I unilaterally reopened a question today. Here's my paraphrase of the original question:

In this phrase, which preposition(s) would be correct:

Put the pen ..................... the book?

I'm considering over, above, on, upon, and up.

The post was closed without a comment; the reason given was "entirely answerable with a dictionary."


Put yourself in the shoes of a novice English speaker. I think most people here would agree that prepositions can be very tricky. Obviously, this O.P. has enough knowledge to know that all five of these prepositions can be used to indicate a spatial relationship: one object on top, the other on the bottom. The O.P. is requesting clarification of how these words would be used – and we send the O.P. to a dictionary? C'mon, folks. We can do better than that. Shame!

Let's start with Macmillan's definitions of over. There are 18 of them. Meanings #1 and #2 read:

1 above someone/something
2 on someone or something and covering them

Already the meanings of these words are entangled. To compound matters, the word up has 16 meanings, the first is:

in or towards a higher position

That sounds a lot like over and above to me.

A pen that is on a book is also above the book. That's a fact.

This community was created to cater to learners with questions that may be simple for the native speaker, but vexing for the learner. In this case, an O.P. finds ELL, joins, asks one question – and sees it promptly closed, sans a helpful comment, only to be directed to a book that gives enough meanings of these words to make anyone's head spin.

To be candid, I was disgusted and embarrassed.

Here is my request: Before you vote to close a question:

   a) put yourself in the shoes of a learner, and ask if the question is a fair question

   b) have some leniency toward newer members of the community; leave some comments to help them learn how to contribute in meaningful ways

Save your dictionary close votes for questions that are indeed answerable with a dictionary, such as:

What does algebra mean? I saw the word but I don't know what it means.

Remember, there's a difference between asking for the definition of a word, and asking for the nuances of related prepositions to be explained.

Stop pretending this is ELU, and remember our target audience.

NOTE: Special thanks to Tyler James Young and 200_success, who elected to touch up the question with some formatting improvements instead of voting to close it.

  • Not answerable with a dictionary, at least - not for a language learner. However, these types of questions are more like proofreading than our usual, high-quality questions - they are extremely localised and unlikely to be of use to future visitors, unless they're also using the same resource.
    – jimsug
    Aug 29, 2014 at 1:46
  • However, the way that the question was originally written, it's easy to see it as proofreading and closed as such. I probably wouldn't have done that, but it's as much about the composition of the question as it is about the underlying question itself - if we can't see the question for what it is, what chance does a future ELL stand?
    – jimsug
    Aug 29, 2014 at 1:50
  • 10
    @jimsub - It struck me as an "I'm having trouble differentiating between these five similar prepositions" question, which, given the confusion many English learners seem to have with prepositions, struck me as exactly the kind of question this site was created for.
    – J.R. Mod
    Aug 29, 2014 at 7:19
  • 11
    OED2 has 26 definitions for the preposition upon, some of which have half a dozen sub-definitions. I see this as one of the defining differences between ELU & ELL. Anyone asking at ELU should be able to read those 26 definitions and understand them, people who ask at ELL may need help just to understand one dictionary definition. Trying to understand a dictionary written in a language you are learning must be an absolute nightmare.
    – Frank
    Aug 29, 2014 at 10:10
  • @Frank When I was learning Spanish, I sometimes used a dictionary in Spanish. I once chased a definition across ten entries before I understood it.
    – tsleyson
    Sep 9, 2014 at 23:27
  • 1
    @J.R. Everyone could stand to read this question from time to time, I think. I'm certainly glad I just did. Sep 14, 2016 at 1:30

3 Answers 3


I agree. I've said elsewhere: Sure, it makes sense to close a question as out of scope if it's clearly not about grammar, like if someone asks who the captain of the Enterprise is or how to bake meat loaf. Some questions are too broad for a question-and-answer format, like "How can I learn better English?"

But I see lots of questions closed for what seem inadequate reasons to me. If you don't see how to give a good answer to this question, maybe someone else can.

I see a lot of discussion about "high quality questions". Maybe I'm challenging the philosophy of those who created the site and am thus out of line here, but it seems to me that the idea that we are creating a repository of questions that will be useful to a large number of people, rather than trying to help this one person with his specific problem, seems to me an unrealistic goal. Yes, others may find an answer useful. But why can't we help one person with a problem even if it is unlikely that that answer will ever help anyone else? What's wrong with that?

  • 4
    You wrote "But why can't we help one person with a problem even if it is unlikely that that answer will ever help anyone else?" Your point is excellent. The 'universally usable repository' notion is justified with a resource like a traditional printed dictionary where space and cost are constraining factors, but that rationale evaporates in a Q&A forum like this one. Unfortunately, there seem to be quite a few people here with the power to close questions who are in effect lording their superior ability in English over those they feel are intellectually inferior, even if they don't admit it.
    – Erik Kowal
    Sep 9, 2014 at 10:05
  • 3
    I totally agree. English is full of edge cases and judgment calls where you really can't find an answer yourself from resources, and you need the aid of a native speaker's knowledge of what is and isn't idiomatic. I also question the idea that specific questions like that won't ever be useful again; even on Stack Overflow and Server Fault, I've found questions about incredibly specific edge case situations that were closed, but happened to address exactly the problem I was having.
    – tsleyson
    Sep 9, 2014 at 23:24

My impression is that ELL is biased against questions that look like taken from an exercise book.

I can understand that some of these exercises don't fit the Stack Exchange format (especially those with a large number of options).

In my opinion, the question brought up by J.R., with 5 options, is on the verge of what it's answerable on ELL. Beyond 5, writing an answer becomes too taxing.

I would propose to update the description of what questions are on topic and state explicitly that questions taken from an exercise book are fine as long as:

  • the OP describes what difficulties they are having
  • and the number of options in such a question doesn't make answering the question too taxing.
  • 2
    I would further suggest specificity and an explanation of their current understanding, in addition to describing what difficulties they have.
    – Pockets
    Sep 5, 2014 at 23:02

We get a lot of questions like "Which X is correct?" or "Is X correct?".

Unless the answerer has some imagination or attempts to anticipate the real need for the question, these are technically "yes/no" or "return desired item in list" questions that wouldn't facilitate discussion. So the Q&A format can be seen as wrong for them.

Now, I'm certainly willing to not take the question so literally and put myself in the asker's shoes and try to fill in the missing details. After all, A) this is a language-oriented StackExchange and context-anticipation is part of language, and B) with languages sometimes askers don't really know how to ask the right question.

Sometimes after thinking about things, the question is truly too simple and should be bounced. I wouldn't have VTCed or flagged this question because the differences between these prepositions is interesting and not necessarily easy to really understand just by dictionary definitions, but I can understand why some in the community would.

This SE in particular would be interesting if certain questions could be converted, by enough votes, to a "Is this correct or not" form and answerers could vote up to say "This is correct" or vote down to say "This is not correct." But we do have the chat that askers can use as well so referring users to chat could be a useful tool.

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