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.


3 Answers 3


Questions where they are asking about an entire sentence can be closed as too broad, if they don't provide context, or if they're not asking about specific words.

If they're asking about specific words, then it can be closed as entirely answerable with a dictionary unless they show that they have made an attempt to look the term up.

There is a problem, of course - users don't often know that they need to add context until they're asked, and they may not know how much context they need. I don't remember whether users are able to see close votes on their own questions, but if they can't, I don't think it would be a bad idea for, at least the first and second-to-last closevoter to notify them that their question may need revision.

Of course, I don't know what kinds of flags you might see, as a moderator: you're probably in a much better position to make judgements like this than I am. One of the things you can do, if you feel you need more information, is encourage users to raise flags more often, if you and the moderation team feel as though you can handle it - that'll make any patterns more apparent, albeit increasing your workload.

As for your proposals, here's my two cents on them:

  • Downvoting is something that I do regularly, and quite liberally to these questions; that's probably the reason why my down/upvote ratio is the way it is.

  • Putting these questions on hold probably happens organically, for the reasons outlined above - I don't think there'll be a radical change in close-voting behaviour unless there's a new close reason added, and made known to users.

  • Deletion - if you propose to delete these questions without consultation, I'm not sure where I stand on this. However, if you mean to delete them more rapidly following closure, I don't mind, provided the OP has been given the reason for the closure, and appears to be unresponsive/inflexible.

  • Suspension, I believe, is far too heavy-handed, except for those cases where malicious intent can be shown beyond reasonable doubt. I'm not a moderator, but my intuition is that suspending users who are acting maliciously will only lead to sockpuppet accounts, which just makes things more difficult - every now and then, ELU gets hit with a wave of spam, all originating from different user accounts, and all with the same, or nearly the same message.
    Having said this, if you can see a clear pattern of misbehaviour, then suspension will make things easier for everyone. I would just say that you must be ready to substantiate suspensions, should you be asked to do so.

Apologies if any of the above sounds condescending, or is overly-detailed; I'm opting for over-specification instead of vagueness.


A source is needed not only for context, but to provide proper attribution to the author, when the text is not written by the OP, as it usually is not in such cases. This is an ethical requirement, and a network-wide rule. In many cases it is also a copyright requirement. As the answer by choster suggests, if one knows or can find the source, one should edit proper attribution and context into the question directly, and add a comment mentioning that one has done so. Note that a link is not enough. Links rot, and people should not have to follow a link in any case to get proper attribution. The author and title, or publication, should be included as text within the question itself. Such text could be made the text of a link.

See also "Marking and Attributing Examples, Sources, and Other Quotes"


The obvious answer is to politely ask for more context in a comment.

This was the approach I had taken until fairly recently: to ask for context, and if not provided within a few hours, to closevote. But it is often the case that the OP is unable to provide suitable context, or indeed does not understand what is meant by context. Therefore, we should be explicit: ask where the problematic words appear (street sign? newspaper? conversation with a teenager?), ask for the sentences preceding and following it if excerpted from a longer passage, and ask for who is using the words.

Edits > Comments

What seems to be more effective, however, is to provide the context for them, by editing it into the question directly . Nowadays, before I even comment asking for context, I will do a web search on the phrasing in question. Often, it comes from literature or news, and the larger passage is readily accessible from somewhere on the web. I will edit the post directly and provide a link to the full text if available. This has the benefit of demonstrating to the OP what constitutes suitable context without downvotes or closevotes, which for someone who is both new to SE and new to English will be a greater emotional blow. The salutary effect is apparent in at least one recent questioner who was asking a series of Hemingway questions.

We're already guessing

We are not clairvoyant, of course and cannot always tell where the requested text originates. Such questions would be appropriate to close and, if no elucidation is forthcoming, to delete.

But so many answerers are clamoring to guess at intentions— "It could be a reference to … It could be a typo for…" I say, if you believe you understand the OP's intent, it behooves you as a community member to improve the question to indicate that intent more clearly. Otherwise, it's a bad answer on top of a bad question. The questioner always has the option of rejecting the edit and of providing his or her own context, after all.

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