We have recently seen a number of questions in this basic format:
What does this mean?
The magic words are squeamish ossifrage.
I don't understand this quote.
When encountering questions like this, many ELLers have often requested more information or context about the quoted material. Is it from a work of fiction, news, or poetry? Who wrote it and when? Is it "wroted, or quoted"? (In other words, is it something authored by the O.P., or found by the O.P.?)
In my opinion, such information is almost always nice to have – and in some cases, vital to have – for a few reasons:
1) I'm often curious, and find myself asking: "Where did this come from?" (I imagine other regular contributors often find themselves asking the same thing.) I believe people who expect the community to invest their time in analyzing a quote owe them at least the courtesy of saying where it's from.
2) It's often vital information, in that such information might influence the correct answer. Time, location, and context matter. For example, the phrase, "Gay lovers in plenty" would mean something quite different in the 1800s than it does today. "Let's go play some football" probably means something different in Ireland than it does in New York. "Mary had a little lamb" would mean something different in a restaurant review than it would in famous nursery rhyme. And the phrase "cruel to be kind" may not quite mean the same thing when it's spoken by Hamlet as it does when it's crooned by Elvis Costello.
3) Something that seems mysterious is often found to be nothing more than a typo or OCR scan error, such as flood money in place of blood money. (As another example, we were recently asked about hockey romantic encounters.) Such misprints are easier to identify when we are provided the source of the material.
4) Such background information almost always improves the quality of the question, and higher-quality questions make for a higher-quality site.
My question is, "What should we do when such questions are asked?"
The obvious answer is to politely ask for more context in a comment. (Past history has shown that some users will accept this graciously and edit their question, while some might be more obstinate and retort back, "What does it matter where it came from? I just want to know what it means.")
I don't mind coaching newcomers about the differences between a good "What does this mean?" question, and a shoddy "What does this mean?" question. Lately, however, we have been hit by quite a few "repeat offenders".
I believe the time has come for a more heavy-handed approach against repeat offenders. These might include:
- Being quicker to downvote such questions
- Putting such questions on hold
- Deleting such questions altogether
- Suspending the users who are consistently engaging in this behavior
I have my ideas of what should be done, but I don't want the moderation team to start acting more heavy-handedly without some feedback from the community first.
One more note: I have often sensed that some users have a hard time providing complete context simply because their English skills are so rudimentary that they have trouble putting together even one grammatical sentence. I'm not talking about those users. I understand that language barriers exist on ELL, and that we all need to be mindful of them. I'm not expecting such users to suddenly write flourishing prose in their questions.
No matter what, though, please, tell us where you found your squeamish ossifrage. It's polite, and it may be important as well.