Are these single word requests getting out of hand, or am I just still too new to this site to recognize a long-standing problem and standard ways of dealing with them?

I thought that by using generally accepted words for heinous crimes, the OP would get the idea that common and well-known words are acceptable. I was obviously in error.

My opinion is that these one-off and usually unanswerable requests are cluttering the site with nonsense (not to mention that it encourages others with similar expectations of the language). What is the best way to deal with these types of questions? Is it to downvote? Vote to close as unsure of what OP is asking? Suggest migration to Neologisms.stackexchange.com?

Edited to add: KitFox linked to a similar question where these answers were suggested:

  • If we hack away at the "EL&U as thesaurus" perception I think we can turn it into an extremely useful category. (How do we do this?)

  • ... relevant bit being share your research. And if you haven't done any, should you even be asking here? (I think this is a good idea. I don't see it being done, however.)

  • We could try coaching new users with comments on borderline s-w-r questions, especially before they get downvoted or closed. - aedia λ) (Fun and provocative answer, but again, not done. Why?)

  • As long as there are people who like answering these questions, perhaps we should keep them.

  • 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.

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Ye‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪‪p –  tchrist May 8 '14 at 18:55
    
    
@KitFox - I did read a few similar questions (including yours); I like the answers in the thread in your link. But I don't see this being done. Is there something obvious I'm missing? –  medica May 8 '14 at 19:04
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If Yep's too short, also try bizarre, nonsensical, daffy, risible, foolheaded, irredeemable, fruitless, crazy, discouraging, sterile, unproductive, otiose, zany, barren, woebegone, wacky, nugatory, insufficient, preposterous, profitless, sad, tragic, outrageous, gelastic, farcical, valueless, goofy, nutzoid, absurd, unmitigable, worsening, irreparable, bad, delusive, trifling, lame, trivial, impracticable, incongruous, incurable, no-win, ill-fated, unfortunate, contemptible, unsubstantial, harebrained, ludicrous, grotesque, unsatisfactory, hollow, desperate, forlorn, and ineffective. –  tchrist May 8 '14 at 19:06
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@tchrist - I agree with all of your characterizations of such requests. Should we (copy and paste) list all as comments? It's precisely what I'm ready to do. –  medica May 8 '14 at 19:09
    
Yes, it's annoying. But you can't tell people to stop it in general, just on every single one. Also, sometimes weirdly it turns out there's something appropriate. –  Mitch May 8 '14 at 21:57
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Oh and it's "man-boy" not "manly-boy". –  Mitch May 8 '14 at 22:03
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@Mari-LouA - I agree, your example is a good question with a very interesting answer. But that's an aberration, not the norm. My problem isn't with the occasional good question; it's what to do about the flood of bad ones. Bread & butter is usually boring but helpful. I don't feel this stuff is helpful. I don't want it to be our bread & butter. But, as you've noted (and I know it as well), I'm still an infant here. That's why I'm asking what to do with my observations. Is it best to "grin and bear it"? –  medica May 9 '14 at 1:38
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I suppose one solution would be to close "bad s-w-r" with: "This user has failed to do a) any previous research OR b) has failed to provide sufficient information/context. This might spur the more motivated requesters to actual do some research OR add more context in their questions. –  Mari-Lou A May 9 '14 at 1:55
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The 'request' quoted as the title of this thread, "Word for disrespecting eldest half-sister by referring to her husband as girly-girl-manly-boy though he's amused but the rest of the family isn't?" is probably less of a genuine request for terminological assistance or information than it is a dig at the offending OP's offending family member. I suspect that for people who are determined to score a point against someone else by posting this kind of question, no amount of signposting or downvoting will put them off. –  Erik Kowal May 9 '14 at 4:16
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@ErikKowal : ha ha, like: english.stackexchange.com/questions/168874/…. –  Mitch May 9 '14 at 12:05
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+1 for the title.. –  Awal Garg May 10 '14 at 6:44
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@ErikKowal A day or two ago I made a list of about a dozen such questions; all had their genesis in bile. Each was looking for some especially nasty new word to hurl at somebody whose behavior or characteristics they strongly disapproved of. I don’t think it is a healthy thing for the questioner, nor good for the site or the larger social context, for us to be forever providing people with esoteric rude words to use to commit verbal violence upon one another. –  tchrist May 14 '14 at 2:20
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@ErikKowal - genuine? Sometimes I can't tell if the OP is sober, let alone genuine. –  medica May 14 '14 at 5:38
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An androjocular-emasculatrix? –  Elliott Frisch May 17 '14 at 2:08

7 Answers 7

up vote 14 down vote accepted

This particular tag has had a lot of past discussion. The simple answer is that not all are good questions and the bad ones should be downvoted. But people are shy to use downvotes because they hurt and other people just upvote stuff even though the questions are terrible.

We used to have a close reason for Too Narrow but I'm not sure if any of the current close reasons would work well.

In the meantime, the current answer for these questions is, "No, no such specific term exists. Here are close options." And then suffer the inevitable downvotes because people don't like being told there is no word for something.

Not that I'm a little bitter about this subject or anything...

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Why don't we have a too narrow option anymore? (Btw, the downvote wasn't mine.) I agree our close options aren't good. There's obviously some history here that I'm not familiar with. –  medica May 9 '14 at 3:29
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@medica The close vote was called "too localized" See this meta post Closing changes: on hold, unclear, too broad, opinion-based, off-topic reasons, bye-bye to Too Localized Related, FF answer meta.english.stackexchange.com/a/3990/44619 –  Mari-Lou A May 9 '14 at 3:36
    
@Mari-LouA - thanks for the links! –  medica May 9 '14 at 3:49

In the brief time I've been responding to questions on this forum, I've noticed that a great many of the SWRs seem to originate from non-native speakers of English who have a pretty weak command of the language. That's fair enough, but it does suggest to me that a lot of these questions are being asked by people who probably wouldn't feel the need to do so if their grasp of English was better.

There are two approaches I can therefore think of to reduce the proportion of low-standard questions being asked here:

1) Be stricter/quicker about migrating more of the questions from barely-literate-in-English enquirers to the English Language Learners forum, or closing them altogether at an earlier stage.

2) Create a Research Resources area with links to (at a minimum) the OneLook.com metadictionary, a couple of online thesauruses and a visual dictionary such as the Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary. Also include some basic tips to help would-be researchers to structure their search and navigate their way through the various resources (at least in general terms).

We need to bear in mind that every year there are new users of the internet who haven't yet learned (or mastered) the intricacies either of 'playing nice' in online forums or developing effective strategies for finding things out for themselves. We can both smooth the path for people in this position, and simultaneously divert or discourage much of the torrent of dross they are liable to generate, by pointing them directly to useful reference tools and compilations.

These steps would, I hope, elevate the average standard and degree of interest associated with the remaining questions asked here. The possible loss of the occasional good question as a result of these measures would, I also hope, be more than offset by the improved standard of those questions that do get posted here.

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Problems with this type of question

The StackExchange guidelines are in fact not to allow these types of questions at all, for several of the reasons you've described, summarised in the following statement:

After a year I am convinced that guessing game questions do not meet our goal of making the Internet better.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Here are some of the key points from that article, though I recommend reading the whole thing. (Remember, this article is talking about these questions across the whole of StackExchange. I'll get on to whether I think these objections are relevant to ELU specifically after I've summarised what the SE blog has to say about them in general. So please read further down before jumping in with another "Omg it doesn't apply!" comment.)

  • Guessing game questions tend to be vague, badly researched and do not tend to fit the "practical, answerable question" criterion of the StackExchange question guidelines.
  • Guessing game questions are not helpful for future viewers. A future questioner with the same question is unlikely to be able to search and find the original nebulous question.
  • Guessing game questions set a precedent for "do my work for me" questions.
  • An expert in the topic should be able to have at least some confidence that the answer he’s writing answers the question. This is not possible with guessing game questions.
  • Guessing game questions aren’t educational, because there’s no way to learn about the process of discovery.

I don't think the last two apply to ELU as much as to the other sites with "guessing questions", but I do think we have some extra concerns.

  • Guessing game questions can get ridiculously localised when you are asking for a specific word that may or may not exist.

Assuming we're not going to abolish word/phrase requests any time soon, we need to address these concerns.

Ways we might be able to make it work on ELU

Guessing game questions aren't "practical, answerable questions"

They can be, but often they're not. We need to be strict about closing those that aren't, to firmly encourage the idea that you can only ask these types of question if you define your scope extremely well.

Answerers cannot be certain that the answer they are writing answers the question.

This is less of a problem here than on other SE sites, because there is a key difference in that questions tagged with things like "story identification" or "identify this game" have a correct answer in mind which you have to try and guess. If you find a book that fits all the criteria the questioner asked for but it's not the book they're thinking of, that's no good.

or on the other hand are looking for any word that fits the given criteria. The questioner doesn't necessarily have a single correct answer in their head.

We can further help by making sure the answers are well explained and describe how the word or phrase fits the request.

Guessing game questions aren’t educational, because there’s no way to learn about the process of discovery.

This is also less of a problem here. As long as answers are well explained and discuss similarities and differences between the hypothetical requested word and the suggested word or phrase, they can indeed be educational.

Ways we will struggle to make it work on ELU

Guessing game questions are not helpful for others who have the same problem in the future.

"A future questioner with the same question is unlikely to be able to search and find the original nebulous question." We can't do anything about this one. It's the very nature of the question.

Guessing game questions set a precedent for "do my work for me" questions.

The broken window analogy. We can attempt to crack down on this by being very strict with the word requests that we do allow. However, this may not be enough.

Guessing game questions can get ridiculously localised when you are asking for a specific word that may or may not exist.

This is quite hard to address. I'm not sure what to suggest.

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Judging by the upvotes my "semantic satiation" answer still gets, lo many years later, I'd say these so-called "guessing game questions" can in fact be very helpful to future viewers. –  Marthaª May 9 '14 at 14:12
    
@Marthaª Yes, I mentioned that when I was countering their "isn't educational" argument. Helpfulness to future viewers part is talking about the fact that these sorts of questions tend to be very hard to search for. –  starsplusplus May 9 '14 at 14:20
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These aren't guessing game questions. A lexicographer could feel completely confident that a specific definition, such as the one provided in the title of this post, defines an English word. –  Hal May 17 '14 at 22:07
    
@Hal I addressed that as well. See the second section under the "Ways we might be able to make it work" heading. –  starsplusplus May 17 '14 at 22:09
    
I like to play crossword-exchange. When I found SE, I learned that the internet had evolved to the point in which you could ask grammatically correct, complete sentence questions and find the answer because someone had already asked it. Anything that helps Google finish my sentence is a good thing. –  Mazura Apr 21 at 23:43

I just did a quick check of the top 100 highest all-time scorers on EL&U and found that 76 of them have "single-word-requests" listed among their top three tag categories for upvotes. Unmistakably, single-word requests draw a disproportionately high level of interest among people who cast upvotes—with the result that, no matter how much time you devote to answering other categories of questions, you'll probably find that SWRs loom large in your scoring totals.

For most of the past year I have tried to avoid answering single-word requests as answers except when I couldn't compress my answer into the space available for a comment. Even so, SWRs are my seventh-highest-ranking tag category by upvote total and my fifth-highest-ranking tag category by number of questions answered. I can't get away from them.

It's easy to see why SWRs are popular: They call for short answers that rarely involve more than a minute or two of research; they invite input on a subject (word choice) that practically everyone here has strong opinions about; and they attract lots of voters who won't stick around to read long-winded answers to complicated questions. So: fun, easy, and rewarding—what's not to like, from an answerer's perspective?

I suppose that the most serious criticism I could make about SWRs is that most of them aren't very interesting to me. But it's hard to think of a less objective criticism than that. And obviously a great many EL&U participants—including some genuine language experts and a great many language enthusiasts—find them both interesting and satisfying.

Perhaps the key question is whether the popularity of SWRs constitutes evidence that the stated mission and guidelines of EL&U don't mesh well with what most site visitors care about. The site is supposed to be for experts and serious enthusiasts, but a great many participants want answers to basic language and usage questions or want to ask and answer questions of the form "What word means X?" So either the site isn't doing (and perhaps can't do) a very good job of enforcing its idea of what kinds of questions should be asked and answered here, or its vision of itself doesn't match what the vast majority of its participating users want it to be—and what it already is. Or both.

The current highest-scoring unanswered question on EL&U (with 12 upvotes) is a highly technical question about "graphotactics of possessive." And yet despite having appeared at or near the top of the Unanswered Questions page for almost ten weeks, and despite having been viewed 611 times, and despite having (at one point) had a very large bonus attached to it, and despite having attracted 26 comments, the question has drawn exactly one answer, from a user with a reputation score of 1; that answer promptly received four downvotes and two days later was deleted.

You might have expected that this graphotactics question would generate some interesting answers from the experts who participate on this site, but if so you'd have been disappointed. Experts did speak up, but in piecemeal comments only; no knowledgeable person submitted an actual answer—a disappointment given that EL&U is supposed to be a question-and-answer site, not a question-and-multiple-comments site.

Which leads me back to single-word requests. Lots of people answer those questions, and lots of people read and vote on their answers. So maybe we're kidding ourselves when we imagine that EL&U is designed to be a magnet for complex questions and answers on serious subjects like graphotactics and not for lightweight ephemera such as what the correct word is for the first balmy day of spring. I'm not saying that questions about graphotactics should go to another site; I'm saying that the vast majority of EL&U users seem to have very different ideas about the sort of content they find interesting to create and upvote. Is our goal simply to drive them away and to recruit more people who might be able to answer questions about "graphotactics of possessive"?

Bear in mind that practically everyone who answers questions at EL&U—including those of us who generally dislike single-word requests—has benefited (in terms of upvote totals) from the popular interest in SWRs. Maybe it's time to admit that, for many EL&U participants, SWRs are the meat, potatoes, and dessert of the site, and to ask how we can healthily accommodate that interest within a broader notion of EL&U as a site for English language experts and enthusiasts—instead of ineffectually trying to suppress it.

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I am not in the illustrious company you describe; I originally joined EL&U to read and learn, since I am in no way a linguist or grammarian. I was pleasantly surprised that there were questions I could answer, and so I could contribute beyond a few upvotes here and there. So perhaps there is a role for such questions with, if I may say, such plebeian appeal - they attract and retain users who may gradually learn and contribute in other areas. Wishful thinking? –  andy256 Jan 13 at 11:55
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@andy256 - Not wishful thinking. Honest and fact based. You're right that these are answerable, and easy for the new user while they glean from the better questions. I have a lot of rep on the back of SWRs (which is somewhat embarrassing to me now). I think a lot of us do. It's partly that after being here for a while, they get old; one yearns for a good question, and one imagines that if this LMGTFY stuff disappeared, the site would attract better questions. But I don't know that for sure. Robusto recently raised that point. –  medica Jan 14 at 9:29
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I might add that focusing on questions tagged as "single-word requests" yields a misleadingly limited idea of the actual number of such questions because not everyone who submits what amounts to a single-word request labels it as such. Many others are instead tagged with an overlapping category label such as "word choice" or "synonyms." I suspect that a great many single-word requests from the early years of this site, in particular, are labeled "word choice." The proportion of actual single-word request questions on EL&U is thus very large indeed. –  Sven Yargs Jan 19 at 3:59

One passive approach you can take as an individual is to edit your user preferences to add to your list of tags to ignore. You have the option of either dimming them or hiding them altogether. This can end the annoyance for yourself, though it doesn't solve the issue for the community (if it is indeed an issue regarding the health of the community, which is debatable).

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I haven't been here long but already a lot of the more mind bloggling single word requests feel like mere nuisance posts. But the single word request is clearly an established and accepted part of the culture here, both for askers and answerers, and it seems to me unlikely moderation can or will change that at this stage. I think the only choices are to put up with them, or to split the site into something like English Words and Phrases and English Grammar and Usage.

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tl,dr: There should instead be additional filtration methods during registration to send users with more basic needs to a different forum entirely.


In response to Erik Kowal's observation that

a great many of the SWRs seem to originate from non-native speakers of English who have a pretty weak command of the language

I would suggest that some sort of test for proficiency be administered during registration so as to properly direct users to the right forum for their needs.

Of course, if there are tools already in place to handle this that I am unaware of (as I am new), please take that into account. However, as MrHen stated, it seems the current system for handling this is one which users are reluctant to use, so I'm suggesting an additional system be implemented for this and related issues.

PROBLEM Already, I have seen many links and references to other related sites for questions that aren't best suited to EL&U. However, I didn't learn about when or how to use any other sister sites when signing up. In the tour (which non-native speakers will probably skip as time-consuming), I was vaguely told (without many, clear examples) what kinds of questions are and aren't appropriate. However, I wasn't tested, so I couldn't tell you what they were off the top of my head. And if I think my question isn't appropriate, from having finished the Tour, my best guess for finding the right place to post that question is to look at the confusing (albeit cool-looking) graphical list that was linked to at the bottom (and easily overlooked, since it was far after the Ask a Question button) or to read other inappropriate questions and see where those users were directed to. ESSENTIALLY, it's way too easy to post the wrong kind of question.

SOLUTION There should instead be additional filtration methods during registration to send users with more basic needs to a different forum entirely. If not during registration, then during the question asking process, which may also minimize the quantity of good quality questions as time to ask increases. However, the asking process is currently very easy and the quantity of low quality questions may be sufficient to make consideration of increasing the difficulty of asking by asking filtering questions worthwhile.

Filters would mean asking questions that help determine the nature of the question to aid in categorization before posting. Questions would then be posted within the applicable category (assuming the user could accurately answer the questions and chose to do so) or the poster would be linked/directed to a better forum for their question.

Consideration would be given to these issues: "How many good questions asked under the current system would still be asked if there were additional filters?", "How many inappropriate questions would be filtered out?", "Could filters help hone good questions to be even better?", and "Could filtering questions be written clearly enough to successfully aid users in correctly categorizing their questions with accuracy?".

CONCLUSION Basically, unenforceable rules are well and good when they are "common sense" and people would generally follow them anyway. But like any rule or law that the system is not designed to enforce, procedures for how to handle certain types of questions will be constantly broken, if only for lack of information. This is an issue to be handled by the Moderators of the site.

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That test may need to be implemented for some users that answer questions too. –  RyeɃreḁd May 13 '14 at 16:16

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