In light of the recent launch of our sister site, English Language Learners, I would like to propose that this site no longer accept questions of the "What is another word or phrase for...?"

Single word requests have long been contentious here. They tend to be uninteresting one-offs and rep-feeding frenzies. They also aren't really on topic, are they? English Language and Usage is supposed to be focused on academic questions of English and explaining the nuances of grammar and syntax. Single word requests (and related phrase requests) can be fun to answer, but the vast majority aren't about the finer points of English.

On the other hand, synonyms and slang phrases can be very helpful to language learners. If ELL does not object, I suggest we close single word requests and phrase requests as off-topic and recommend that those questions be asked on the learners site instead.

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6 Answers 6

Many single-word requests would probably find a better home on ELL than on ELU, particularly those questions that are asked by, well, English learners – where the main impetus for asking the question is that the O.P. simply hasn't learned enough English to know the right word to use.

That said, to declare that "these questions are no longer on topic" would be a mistake, I think. There are bound to be a few interesting posers that require a in-depth understanding of language to answer. For example, I don't believe this question would be a better fit on ELL than on ELU – quite the contrary, actually. Here's another one that probably would seem out-of-place on ELL, but probably holds some appeal for many who are interested in serious study of the English language.

To summmarize, I think many single word requests would be good candidates for migration, but I'd caution against a wholesale prohibition.

Also (maybe this goes without saying, but I'd like to reemphasize it anyhow), we'd only want to send the good questions to ELL (i.e. those that are well-researched, with adequate context). Questions like:

“I'm looking for a word that means really, really strong”

should probably be closed at either site.

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I agree with this. If the reason for asking a single-word request is that the OP's native language uses a single word (or a shorter phrase) while English uses more words, then the question should be suggested for ELL. There are some interesting single-word requests that would be wasted on ELL. –  kiamlaluno Apr 10 '13 at 23:55

I don't think the problem is with single word requests; there are good ones and bad ones. And good or bad, they at least provide varied interest as opposed to questions about the difference of have and had.

I don't think single-word requests which could easily be answered by a thesaurus are necessarily bad either. There is so much nuance that is not explained by a word list or a dictionary entry. Just because the OP doesn't make an articulate case for requesting all that nuance doesn't mean we should kill it immediately or by rule (as you propose).

The single-word requests may be annoying but at least they are interesting.

For example, here are what I consider two recent ... um ... below-threshold quality questions:

And for contrast, two good ones...

Of course this is all arguable, but maybe that's my point that it's not necessarily single word requests themselves that are bad but the different ways they might be asked.

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I disagree about the interesting part. –  KitFox Apr 2 '13 at 14:09
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@KitFox: Many single-word-request questions are rather dull, but I've also seen some very good ones. It largely depends on (a) what word is being asked for, (b) how easily it could be found in a thesaurus, (c) why the word is being sought, and (d) how well all of that is explained in the question. –  J.R. Apr 2 '13 at 20:13

One counter-example, which is probably still not on-topic, is that regional vocabulary varies considerably. For example, DARE attests for “the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street” not merely terrace as I would use, but all of the following:

  • boulevard [chiefly Upper MW, N Cent]
  • devil strip [chiefly neOH]
  • grassplot [chiefly Atlantic]
  • neutral ground [chiefly LA, sMS]
  • parking [chiefly NW, Plains States, IA; also N Cent sCA]
  • parkway [scattered, but esp Missip-Ohio Valleys, West]
  • street lawn [scattered, but esp OH]
  • swale [FL, AL]
  • tax strip [OH, IN]
  • terrace [chiefly Gt Lakes, Upper Missip Valley]
  • tree bank [esp IL, WI]
  • tree belt [NEast, esp MA]
  • tree border [WI, CT]
  • tree box [chiefly DC]
  • tree court [WI]
  • tree lawn [chiefly Gt Lakes, esp OH]
  • tree plot [esp IN]
  • tree strip [esp N Cent]
  • tree terrace [esp WI]
  • verge [esp NEast]

Whereas the boulevard for me is the strip of grass between two opposing lanes of traffic, which looks just like the terrace but is harder to get to without risking getting splattered by passing cars.

I can easily imagine SWRs that ask questions like these, for which there really is no single right answer. It is quite possible that few SWRs have any single right answer, just fodder for the collider.

Things like this can require quite a bit of real-world research to do a credible academic job on.

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We call it the esplanade around here. I'm not sure that makes it any more on-topic, but it could be a means of demonstrating a lot more research. –  KitFox Apr 2 '13 at 13:12
    
A terrace is a row of houses which are all built connected. A boulevard is a posh street with trees on it. A verge is the grassy margin to a rural road. I don't know what the patch of grass between the road and the footpath is called. –  TRiG Apr 2 '13 at 17:36
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For me the strip of grass between two opposing lanes of traffic is the median, although I'd call it that whether it's covered with grass or not. –  Hellion Apr 2 '13 at 18:07
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I've never heard them called anything other than verges in the UK. Because of our weather, if you park on them very much they just get trashed. Partly because we're more densely populated, many of our verges aren't wide enough to contain trees. And tax strip sounds more like a political statement than a descriptor. –  FumbleFingers Apr 3 '13 at 5:12
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Strip of grass between two opposing lanes of traffic?? Where is there room for a strip of grass between two opposing lanes of traffic? A boulevard is a type of street, generally a wide and tree-lined one. A terrace is a bit of flattened space in a sloping backyard. And single-word-requests have always been and will always be on-topic at ELU. –  Marthaª Apr 4 '13 at 14:20
    
DARE is asking for help: what do you call that strip of grass? –  Hugo Apr 28 '13 at 12:13

I am getting really frustrated by "what is the word for [something there is a word for in another language but not really in English]?" as though all concepts must be represented by a single word. They do strike me as requests related to learning English more than anything else. Same with the in/at questions. At the moment I don't downvote or flag these, just ignore them. But I would prefer they be asked somewhere else. A clear position on these in the FAQ (in the spirit of "good subjective, bad subjective" for Programmers) would be fantastic.

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To me, this is simply a problem of presentation. That is, instead of the presumptuous 'What is the word in English for [long complicated decription that has a single word in my non-English language]?' it should be 'Is there a single word in English for ...?' –  Mitch Apr 3 '13 at 13:03
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Even reworded, they don't work for me. "What is the difference between subtle and faint?" or "Do I have to use a loanword in this expression?" have a chance of being interesting. But "why do some people say in a restaurant and others say at a restaurant?" or "what is the English for schadenfreude?" - snore... –  Kate Gregory Apr 3 '13 at 13:13
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I agree. This insane mania for trying to compress a novel’s worth of sentiment into one single word runs counter to the fundamentals of human language and communication. –  tchrist Apr 3 '13 at 14:19
    
@KateGregory: My point was that the annoyance is with the presumption rather than possibility, that is, they should ask 'Is there a word for Schadenfreude?'. –  Mitch Apr 3 '13 at 15:21
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@tchrist: The desire may be insane and a mania, but it is one that has lots of examples in English, given its large invented/borrowed/technical vocabulary. Often when one, either as native or non-native speaker, has the complex idea, it often turns out that there is a single word for it. Yes, there are all sorts of lexical gaps, but the existence of that concept shows that more often there isn't a gap, it can be filled by something useful. All I'm saying is don't dismiss the desire for a word (because you know from experience that it doesn't exist); often there is such a word. –  Mitch Apr 3 '13 at 16:33
    
Today I answered a couple "is there a word for" questions with variants of "No, there is no direct, single-word translation for that term." When I see a lot of good attempts to translate something in a way that captures the meaning, but with comments shooting down an answer for using more than one word, that bugs me, and it seems like their question really is looking for a yes/no answer. –  wordsmythe Jul 11 at 21:05

Good lord! Single-word-requests off topic? In what universe??

A bad question is a bad question, regardless of what tags it has. An English learner's question might belong on ELL rather than here, regardless of what tags it has. A question can be an uninteresting one-off, regardless of what tags it has.

The problem ISN'T with single word requests!!!

You find such questions uninteresting: that's fine, but they're my favorite kind of question. Really. Should your opinion be more binding than mine?


... I mean, off topic? How on earth? I just can't wrap my mind around such a preposterous suggestion.

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Easy, easy. I still like your conversational dieseling question and always have. And my opinion more binding than yours? No, of course not. That's why I posted it on Meta. –  KitFox Apr 4 '13 at 21:38
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Martha, that's a bit of an emotional reaction. Is there a single word for "emotional reaction about single word requests"? ;^) –  J.R. Apr 4 '13 at 22:00

I would like to propose that this site no longer accept questions of the "What is another word or phrase for...?"

I agree wholeheartedly. I really don't understand how this site allows such questions to stand. Any decent thesaurus will give excellent answers to such questions. Even if you're seeking a one word substitute for a phrase, the keywords in the phrase or the meaning behind it will lead you to excellent answers in a good thesaurus.

If someone isn't sufficiently proficient in English to extract the meaning of what they want to express and then use a thesaurus to find good single words to express it, they should use the ELL site, not this one.

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