, we used not to take a question too literally, and expand its scope in our interpretation if that could give interesting answers. In this case, that could consist of explaining a little bit in which contexts "is found" is often found, where it came from, and which connotations it has. Something like that. Thus a rather basic question in uneducated style could be made to result in answers that contained something for everybody, not with a great deal of effort.

It seems we have now entered a phase where our electorate chooses to interpret questions more narrowly, and is less forgiving of uneducated askers and "outsiders" in general. I have seen it happen often with websites as they get older. I personally deplore this development, and I believe some of the narrow interpretations I have seen did not do justice to the asker.

But so be it; I cannot change that alone. If you must close such questions, it may be better to close them as "non-constructive" or "off topic" than as "general reference", for the reasons Martha specified. After all, if a question is too basic, it is not about the right topic.

As an alternative, dubious questions could be tagged or otherwise marked "possibly unfit", and brought to people's attention a week later; if no interesting answers have been given by then, they can be closed. The reason for this mechanism is that how good or interesting a question is ultimately depends on how good and interesting the answers are, because people come to this website to read answers.

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P.S. I got so recalcitrant that I even answered this question: english.stackexchange.com/questions/55222/its-not-hygiene . My bad. –  Cerberus Jan 18 '12 at 23:12
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+1 Very well said. Your last sentence is worthy of an EL&U blog entry. Please? –  Callithumpian Jan 19 '12 at 1:02
    
@Callithumpian: You have my permission to use it! If you can build a blog entry around it, by all means! I probably represent the minority anyway... –  Cerberus Jan 19 '12 at 19:26
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But we need more people like you, to protect the site from people like me! –  Matt Эллен Jan 19 '12 at 20:32
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@Matt: Or the other way around! Hard to decide. –  Cerberus Jan 20 '12 at 1:30

IMHO, it's valid to close a question as "general reference" when it is on the order of, "What is the definition of X?" or "How do you pronounce X?" or "What are some synonyms for X?"

But questions about connotation and common usage seem to me to go beyond "general reference". For example, when I was in school we saw a documentary on factory robots that was made in Japan. At the end the narrator concluded, "Through the use of industrial robots, people can achieve happiness." The students all laughed. But I'm sure the person who wrote the script looked up a dictionary defintion of "happiness" and said, "'Happiness' means 'being fortunate' and 'enjoying well-being'. Robots can improve human prosperity and quality of life, therefore, robots help people achieve happiness. That's exactly what I want to say." Perhaps his Japanese-English dictionary gave "happiness" as a translation for a Japanese word that would have made perfect sense in this context. A question on a site like this about the approriateness of a word in a certain context could help a lot.

Frankly, is the goal to help people use better English, or is it to maintain some standard of the "purity" of the site? What's the harm if a borderline question is allowed to remain open and be answered?

Maybe part of the problem is that there seems to be some ambiguity about the intended audience. The statement of purpose says it's for -- what's the phrase, "linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts". If that means the site is intended for scholars to discuss debated etymologies and such academic questions, then 95% of the questions posted are off topic. Whether it was the original intent or not, this site has become a place for people to ask about how to use the language effectively in practice. A lot of the questions appear to be from non-native speakers and people trying to make a step up in the formality and correctness of their writing. I think that's a good thing to do. If this isn't the place to do it, okay.

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If the best answer is googling for it and without any need for commentary giving a link, then it is not an appropriate answer for SE, and so should be closed as general reference.

I think many basic questions about grammar and vocabulary are not answerable like that, and so I think they do not warrant a closure.

If commentary is warranted, then it shouldn't be closed basic or not.

I agree that many questions are being closed too quickly as general reference, but I think many of them might well be closed for other reasons and general reference is as good a reason as any.

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No, the point is that "general reference" is not as good a reason as any, because if we keep misusing it like this, we will ultimately harm the site more than if we just left the questions open. If the rules and the actual practice seem to have nothing in common, we end up looking arbitrary and capricious, and probably also exclusionary/prejudiced. –  Marthaª Jan 19 '12 at 18:55
    
See my answer below about the 'variability' of Google search results. –  TrevorD Aug 9 '13 at 12:46
    
@TrevorD: Sure, but "Close as Gen Ref" is short for "Why didn't you do a little work yourself first instead of bugging us here about it?" presuming that -some- basic googling, with whatever variability, should start you off with -something-. So it's different from one to the next, you should get -something- in the ballpark. –  Mitch Aug 9 '13 at 12:58
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I know what "Close as Gen Ref" means, and I'm certainly not disagreeing with the fact that the OP should do some research first - and I don't disagree with your sentiments in principle. I'm trying to point out that what the answerer may see as an 'obvious' link on, say, the first page of their search results, will not always be seen prominently or readily by the OP. If you're giving a link, that's fine; but if (as some do) you're saying "see the first result" or "it's on the first page", that's making a rash assumption about the OP's search results. –  TrevorD Aug 9 '13 at 13:10

Linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts should already be in a position to evaluate the usefulness of Google Search results. Therefore LMGTFY is really not such an inappropriate response, if that's who the site is for.

I think the better question is whether the site is, and ought to be, for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts. Perhaps it ought to be for questions that only a linguist, etymologist, or (serious) English language enthusiast can answer.

The site already attracts many questions from people who are not experts. Why? Because it is not obviously a site for experts at first glance. The title is simply "English Language & Usage".

Is it really intended that the site be used only by the linguistic élite? Perhaps the name should be changed to something more elitist, such as "Cunning Linguists (English)". … Obviously I make this suggestion tongue in cheek …

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You seem to making your suggestion with your tongue elsewhere, but no matter. If people really do not want this site to be open to users who already speak good English or have linguistic questions, then perhaps changing the name as you say would be a good idea. But I still think it is important to realize that a not-so-interesting question can get great answers, especially because people who want to know more about something often don't know the right terms and thus formulate their question in an awkward manner. –  Cerberus Jan 18 '12 at 23:36

Googling, I could find many sites that contain a grammatically not correct sentence; that doesn't mean the sentence is correct because Google found more than one site using that sentence. If the first three links given from Google are to sites that can used as reference, that is different.

Google generally returns links to resources that are available to everybody; it is rare that Google gives a link to a site that requires me to first log in, before I can see the page for which I had the link. It can still happen if the site is tracing the access from the IP I am using, or from the browser I am using, or if the site has been changed from the last access done from the Google bot. Google is then normally used as evidence that the link to the resource was available to everybody. If somebody would say that the answer is available in a web site for which you need to pay a subscription to see it, then I think that is not qualify as standard internet reference source.

The fact Google gives me results doesn't automatically mean the question is a general reference, also for the fact the closing vote says, "this question is too basic." We don't want to close as general reference every question for which Google, or more specialized site can give me a link to a page.

About Google, I would also argue that there is a difference between asking a question about "X" for which Google gives me the right links when looking for "X" (making the assumption that the returned links point to trusted/trustable resources), and asking a question about "X" for which Google returns me the right links when looking for "Y", where "Y" is a phrase that I enter basing on my expertise. An expert is surely able to use the correct "Y" for which Google returns the expected results; in that case, an expert could close any question as general reference. That is, I think, the reason why the closing reason says, "this question is too basic."

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If you wrote shorter phrases, it would be clearer. –  Theta30 Jan 21 '12 at 3:04

One thing people may not realise when referring to Google search results (specifically when referring to the first result or the first page) is that the results you see may well be different from the results that the OP sees. Not only are the results likely to change over time, but there are more fundamental reasons why they may differ.

My default Google search site is google.co.uk. That will almost invariably give me different results (or at least a different ordering of the results - I don't cross-check them!) from those I see when I use google.com. I'm sure other English-speaking users will see results tailored by their 'national' Google site. This is even more likely to be so, where the OP is located in a non-English speaking country, using a 'version' of Google in their national language.

Also, for multi-word searches, the results are likely to differ according to how the search term is entered: entering per se (as two unlinked words) and entering "per se" (with quotation marks) will give different results. Not all users will be aware of such details.

The results can also be affected by the various preferences and other Google settings associated either with the user's ID and/or with the network or domain on which the PC is located (e.g. a business or academic institution), the latter, of course, being outside the OP's control.

In many cases, the user will not be aware of particular internal settings, and certainly not aware that they may be affecting the list of results.

So, please do not assume that the OP will see the same results as you. If you do need/want to refer to individual results or to a list of results, please:

  • link to the URL of the relevant site found by the search; and/or
  • link to the full Google URL used to initiate the search.
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This is no different from getting different results from different dictionaries. –  curiousdannii Nov 17 at 23:14

OK, I'll fess up. I am one of the close voters.

I do not think that there is a well known source that answers the question you've linked to in the comments.

On the other hand, I do not believe the question is asked by some who reaches the level of a serious English language enthusiast. I think it is too basic for this site. That is why I voted general reference.

Not because the specific question is answered by one, but because I believe sentence constructions such as the one in the question are.

Where is X, where is X found, how is X done, etc. seem to me to be something someone would learn as a beginner.

Am I wrong to think this is too basic?

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The site should not only be for "serious English language enthusiast"s - the answers should be provided by those kinds of people, but questions should be from anyone who needs the answer. This isn't a clique. –  Jeff Yates Jan 19 '12 at 17:38
    
@JeffYates - did you read the first line of the FAQ? It states who this site if for. –  Matt Эллен Jan 19 '12 at 18:49
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Do not confuse serious and expert then. I assume serious means I am not going to joke around, but if I legitimately need to know the meaning of a phrase or the appropriate usage, I should be able to ask, and Google is not an option as I would not know how to interpret the results if I am not an expert. If I have to be an expert to use the site, why would the site exist? Make the Internet better, not worse. –  Jeff Yates Jan 19 '12 at 18:55
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The level of the question does not dictate seriousness. If I really don't know something, I can seriously need the answer, regardless of how basic you feel it is. A standpoint of "that's too basic" really starts to sound elitist. –  Jeff Yates Jan 19 '12 at 18:56
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@JeffYates - Make up whatever excuses you like. Boring questions are boring. I can vote to close them. My justification is that it doesn't reach the level of English comprehension expected by the site. If people disagree then either the question won't be closed or it will be reopened. This site is not Stack Overflow for English, it sets the bar higher for questions. –  Matt Эллен Jan 19 '12 at 19:25
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Excuses for what? –  Jeff Yates Jan 19 '12 at 20:11
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@MattЭллен, it seems to me you're voting to close as "general reference" when you should be merely voting down (no research effort/unclear/not useful). –  Marthaª Jan 20 '12 at 2:15
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@Marthaª I think you have a point there. I'll try it out. –  Matt Эллен Jan 20 '12 at 14:14

I really don't see why looking on Google shouldn't count as general reference. It's no worse than anything else.

if you don't already know the answer to your question, you have no way to evaluate whether that first Google result is actually correct

It's the same for general reference books. Dictionaries are okay 80% of the time and atrocious the rest.

If you can't think of the right search terms to ask Google, then you're not going to be able to find an answer anywhere else! The breadth of knowledge of modern search engines is unsurpassed, especially in finding resources for your almost uniquely phrased search terms.

It sounds like the whole close reason has major problems. These questions are bad, but the explicit text of the close reason doesn't really indicate why.

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I think you need to find a better dictionary. Just saying. –  Marthaª Nov 18 at 0:55
    
@Marthaª let me know when you've found the perfect one. –  curiousdannii Nov 18 at 1:56

If a question is so basic it can easily be answered with a comment, just do that and vote to close. Personally, I normally vote to close only if I can see the answer in one of the top 2-3 synopses on Google's homepage, without actually visiting the source.

Lately there seems to be a huge increase in such questions. The problem is people use them as a springboard for addressing more broad-based issues that aren't really being asked about.

A closely-related problem is when questioners with limited knowledge of English ask whether some relatively non-standard usage is "correct". Competent speakers have widely differing opinions on what is "correct" or "acceptable" (by which I mean the definition of those words, not the particular usage being asked about), and extended debate arising from this often obscures the primary point - that in most cases, the majority position is all the questioner wants or needs.

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This is precisely the behavior that I object to. Being in the top 2 or 3 synopses on a search page is totally and completely IRRELEVANT. –  Marthaª Jan 19 '12 at 22:13
    
@Marthaª: I think you're conflating two different kinds of "obvious" answer. I'm not going to check, but with origin of “mad as a hatter”, for example, Google's top hits might well be misleading. But with many of these trivial questions by non-native speakers, I know perfectly well that I know the answer - I'm just checking Google to make sure it really is common knowledge. Harking back to your earlier bugbear, I'm not seriously concerned about finding authoritative sources to back up common knowledge and practice in and of itself, unless there's an interesting backstory. –  FumbleFingers Jan 19 '12 at 22:37
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...and even if it hadn't been capitalised, I have to say that "irrelevant" is an unduly harsh judgement of what we're talking about here. –  FumbleFingers Jan 19 '12 at 22:38
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not only capitalised, but bolded –  Theta30 Jan 21 '12 at 3:10

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