I've seen a lot of questions crop up recently, where individuals are giving a very brief snippet of English, and asking something like:

  • Is this correct?
  • What does this mean?
  • Is there a better way to say this?

Such questions are fine, of course, but questions like these could be improved immensely if the O.P. would simply follow a few basic guidelines:

1) Provide as much context as possible. Tell us, where did you find this snippet? In a journal? On a blog? On an English test? In a commercial? In a new book? In a very old book? Don't make the people answering your question scour the internet, scrambling to find the context of the phrase or expression. Instead, paste it into your question, along with the surrounding text. If possible, include a link, so others can easily find and read the entire text.

2) Explain why you are confused. Questions like, "Is this correct?" are hard to answer when it's not abundantly clear why you think there might be an error. Do you suspect the wrong preposition is being used? Do you think the word order is wrong? Do you think a word is being used improperly, or outside its scope of dictionary definitions? When an O.P. doesn't adequately explain their question, the conversation can start in the wrong direction. (Incidentally, if this happens to your question, edit your question, don't merely leave the key information buried in a comment somewhere.)

3) Show your research. Wondering if something is common? Tell us what you found when you did a Google search. Confused about a word? Paste the dictionary definition, so everyone knows you've already looked the word up. Some people might wonder, "Isn't it obvious, what the word means?" My answer is, "Apparently not – otherwise, you wouldn't be asking this question." Including a definition serves a couple different purposes: (a) it shows you've put forth a good-faith effort to answer your own question, and (b) it saves time for people answering your question, because they don't have to spend time writing things that you already know while they are composing their answers.

It is rare to find a question that provides too much contextual information. It's also a joy to read a question where an O.P. takes time to provide context, explains clearly where the confusion rests, and includes some preliminary research.

No one has to follow my advice, of course. I realize that it might take more than one or two minutes to write a question if you follow these guidelines. However, the more effort you put into your question, the more likely people will put serious effort into crafting their answers, so your investment may ultimately pay handsome dividends. More importantly, though, you'll make the site more interesting as a whole, which will attract more users who will be willing to invest more time here. (Oh, you would probably get more upvotes, too, if that helps.)

If you've read this far, you might be wondering, "What's the question?" Well, this is tagged with a tag, which is used "to solicit opinions or best practices on a particular topic, with the goal of reaching community consensus." Chime in as you see fit.

EDIT: Insofar as "best practices" go, I've answered my own question here three times. Scroll down for more tips on how to write a question that is more likely to garner upvotes than downvotes. Remember, the top two reasons for downvoted questions are supposed to be: (a) the question does not show any research effort, and (b) the question is unclear. Hover over any downvote button and you'll see that it's true!

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This is a great meta question (and your answer is too). Will link it when appropriate now I know it's here :) –  starsplusplus Feb 21 at 9:52

5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Since this question has been well-received, and may serve as a signpost of sorts, I'd like to also add some links to some Yoichi questions from ELU.

For those who may not know, Yoichi Oishi is a well-established user in the English Language and Usage SE community. He is a non-native who regularly stumbles across unusual English words or phrases and subsequently inquires about them. Many regulars on ELU (myself one of them) actually delight in reading his questions; I once mentioned that I usually learn more from his questions than I do from other people's answers.

What makes his questions so extraordinary? It's not rocket science; he usually follows a fairly simple pattern:

  1. Begin with an introduction, explaining where this word or phrase was found
  2. Explain why this word or phrase seems confusing
  3. Share the results of what was found when research was performed
  4. End with a clearly defined question that explains what is being asked about

Here are some examples; here is how Yoichi would ask:

If these questions were asked in more of a vacuum (that is, without the accompanying context, explanations, specific questions, and shared research), then they would not be such a delight to read. I also doubt he would have surpassed 10,000 rep points, or earned more than 50 “Good Question” badges, or five (as of this writing) “Famous Question” gold badges.

My only wish is that his questions weren't so extraordinary – not because I want him to dumb down his questions, only because I wish more users would ask questions like he does.

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Update: About 6 months after I wrote this, Yoichi's rep had surpassed 18K, with 67 Good Question badges, accompanied by nine "Famous Question" badges. –  J.R. Nov 9 '13 at 8:15

Thank you very much for posting this; couldn't have said it better myself. It is very important to give context to the question you're asking, and at the very least explain to us why you're confused when you ask a question. If at least that much information isn't there, it's not a real question at all. I absolutely agree with and support everything you've said here, and encourage members to please keep these guidelines in mind when posting questions. It makes the site's content better, it makes it more enjoyable to read and answer questions, and it gets you better answers. Wins all around.

In fact I'd say my only point of disagreement is that you say no one has to follow your advice—I think they do, or that at least they ought to see their questions being closed if they don't. A simple "[insert sentence] Is this correct?" question is NARQ as far as I'm concerned, and we ought to do whatever possible to improve upon questions like this. If you see such a question, please leave a comment asking the OP to improve it. I've been doing that already, but now I can link to this meta post to give questioners better guidelines than can fit in a comment.

In short; everyone, please follow the excellent guidelines J.R. has laid out here! We want our site to be the best it can be, and that means high quality questions and high quality answers. Please do comment (and link this post!) where it can be useful, and don't be afraid to downvote and closevote. You can always change your downvote to an upvote if the post is edited, and we'll improve content all around.

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I've never answered my own question three times before, but this example is worth posting, because I find myself making these updates rather often (like this, for example).

Say you're reading an article online, and you come across a sentence that confuses you. You want to ask about it on ELL. How should you do so?

As a courtesy, you should do the following:

  • Cite the source. That means more than copy-and-paste the sentence; also provide a link to the source.

  • Add a smidgeon of information about the publication, author, and title of the work. This information often provides important clues as to what a writing is trying to say. I'm not going to interpret Charles Dickens (a nineteenth-century British fiction writer) the same way I would interpret Dave Barry (a twentieth-century American humorist).

  • Put the quoted information in a "quote box". You do this by typing a > character at the beginning of each line. (Here's another tip: if there are multiple lines, put two blank spaces at the end of the first line; otherwise, the second line won't be displayed underneath the first.)

  • Put the part of the quote you are asking about in bold print. Make it easy for others to locate.

  • Did you check a dictionary first? You should have. Not only that, why not tell us what you found, so we can analyze the question from the same perspective you have?

  • Don't just put the actual question in the title. Make sure it's in the body of the question as well.

Put another way...

Which of these would you rather answer?

Question A:


What does cows in calf mean in this context

We should see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, their sows when they are ready to farrow...

I don't understand what this means.


or Question B:


What does cows in calf mean in this context

I found this sentence in an essay called A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (Source):

We should see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, their sows when they are ready to farrow...

I don't understand what the phrase "cows in calf" means. I looked up the word "calf" in The Online Plain Text English Dictionary (link), where I found six definitions, but none of them seemed like something I could put a cow in. One definition of calf is a silly man; I wondered if that was the meaning being used, since the writer is talking about husbands.

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Thanks - this is a fantastic post. I completely agree with pretty much everything you and WendiKidd are saying, and I think perhaps we (as a community) need to be a little more proactive at downvoting, or perhaps even closing bad questions.

Remember: closevotes and downvotes can always be reversed when the post improves, and they are not personal criticism. They are there for a reason. Please don't be afraid to use them on questions that you believe are low quality.

One thing I would like to add to the discussion is a link to our FAQ on how to write good questions.

This clearly states that questions need to be specific, relevant, on-topic and show what research the OP has done. Consequently I wholeheartedly agree with WendiKidd that doing so on ELL is not optional, and that questions that fail to do so should be closed. Once the OP improves their question the question can then later be reopened.

When the question is later reopened, ELL will be better for having better questions. It makes the site more relevant to people searching for help, keeps our greatest answerers coming back to ELL, and makes it more likely that the OP's question gets answered with a first rate answer.

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I don't mind cutting some slack to new users, but I was getting tired of posting the same comments over and over again. At least now I have a link I can point them to. Sometimes it takes a few tries before new users are "enlightened" – so maybe a comment sending them here would be a good first nudge; if the hint isn't taken during subsequent questions, then perhaps downvoting and close voting would be more apropos. –  J.R. Apr 1 '13 at 2:17
    
@J.R. To be clear, I'm not advocating aggressively closing down questions from new users just because they are a little bit outside of the accepted style on ELL. Downvotes and closevotes should be reserved for really terrible questions. My only point here is that the option to close-vote and down-vote are tools to be used and they are not a strictly negative tool so long as the negative votes are removed once the post improves.. –  Matt Apr 1 '13 at 2:49

Another variation of insufficient context is something along the lines of:

Which of these is correct:

...jumps over a lazy dog...
...jumped over a lazy dog...

Both of these are grammatically correct, of course. However, if we're talking about the famous pangram, only the former is correct – otherwise, there would be no "s"!

That said, in its current form, the question isn't clear: are we being asked about verb tenses, articles, pangrams, or something else? Perhaps a tag might could clear up this mystery, but, in my opinion, no question should rely on a tag to supply context.

In short, if you type out your question as if the original context or (or your main purpose) is some closely-guarded secret, you're not doing yourself any favors. The more context you provide, the more helpful and accurate your answers will be.

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