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You Could Look It Up

2012-12-17 by . 4 comments

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Your question has been “Closed as General Reference”. That raises more questions: What does that mean? Why was it closed? What should you do about it?

What Does It Mean?

First, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean “Your question is worthless. Don’t bother us.” It certainly doesn’t mean “You are an illiterate cretin. Go away” — although some people take it that way.

Closed means “Closed for repairs”.  And General Reference means “You could look it up.”

Why Was it Closed?

That’s very easy to answer: we believe that your question (as it stands) can be answered by consulting a standard online reference work.

It makes a lot more sense for you to do that than us. If you look it up you will find not only the answer to the question you asked but also the answers to many other questions you might have intended to ask that we don’t know about.

You will also get your answer faster, since you won’t have to wait for one (or more) of us to perform the lookup and incorporate the results in a Witty and Incisive Response. (Wit and Incisiveness are hard to achieve, and a good Response can take a long time to compose.)

And: you may also learn something about what online resources are available to you, and what they offer which might satisfy future needs.

What Should You Do?

Depends.  Very often people will have posted an answer to your question, or will have posted what amounts to an answer in the comments. If all you’re interested in is the answer, you’ve got it: you’re done.

If you didn’t get a satisfactory answer this way, do what the Closed banner tells you:

Look it up.

Again, people will often post a link directing you to an appropriate online reference. If not, a lot of useful references are listed here and here. These lists are particularly valuable for the comments which accompany them. The works fall mostly into four broad categories:

  • Dictionaries provide far more than just definitions: etymologies, examples, citations, and often brief notes on “standard” usage (debate rages over what exactly that means, but that’s instructive, too). Don’t consult just one: Dictionaries vary greatly not just in overall quality but in the value of individual entries.
  • Thesauruses (or thesauri, or even more piquantly thesauroi) are useful for recalling words you can’t quite remember, but they don’t usually tell you much about which synonym you should use where. But they can be fun.
  • Corpora provide many more examples of actual use of a word or phrase than dictionaries, and can be particularly valuable guides to when and how synonyms differ.
  • Style guides are the best source for prescriptive rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, and documentation. They all differ in many details, however; select the one that is recommended by your school or discipline or (if you are so fortunate as to have one) your publisher.

A hint:  OneLook is a very useful tool: input a word or phrase and it returns you links to many dictionaries and other references conveniently listed on one page.

But what if these references don’t provide you what you need? — no reference work can answer all questions. In that case, come back to ELU and

Fix your question.

Click edit immediately beneath your post and rewrite it.

  • Tell us what you’ve found out, and focus our attention on what your research leaves unanswered.
  • If anybody left useful comments, address those.
  • Give us as much context as you can. What is it you’re trying to understand (or say)? Who said it (or to whom do you want to say it), where and when? What register are you concerned with? — formal, colloquial, vulgar?
  • Don’t forget to change your title Question to fit the new content.

The more you can tell us, the better we can answer.

If you’ve got at least 20 rep, you can pop over to Chat (the link’s at the top of the ELU page) for help. There’s usually somebody around to hold your hand. And if you fix it all by yourself, come by Chat when you’re done and report it. It takes a moderator or five high-rep users to get your question reopened, so you want to draw their attention to the work you’ve done.

Trust me. That’s how you get a Witty and Incisive Response—or several. That’s how you get Upvotes and Reputation. That’s how you learn to use resources you never knew about. That’s how you Make Friends and Influence People.

You could look it up.

 

4 Comments

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  • Martha says:

    I would never in a million years consider a corpus a “general reference” source. Most of them are damn hard to use, and the results they return are subject to interpretation.

    What is a general reference source that you don’t mention is an encyclopedia.

    • StoneyB says:

      If I’d had my druthers I’d have expanded that section of the post to four or five thousand words! —and I think that should happen somewhere on ELU. … For the sake of what in my line of business is loathsomely called “consistent messaging”, I drew my categories in the first link I mentioned, (eliminating a category for which no on-line references were provided). I included Corpora because this includes Google Books and Ngrams, which are easy to use; to be sure, they’re also even easier to abuse, but they share that drawback with all the other sorts of reference. No online “encyclopedia”—which for all practical purposes means Wikipedia—is recommended in either of the ELU links I provided, and Wikipedia is explicitly deprecated as a reference in another ELU link. I think, moreover, that although we frequently cite Wikipedia to explain our answers, it’s not usually a source a user would go to in the first instance to answer the sort of question that gets closed as GR.

  • What I took away from this post is that “General Reference” should be renamed to “Just Look It Up”.

  • StoneyB says:

    That’s about the size of it. And if they’d asked me I’d have named the canonical five reasons Again?, Not My Department, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Huh?, and Who Cares?

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