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Writing Good ‘Meaning’ Questions

2012-09-03 by . 2 comments

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On any Stack Exchange site, a question must be tagged. Here at EL&U, our most popular tag is the meaning tag, with over 2700 questions filed as such. Unfortunately, this tag is often misused, and many questions bearing this tag are closed, with some being subsequently deleted. Luckily, the EL&U blog is here to save the day.

Here is a set of criteria for good meaning questions:

Good meaning questions…

  1. are not General Reference
  2. are applicable to a wide audience, not just the OP (not Too Localized)
  3. ask about…
    • words or phrases that do not make sense when interpreted literally
    • words or phrases that are ambiguous
    • potentially archaic words or phrases
    • words or phrases that have different meanings in different dialects
    • other things that are generally deeper than a simple definition

1. Not General Reference General Reference questions are questions that can be fully answered with a single link to a place that is specifically designed to provide the information in the question.  These sources include online dictionaries or etymology sites.

To put it more simply, a General Reference question is too basic for EL&U. In my experience, General Reference is the most common reason for question closure. The meaning tag is more likely to be used on a General Reference question because the name and description of the tag are slightly deceptive, especially to those who don’t speak English well; it’s deceptive because meaning sounds a lot simpler than the questions should be.

Almost all definitions are easily found by using search engines or by checking dictionaries directly. In most circumstances, asking for a simple definition is too basic.

2. Not Too Localized Questions that get closed as Too Localized are unlikely to help anyone in the future, meaning that the question at hand simply does not apply to many people. These questions can stem from a user finding an unfamiliar word or phrase somewhere else on the Internet, a news article, etc. EL&U and the meaning tag seem like prime places to ask about the meanings of these unfamiliar words or phrases, but if that word/phrase has been made up and used among just a handful of people, then it likely has no established meaning, and thus cannot be explained.

More simply, they don’t mean anything to anyone other than the few who use it. Asking about the meanings of these types of phrases is not likely to be accepted, either with the meaning tag, or without.

3. So what can I ask about? Well, if your question isn’t ruled out by criterion #1 or #2, it stands a good chance of being acceptable. There are a few final things to be concerned about, but these apply to all questions—make sure it’s legible, sensible, and well-written. Be certain to clearly state the exact question you have at some point, and include research that you’ve done yourself. The list of good question criteria is a good place to start, and don’t hesitate to pop into chat to ask about your question if you’re not sure it’ll do well. Here are two examples of good meaning questions: Which day does “next Tuesday” refer to? What does “information porn” mean?

Thanks for reading, and good luck with all of your future meaning questions.

2 Comments

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  • J.R. says:

    Good advice all the way through, but I wouldn’t want anyone to be too intimidated by your definition of “too localized”. (Yoichi is rather well-known for running across a phrase or euphemism in a mainstream news publication, and inquiring about the usage of that phrase in everyday language. Many of these have been exemplary questions.)

    So, if anyone runs across an odd or unfamiliar term, and would like to ask about it, but fear the question might fall under the “too localized” umbrella, here’s what I would recommend:

    (1) Be very thorough in explaining where you found the phrase. Give full context. (2) Don’t just ask what the phrase means; inquire about its general usage in everyday language. (3) If the question does get closed, don’t take that as an insult or an attack, and don’t be discouraged. Just because one question was deemed too localized doesn’t mean the next question will be closed as well. Learn, improve, and try again.

    I’ll offer example of a question that could have been construed as “too localized,” yet it was embraced by the community as a whole, in part because it was presented very thoroughly and methodically:

    http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/80416/what-does-safety-net-in-the-coffin-mean

  • Leslie J. says:

    Good points listed! I would consider all of them when writing questions!

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