I see a tendency of close votes on my favorite kind of questions: ones asking about subtle differences between close synonyms. They are usually closed for excuses like "lack of context" (I want to learn the general usage) or "general reference". The dictionary usually defines each of the terms by giving the remaining synonyms, rarely detailing subtleties like where they differ in particular, where one would be preferable over another, or which ones would be rather used figuratively, while others are literal. While one frequently can convey the difference from a dictionary, it's a difficult and often futile exercise of picking out little but meaningful differences between multiple, often long and fuzzy entries all stating mostly the same thing but in different words. A question which bundles the synonyms and an answer which underlines their differences is much better in understanding their correct use than a bunch of nearly-identical definitions.

So, my request to the moderators: Please, stop.


Most others already got deleted - closed questions with negative score.

Also: The dictionary definitions are often far too spartan to show subtle differences like areas of usage (scientific, law), indicate words that shift out of use but didn't become obsolete yet, words rarely used, emotional connotations associated with given synonyms, specific cases where given words are not synonymous, and other differences too subtle for dictionary entries.

StoneyB noted correctly: answering these questions is difficult. It's definitely not mere dictionary lookup. I wish people who mark them as GR try their hand at answering them in a thorough and detailed manner. They might change their opinion as to whether this is answered by a mere dictionary lookup or not.

Could you please turn this into a question? Otherwise, it's not really a question for Meta. Also, please include some examples –  simchona Nov 6 '12 at 2:29
@simchona: If I understand the purpose of Meta correctly, it doesn't have to be questions. I choose the tag "discussion" for a reason. I'll provide links - obviously as closed, they wander to the bottom of results in search by relevance so I must search chronologically. –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 2:52
It would help if you directed the discussion. Also, it not the moderators (necessarily) who are closing, it is people with enough rep who vote. Yes, can you give some examples? –  Mitch Nov 6 '12 at 3:04
Most of those are simply General Reference. Look them up in a dictionary. That isn’t our job. –  tchrist Nov 6 '12 at 3:28
@tchrist: Neither is your job stopping others from helping. If you're too lazy to answer a question, let someone else do it. I've already written how looking this up in dictionary is a frustrating exercise similar to "Find 10 differences between the two pictures" puzzles. It's much, much better to have someone who understands the differences present them clearly. –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 3:41
@SF. “Too lazy to answer a GR question”? Surely you jest, poorly. If you want us to remove the GR close category, say so. Otherwise, I don’t understand what there is to discuss. –  tchrist Nov 6 '12 at 3:45
@tchrist: A GR question is one that can be directly looked up in a dictionary. Not one that requires painstaking comparison of two or more dictionary entries in search of subtle differences. Note how the recent question brought up: Calumniate is a rarely used, antiquated word. The dictionaries don't mark it as such. The definition of "vilify" does in no way mention the harmful/hateful twist. These aren't "general reference" differences. I don't mean to remove the GR category but stop abusing it for closing questions that are not answered by GR. –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 3:50
@SF. It is unreasonable to pretend that looking up two words suddenly disqualifies it as GR. It doesn’t, because that is not how we have always done things here. If words A, B, and C are all dictionary words, and you want to know what one means that the other doesn’t, then you can and should look it up yourself. I repeat: we are not here to read the dictionary to you. Two options for you: Vote to reopen, or vote with your feet. I believe there are non-SE sites that cater to such requests and whose denizens are only too happy to read the dictionary to you. We just aren’t one of them. –  tchrist Nov 6 '12 at 3:52
possible duplicate of How to respond to dictionary/“general reference” questions? –  tchrist Nov 6 '12 at 3:55
@tchrist: You keep ignoring my argument: Which dictionary says what "Vilify" means that "Defame" does not? Merely verbal form? Which mentions I shouldn't say "Calumniate" if I don't want to sound like a grandma? The dictionary pretty much presents it as exact synonym of "slander". –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 4:00
Which one? Well, for one the OED clearly states that vilify, while one common in the 17th century in the reflexive form, is now rare or obsolete. As for your grandma problem, here is your one link to close on. And you’re welcome. –  tchrist Nov 6 '12 at 4:22
@tchrist: Ah, sorry. I don't have a subscription to it. Bummer. I tried Merriam-Webster, The Free Dictionary, and Wiktionary. I'm afraid none of them contained the information I needed. So, should the users whose answers are marked GR shell out for an OED subscription or should they keep looking for another dictionary? What about modern slang expressions which won't show up in Ngram for the simple reason they are not words that happen in books? And note how this rapidly escapes the "single link" realm of GR. –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 4:40
@tchrist. I am normally not inclined to consider Ngrams as the answer to a question, because the mere fact that a word frequently appears in written texts of any kind is in my opinion insufficient proof of correct usage. Besides, in this specific case the Ngram you link only shows that slander is much more frequently used than any of the other verbs, which I suppose SF already knew. It does not add anything towards answering his question. –  Paola Nov 7 '12 at 15:42
@Paola: Not really. In this particular case removing "Slander" from the list shows the remaining graphs much more clearly, showing "Vilify" gaining popularity and actually overtaking "Defame" in most recent years, clearly contradicting OED's assertion that the word is obsolete. –  SF. Nov 7 '12 at 17:56
@tchrist I really have to agree with SF here. These are some really draconian standards that we're putting on these questions. I think the problem is, the people who close these questions are assuming that simply a comparison of the dictionary definitions is enough to describe the differences between them. Really, they're not. There are different nuances, different tendencies, different areas where one would be used over the other. I have to agree that none of the above questions is general reference as far as I can tell. –  Ataraxia Nov 8 '12 at 12:37
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4 Answers

The problem is, many of these questions are written poorly. Perhaps they don't show any research, or maybe they don't seem to be grounded in practical, real-world problems faced by the O.P.

You may be onto something, though. Sometimes we get so jaded from a barrage of bad questions that we may be overly harsh on a question with a lot of potential.

That said, your plea – Please, stop closing these questions – might be the wrong solution.

I'd like to offer two suggestions:

First, maybe you could write a blog entry that explains in great detail how to write a good difference-in-meaning question. It might include something along the lines of:

  • Don't simply ask, "What's the difference between these words?" Instead, be sure to include definitions from a dictionary, to demonstrate you've already done some preliminary research, and to give the rest of the community a starting point to work from.
  • Don't simply announce that you're confused, and can't figure out the nuances. Instead, explain how your preliminary research has dead-ended, and why you're still confused.
  • If this question arose from something that you read, don't merely ask about the words, and not give us any context. Instead, share your original sources – they often provide vital context and relevance.

I'd recommend including some examples of well-written and poorly-written questions, so it's very apparent how to ask, and how not to ask, a difference-in-meaning question.

Once that gets posted as a resource, some ELU regulars might start pointing to that blog entry with a link, along with an exhortation to follow that guidance and improve the question, after another user – particularly a new user – writes a poor question.

Second, until this becomes a common practice, when you run across a question that has potential, you might try making the edits yourself, since you are the one who is so passionate about this. You've been at this long enough to know the drill: a mediocre question gets posted, followed by a comment ("What did the dictionary tell you?"), followed by the first couple of close votes. At that point, feel free to intervene. If you think the question is worth saving, then salvage it. Look up the words in a dictionary, post the definitions, and include some language in the question so that it's no longer a general reference question.

+1 Well said. I like these questions, but the quality is highly variable. –  KitFox Nov 7 '12 at 18:43
If that's the case these questions should be closed as NARQ. Anyway it seems really redundant to echo the dictionary entries just to show that you looked in the dictionary and it failed to answer your question, which goes without saying. It wouldn't add to the content of the question, it would just be a gesture to show that you did your "homework". –  Ataraxia Nov 8 '12 at 12:42
@phoenixheart6: I see what you're saying, but I also disagree. Sometimes valuable information can be gleaned by sharing the research, especially when an O.P. is asking about, say, a phrasal verb or an idiomatic usage. Also, without the definitions provided, many answers have to start from scratch ~ it's easier to build on an already-provided definition, as was the case in this question. I think it's more than a mere gesture of proof; I'd characterize it as a helpful courtesy. –  J.R. Nov 8 '12 at 13:15
By the way, @phoenixheart6, just this week, we had someone ask a question: "Why isn't X a word?" When pressed, "What makes you think it isn't a word?" the O.P. responded: "Browser's spellchecker." Apparently, a dictionary was never even consulted. It would be erroneous to assume all O.P.'s do their homework, so "goes without saying" isn't always the case. –  J.R. Nov 12 '12 at 9:33
@J.R.: Just to address your "grounded in practical, real-world problems": I often keep using two synonymous expressions interchangeably, only to find after a time that they have nuances that make one of them really inappropriate in certain contexts. As I begin to suspect I'm misusing them, but can't quite put my finger on just how and when I do, I want to ask "What is the difference?" and get as full and comprehensive answer as possible, not just a confirmation or refutation of my strictly localized suspicions. –  SF. Nov 19 '12 at 8:33
@SF: that seems like a RW problem to me; I'd recommend adding that tidbit of information your question. Questions that merely ask, "What's the difference between X & Y?" often seem frivolous and spur-of-the-moment. Adding the note, "I often use both of these interchangeably, but think I might be missing a subtle nuance," would give the question a measure of legitimacy. Adding published definitions from somewhere would show that you've done some homework. Put those two together, and I believe the question would be more immune to downvotes and snide comments than if you omitted that info. –  J.R. Nov 19 '12 at 9:30
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I understand your point of view. I believe these questions are very much On Topic—what’s more central to good usage than the subtle discriminations they ask for? And I agree that 'General Reference' is usually a bad reason for closing these questions; only a handful of dictionaries (and only a small proportion of entries in those dictionaries) describe the distinctions in enough detail to be of any value.

On the other hand, I sympathize with those who vote to close these questions. They’re very hard to answer, and in practice they’re mostly answered very inadequately: either impressionistically, subjectively, idiolectically, or without careful attention to differences of register and context.

And those answers are built into the questions. It’s one thing to say “In this sentence, in this context, in this register, vilify is clearly a better choice than defame”; it’s very likely that even if we don’t all agree, we can at least all pin down what it is we’re disagreeing about. But it’s quite a different thing to try, in effect, to define distinctions which will guide a speaker or writer competently in all conceivable sentences, contexts and registers. Words don’t have abstract meanings, only immanent ones. We learn how to use synonyms not by memorizing and applying their dictionary definitions, but by encountering them in use, in our reading and speaking. And since every one of us has read a different corpus of works and conversed with different people, we’re all going to locate the lexical penumbrae in different places and come up with different distinctions.

So it seems to me that these questions are inherently Not Constructive, except where the poster has framed his question in terms sufficiently narrow to allow us to bring our very different linguistic experiences to bear on solving a specific problem rather than inventing factitious rules.

If the quality of answers is a problem, the answers should be downvoted and their problems commented on. The fact that a question is difficult to answer should not be a reason for closing it - especially under the pretense that it is too easy to answer, what would GR suggest! The answers, if correct, are very valuable, and a question that can generate a very valuable answer is definitely not "not constructive"! –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 4:03
...and even if the answers are subjective and of poor quality, they let the asker get a hunch of what goes where, and improve their English, by reducing number of blunders of using wrong synonyms in wrong contexts. –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 4:07
@SF My position is that such questions cannot be answered adequately except (perhaps even) through "debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion." Your position strikes me as amounting to "A bad answer is better than none." I think we will have to agree to disagree. But I thank you for compelling me to question my thoughts on the matter. –  StoneyB Nov 6 '12 at 4:53
Well, very rarely a truly good answer that is new and original (and not a general reference) can be achieved without "debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion." I guess some people prefer to keep the site pristine, best if each question gets one precise and ultimate answer. I'm a messy kind, who likes discussion and debate that leads to fruitful results. I sense that with the whole mess of "answer-rate answer-comment-rate comment" system, the authors of StackExchange are of similar mind. –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 5:00
...oh, and while I agree wrong answer is worse than none (but we do have rating and comment system for culling that), I prefer to get a correct though poor quality or incomplete answer than none at all. Frequently a complex question would receive two or more incomplete answers which only taken together create a full, thorough, complete one. –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 5:13
Certainly there is no shortage of closed questions that have the “differences” tag. –  tchrist Nov 6 '12 at 7:00
@tchrist: Yes, like english.stackexchange.com/questions/84837/… - the asker complains about circular definition of two of the words in the dictionary (one is defined as the other, and the other is defined as the first) and asks for explaining them - and the question is closed as general reference - "check in dictionary". –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 7:45
@SF: It's worth pointing out that in #84837, some of those close votes may have been cast before the dictionary definitions were posted. Unfortunately, SE doesn't allow us to rescind a close vote, even after a question gets improved, something that has been brought up but shot down. –  J.R. Nov 6 '12 at 11:08
@SF.; why do you persist in ignoring the facts people tell you? A question that requires discussion, polling and argument rather than a factual answer belongs on a forum, not a Stack Exchange site. Neither your opinion nor mine will change that. –  TimLymington Nov 6 '12 at 11:10
@TimLymington: Could you point me to a resource that says so? –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 13:43
@SF."You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page." FAQ –  TimLymington Nov 6 '12 at 17:23
@TimLymington: but these questions are neither chatty nor open-ended. Precise, concise answers to them exist, but they are not readily available or easily discovered, not findable in books or to be recalled from lectures, but to be gradually developed through concentrated effort, often of quite a few people. Do you imply SE is a site only for questions that are easy and quick to answer? –  SF. Nov 6 '12 at 17:51
@TimLymington you're confusing "difficult to answer" with "open ended elliciting discussion". Anyway, you seem to be contradicting yourself. If it required discussion, would general reference really be appropriate? –  Ataraxia Nov 8 '12 at 12:50
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A question that doesn't include the definitions of the words in question is general reference. If it does include definitions, it is not general reference. Unfortunately, many (most?) questions start off as the former, and only later acquire edits that qualify them for the latter. In the meantime, they will have likely collected a close vote or two, and then they fall victim to another unfortunate fact, namely that we have some trigger-happy high-rep users who absolutely adore closing questions as general reference. Not much to do in that case except vote to reopen, and hope people pile on that as quickly as they did on the close votes.

I don't see a need to precisely define the context for a question, either. The idea that this makes it very hard to answer and thus "not a real question" is balderdash, IMO. ELU is supposed to be for experts, which implies that hard questions should be encouraged, not made to feel unwelcome. You really only need to specify the context if the difference between the words is trivially obvious, except in that context.

I can totally accept your statement that "No definitions = GR, contains definitions = not GR". On a different note, I wonder how doable it would be for the StackExchange engine to implement "Vote against closing". Currently if 30 high-rep users are against closing a question, and 5 are for, the question will get closed anyway, before eventually getting reopened. –  SF. Nov 7 '12 at 7:42
One comment, about not seeing a need to precisely define context. One thing that drives me batty at times is when someone asks about the difference between X & Y, and then, only after people have spent time and effort trying to explain the difference, they come back with a comment saying, "Oh, I was talking about such-and-such a usage." Some O.P.'s seem reluctant to explain what prompted a question in the first place; in general, I think that sharing that information makes a question seem more relevant, and it prevents people from from going down the wrong path to begin with. Just a thought. –  J.R. Nov 7 '12 at 8:56
@J.R., I'm not saying that people shouldn't mention the context they want, if it's relevant. But some of the comments here implied that a differences question that doesn't narrow down the context is "not a real question", which in my opinion is nonsense. As with all questions, you have to judge based on that particular question's merits, not based on your opinion of that category of questions. –  Marthaª Nov 7 '12 at 17:56
@J.R.: Doesn't make the answer wrong nor useless, only the asker disappointed. I don't care the asker failed to get his problem solved due to asking the question imprecisely: I have learned something new, and I'm definitely grateful towards whoever took time to answer. –  SF. Nov 7 '12 at 18:01
@SF.: about "vote against closing", the Review screens let you do that (assuming you have the required rep). But I agree that it sometimes would be nice to have the same "do not close" button on the questions themselves. –  Marthaª Nov 7 '12 at 18:28
@Marthaª: Sounds like you and I are in pretty strong agreement, then. We both agree that context is relevant, yet both agree that it's not always a requisite for a "real" question, too. I did want to go on record for encouraging additional context, though, because it seems like, when O.P.s err, it's usually toward the side of providing too little context, as opposed to too much, and oftentimes they don't seem to realize how drastically questions can be improved when they take that step. –  J.R. Nov 7 '12 at 18:32
@SF: It doesn't only disappoint the asker, it can disappoint the answerer as well. Writing a good answer sometimes takes a lot of time. When I've invested a good half hour or so chasing rabbits down the wrong trail, and one or two extra sentences would have pointed me in the right direction - then, yes, there have been times when I have felt disappointed at that. –  J.R. Nov 7 '12 at 18:35
@J.R. - I can understand that, so I agree, encouraging the asker to provide context is welcome. Still, if the asker fails to, or actively refuses to provide the context, requesting "most general usage" or "common, conversational" or any other such vague or broad non-context instead, that should be treated as a completely acceptable reply to such request. –  SF. Nov 7 '12 at 21:07
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I agree that this is a problem. None of the above questions is general reference. I think that the reason for these draconian standards falls somewhere between laziness and a misunderstanding. A dictionary more often than not tells you nothing about the subtleties of the words' definitions. In fact, many times the dictionary definitions are practically indistinguishable. If you actually look up the definition of some of these words, you'll find that they do not indicate the difference between terms. Giving some examples:

slander: The action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person's reputation.
defame: Damage the good reputation of (someone); slander or libel. (slander is actually in the definition of defame)

but: Used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned.
while: At the same time that; although; whereas; and
though: Despite the fact that; although
although: In spite of the fact that; even though; however; but
however: Used to introduce a statement that contrasts with or seems to contradict something that has been said previously.

element: An entity that is a single member of a set
item: An individual article or unit, esp. one that is part of a list, collection, or set.

If you consider any of these definitions to be ambiguous or circular, then I think that you should consider re-opening the questions.

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