Something has come up frequently, and it's that many questions are closed or put on hold simply because the way it's worded is not clear as to what the question is, or it's too broad in asking for help with a sentence structure or word placement, or something or other reason. I'm concerned that, in many cases, this is wrong.

Being that this is the English Language Learners group, many if not most of the people asking might not know how to properly word their question about English because they're still learning English, and as such, are not as capable to ask what they want to. Sometimes, for example here: When to..., the user is asking the wrong question for her problem, and is obviously confused as to the meaning of the sentences, not knowing that they have nothing to do with what she's asking.

In such cases where we can easily see that there is confusion about something or other, it is, in fact, possible to discern the need and give a helpful answer, as much as it may or may not be a direct answer to the question the OP asked. I find that questions like this tend to be put on hold too often, especially because these questions are asked by the kind of people who have no idea how to be clear in English. Not only that, but they are also unlikely to know how to revise their question because they simply don't know where they went wrong in what they asked, that's why they're asking.

I understand that there is a goal to keep the question and answers tidy and organized for future reference, but these are the kinds of problems that will show up all the time when learning a new language (I know because I've learned Portuguese, Spanish, and Brazilian Sign Language), and because they are usually unique misunderstandings, it's not likely for an English-Learner to find something similar enough to what they're looking for to answer their question.

So I suggest that we find a new way to handle such questions, and I do not recommend just simply closing all of them. On the questions where at least a specific need can be discerned, it would be helpful to leave them open, because perhaps the correction of something else helps OP understand that their question was actually invalid, and in the end teaches OP the correct usage of whatever he was confused about.

A side topic that can also be discussed is the migration of questions that have similar issues.

What do you guys think?

EDIT: Just to clarify, I'm talking about those questions where we know what the OP is confused about and we could easily give an explanation about those things to help the OP. And, I think it's wrong for people to vote to close the question instead of giving a helpful answer to the question, especially when we can clearly see where the OP is confused.

  • I think that even if there are a few things - enough to enumerate in a comment - that the OP could be asking about, we should be commenting for clarification, as well as, or even rather than, voting to close. For questions that are wide open, voting to close is still the right move, but even then I'd say that comments should still be left.
    – jimsug
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 1:50
  • I think what provoked the downvotes was the express question "What is the usage of the present perfect in active voice and the simple present in passive voice?" This is clearly far too broad to be answered in SE format. I have edited the question gently to focus the question on what I think the OP has in mind, which is the distinction between the verb constructions in the examples provided. Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 2:18

3 Answers 3


With the recent changes to the closing system, closure isn't the "death sentence" for questions that it used to be. Now questions are put "on hold" for 5 days, during which period they automatically enter the reopen queue if the OP edits them. Questions are no longer simply closed and left to rot in the wasteland of lost questions regardless of whether they get improved or not. We have a much better system for keeping an eye on questions that are improved, now.

So I no longer think closure (putting questions "on hold") is a negative thing. (I know I have an old meta answer where I advocated against it, but the recent "on hold" changes have changed my stance on this.) If a question is not clear/answerable in its current form, a user viewing it has the responsibility to do one of two things:

  1. If you know what the OP meant and can make the question more clear and answerable, make an edit that does so.

  2. If not, cast a close vote. It is encouraged to also leave a comment for the OP explaining why their question is unclear, and what information they could provide to make it more clear.

In case 1, the problem is solved. In case 2, one of three things is going to happen:

  1. The OP never comes back to clarify their question. In 5 days it moves from "on hold" to closed. The OP never returned, so the question isn't useful, and will be forgotten.

  2. The OP comes back and tries to give more info, but it still just doesn't make the question understandable. There's not much we can do here. If we don't understand the question, we can't answer it. Up to a certain point we can continue to seek clarification, to try and turn the situation into #3:

  3. The OP comes back and provides the info that makes the question clear and answerable. They make an edit, and the question is sent to the reopen queue. ELL users reopen it, and the improved question gets answered. Yay! This is what we want to happen.

If you have ideas on how we could encourage result #3 to happen more often than #2 (we have no control over #1), I'm definitely interested in hearing them. Finding better ways to draw the needed information out of the OP (especially considering the language barrier) is absolutely something we should put effort into.

But in the end, we either have an answerable question or we don't. If the OP comes back and can put their question into a better light so that we can understand what they want to know, we can help them. If they can't, there isn't much we can do until they can. I do have empathy for those having trouble composing the question because they don't know enough English to explain themselves properly. That's a very frustrating situation to be in, coming from any language to another. But there's a level of ability to express yourself that you just have to have before we can help, because we have to be able to understand what you're trying to ask. We can actively participate in comments to try and gain this understanding (then edit the question and delete the obsolete comment conversation). We can put effort into drawing this information out. But if in the end the OP's level of English understanding is below that for which we can comprehend what they want us to tell them, I'm not sure I see anything we can do to help.

  • 1
    There is also situation 1.5. OP doesn't know how to edit their question to make it better, so they just wait and hope for an answer. Sadly, many do this. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 16:54
  • 1
    And I'm not talking about the questions that are too unclear to answer, I'm talking about the ones that aren't as clear as they can be, but they are clear enough to discern what the OP is missing in terms of understanding their problem. These get put on hold too often by a bunch of users who could have otherwise made an edit. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 16:55
  • That gives me an idea actually. Instead of simply allowing users to vote to put on hold, they should be first encouraged to see if they can make an edit and clarify the OP's question, before their vote to put on hold is counted. Like a part of the site that says, "Wait, are you sure you can't help OP clarify their question first?". Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 16:59
  • @Danegraphics That kind of feature request should be made on meta.stackexchange, but I warn you that I have a feeling most people will be against it. (I'm not trying to discourage you from posting it there, I'm just informing you that you might not get the reaction you want. Meta.SE can be harsh sometimes.)
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 17:12
  • In the meta part of any site, there is always pushback. Neigh-sayers always seem to be louder than those who support. All I want is for people to look to help the askers, instead of saying, "Hey, I could explain what you're confused about and help you, but instead I'll just vote to close the question because it's too much work to explain everything that's wrong with what you're asking." I want to get rid of this lack of consideration. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 20:20

Although I understand your concerns, I think the all-important part is the activity of the asker.

If I see a question that is utterly unclear, I will first ask for clarification in a comment. Sometimes, more than once.

If the asker does not even bother to give any feedback on that in what I consider a reasonable amount of time, or if the feedback consists of repeating the "question", I will vote to close.

If there are obvious imporovements to be made to the question (like formatting or removing obvious typos), I will gladly do it, but if someone seems to be confused about at least three things at once and does not manage to make it clear which problem he would like to see addressed, I would not encourage people to start editting the question on the asker's behalf. You may end up with a question that was never actually asked :)

  • "if someone seems to be confused about at least three things at once", then they likely won't know how to clarify. So I would actually like to see all three things addressed in an answer for the sake of the asker instead of simply voting to close it on them when it wasn't their fault that they don't know what was wrong. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 20:17
  • I have a specific example in mind where the asker was told repeatedly that he was asking three things, and which there things they were. I do not think it is a good idea to try and explain in one answer all the meanings of the verb call, the complete use of active and passive voice, and when and how to use different verb tenses. If the asker, after a number of times being asked to narrow down his question, does not do that - or even is incapable of doing that - the question does not fit on the site.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 6:53

I think the key thing, that we should all be doing as community members, is leaving comments. If you close because it's unclear, the best thing you can do it leave a comment that probes at the possible questions, and allows the OP to single out an issue. For instance, in this question, my comment was:

Which part of the answer are you questioning? Who was Akbar? Which king (first, second or third) was Akbar? Who was the third king? What (king, jester, prince) was Akbar? @CoolHandLouis has tried to cover many possibilities, but which are you looking for?

Looking at it now, I think the tone could be read as a bit harsh, and this isn't the best example. But by asking the OP outright to add more detail on what they want, hopefully they'll return and edit it.

Voting to close, if we leave comments, or upvote those that do, isn't wrong - it's the right thing to do. Voting to close where there are no comments, on the other hand, means that nobody gets an answer, or gets a chance.

I think the majority of voters add a comment, but I don't have the statistics on this. The problem is that the comments aren't always useful. Comments like:

  • This is too broad. Can you add more detail?
  • This question is unclear. What are you asking?

Don't really help. On the other hand, comments like:

  • We need more context - can you add the source, and the sentence that this is in, and maybe the sentences before and after it?
  • This is too unclear - do you mean X, y, or Z?

Give explicit direction or choices. In the case of the latter, even if the OP's intent isn't X/Y/Z, this may help them to identify which it is. And this is probably what we should be doing, since learners probably don't know what they need to know, or don't know how to express what they don't know.

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