I've asked this question to garner consensus about what we should do with questions that are completely answered by a dictionary definition. This question, for example. (Reproduced here because the question has since been deleted)

I am reading a TOEFL paragraph and I the passage is starting with this sentence :
The scholarly method involves careful analysis and interpretation of information.
what does scholarly mean? universal ? educated ? or something else?

If a question requires a dictionary definition as a supplement, that's something else entirely. But if the entirety of a question is "what does this word mean" then I think these questions are off-topic, as the OP should just look the word up themselves.

Now if they look the word up, still don't understand, and post a question explaining this and asking for clarification, that's something else. But in the example question, a definition is the only answer that's necessary. I didn't even post an answer containing the definition, just left a comment with the dictionary link, because I don't think these questions ought to be answered.

So! I'd love to hear opinions and ideas. We need to define what is and isn't on-topic for the site, and I think this is a great place to start. Thoughts?

Also, counterexample of an excellent question which asks for the meaning of the word but is thoroughly researched and has already looked up the definition. This question should of course not be closed.

  • 1
    Agreed, but what is the best reason for close voting? You could use "too localized", but there may be others wondering what "scholarly" means (localized defined as too narrow subject matter that will not likely benefit others). Although you could say it won't help others because they could look it up in a dictionary. But it might not be that clear to all users. In any case, I think to be clear one of the close reasons should include "lacks research", meaning the OP did not make a basic effort to find an answer (dictionary/thesaurus lookup etc.) or is asking for a straight translation.
    – user485
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 0:00
  • 2
    @user3169 I agree that sometimes it's not clear which close vote option to choose. In this case, though, I'd choose "off-topic". If the community decides that these questions are not within the scope of the site, then they are off-topic. So the close reason would stand. :)
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 0:04
  • 1
    Also the FAQ should clearly state such questions are unacceptable if that's the case. Under "What kind of questions should I not ask here?" it does not address these issues. And needs to be displayed before the "show more". In my opinion "show more" function should not be used for this topic to ensure its read.
    – user485
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 0:05
  • Can the "off-topic" definition, as listed in the close dialog box, include "lacks research" or such? Or is this predefined? Since this is clearly an offending category, I don't see any reason not to be clear about it. At this moment, the question has two close votes for "too localized".
    – user485
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 0:11
  • @user3169 Well that's the thing; these questions are unacceptable to me, and I'm 99% sure the community will agree. But we have to get consensus first, hence this question. If the community agrees, then eventually something would be added to the FAQ (likely when we're out of beta). But the only way to measure consensus is answers with upvotes!
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 0:12
  • Thaks for your comments. Hopefully this can move forward. I just want to be clear; my main concern is that we don't ding anyone for not following a rule that has not been made clear (to the average user) in the FAQ or by other appropriate means.
    – user485
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 0:18
  • @user3169 Oh, absolutely. We just have to decide here before we can add it to the FAQ :) I think this is covered under "doesn't show proper research", tbh, but still better to be sure! :)
    – WendiKidd
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 0:22
  • 1
    I've approached this question from a different angle: meta.ell.stackexchange.com/questions/469/…
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 0:49
  • Dictionary lookup questions are very simple, straightforward and don’t require community collaboration. However, if the question is posed as in the post by Cerberus, then maybe it’s worth answering. Commented Apr 9, 2013 at 14:28
  • 1
    I saw this applied to a question about the meaning of an idiomatic phrase: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/33452/… but this doesn't seem right. You'd hardly find "to dog [one's] heels" in a dictionary, and looking up the dictionary definition of the verb "dog" doesn't necessarily indicate what one's heels have to do with anything. Am I looking at this from the wrong angle, or was this closure applied incorrectly?
    – Doktor J
    Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 21:57
  • @DoktorJ I think that was applied incorrectly in that case, and have voted to repoen that question.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 0:11

3 Answers 3


I think you are spot on: a question should be closed if A.) it can be easily answered by a non-native speaker by looking up a word in a dictionary and B.) the question does not indicate that more information is required about the definition as given in the dictionary (as in, "I don't understand the definition!" Or: "does it mean sense 1 or sense 2 in this context, and why?").

  • 11
    Quite. And the FAQ should include in the list of Off-Topic questions something along the lines of "• Questions about word or phrase meanings which can be answered by consulting a good dictionary". I'd add "such as the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary", with a LINK; perhaps that's too specific, but it would mean a closevoter can both explain the vote and point to an answer by linking to the FAQ. Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 2:18
  • @StoneyB: Excellent idea.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 2:20
  • 4
    I stole it from snailplane and WendiKidd on Chat. Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 2:23
  • I think this is basically right, but I've seen a number of questions that someone voted to close because they felt it could be answered by a dictionary despite the fact that there are 20 different definitions listed. So the problem here is defining 'easily'.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 5:03
  • @DCShannon: Very true. Perhaps many people are a bit too strict.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 12:41

The OP mentioned "universal" as a possible definition of scholarly. That's wrong, meaning that s/he "took a wrong turn." IMHO, that's a good enough reason to ask a question, to be corrected.

Posting the "correct" definition might not disabuse the person of the error. If this is the case, the question should not be considered "off topic." One might close it on the theory that it was "too localized" (i.e. no one else would make the same mistake). There is a real difference here. A question closed as off topic costs the OP an automatic downvote, -2 rep; "too localized" does not carry that penalty.

But I think the question should be allowed to stand. American humorist Mark Twain said, "It's not what we don't know that gets us into trouble, it's what we DO know that ISN'T SO."


I was in the middle of typing a reply to this question when it was put on hold pursuant to this rule. Apart from the mild annoyance to me (but I'll take the positive that I learned interesting things while researching it), the big issue for me is this: if I was a language learner who had found this site and posted a question, then got a formulaic response 'off-topic, look in a dictionary', I would feel very aggrieved. Yes, learners should check dictionaries, and perhaps should check the FAQs on this site before they post their answer, but anyone who proceeds that far should be dignified by a warm welcome and an actual response. (Yes, I appreciate the need to prevent this site from getting beyond workability by setting limits to it.)

(By the way, the FAQs about framing a good question aren't really prominent on the site. Maybe there could/should be a pop up box appear when a new user asks her/his first question. (Or even every time with the option of 'don't show this message again'.))

  • 1
    There are some cases where the meaning isn't clear from dictionaries, particularly for words with multiple sense. For those that do, however, it seems silly to use a Q&A site rather than consult a dictionary, and you don't want to drive away experts by permitting countless dictionary lookup questions.
    – jimsug
    Commented Jul 10, 2014 at 22:40
  • 1
    There's a question currently under consideration of relevancy pursuant to this policy. It involves multiple senses and a request for the general meaning (rather than a single context as cited in this meta's original proposal). But more importantly, a slang term in infrequent usage, but for which there were several senses and a second definition. So, perhaps it should be kept in mind that slang terms are a special case of largely undocumented (or under-documented) definitions, and ELL/ESL learners especially might benefit from being exposed to native perspectives. Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 4:31

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