It is the obvious thing to flag a question like:

What is the meaning of "white"?

as being off-topic (answer to be found in a dictionary).

What about questions like the following:

How to use "until" grammatically correct

Which one is grammatically correct ?

  1. I waited there until he had come.
  2. I waited there until he came.

    What's the rule?

The answer can be found in any grammar book. I flagged myself several of these questions, nothing seems to happen as a result.

Therefore I became curious: what is the recommended handling of these questions? What is supposed to happen? I admit that I might have the wrong understanding.

Note: I encountered "countless" questions with this pattern, some of them not even asking for rules.

Note: I searched on ELL and ELL Meta and I did not find something similar.

  • 2
    RE: The answer can be found in any grammar book. If there is a simple, readily-available answer to that question, I think you should link to it.
    – J.R. Mod
    Mar 19, 2019 at 14:20
  • 4
    But the "problem" is that both those sentences are grammatically correct. You can't find an answer to that question, basically because it lacks context. The OP is asking what's the difference between the past perfect simple and the simple past. They haven't said what they know, what they have studied, nor what they haven't understood. They just slapped two sentences in the middle of nowhere, so a good answer is not something you can summarise in two or three lines or even in a short paragraph.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 19, 2019 at 15:10
  • @Mari-LouA: you state some facts and they are correct, but I do not understand where you are getting at. Is the question good and a long answer should be provided, or the question is less than suitable and must be updated or deleted - regardless of answers?
    – virolino
    Mar 19, 2019 at 16:13
  • @J.R.: the answer is probably a number of pages in the grammar book, providing the correct information about tenses - information which should be massively copy-pasted to ELL in order to build a good answer - just like copy-pasting dictionary entries for the people who do not care to use a dictionary.
    – virolino
    Mar 19, 2019 at 16:15
  • Related discussion : Ask even if the answer exists online
    – ColleenV
    Mar 19, 2019 at 17:07
  • 1
    What @Mari-LouA said. I don't think "Too Basic" (or our equivalent, "Please include the research you’ve done") is a valid reason for closevoting. It's not obvious to me that any grammar book would explicitly explain any possible difference in meaning, and it seems highly unlikely they would mention anything about which version would be more likely in any specific context where they're equally valid and interchangeable. The only issue is we could do with more detail (what the OP already knows, a more complete context, etc.), which might be better addressed in a comment anyway. Mar 19, 2019 at 17:11
  • The question then is: what if the OP does not comply / add new info? This is the actual problem.
    – virolino
    Mar 19, 2019 at 17:13
  • If a question doesn’t have enough detail/context to write a good answer for it, it should be put on hold until the author provides the necessary information. If the author doesn’t want to provide that information eventually the question will go from “on hold” to “closed”.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 19, 2019 at 17:21
  • dictionary.cambridge.org/us/grammar/british-grammar/until I don't think the sample question here works at all.
    – Lambie
    Mar 30, 2019 at 14:13

3 Answers 3


If you're looking for some foolproof flow chart that will instruct you and the rest of the community about what to do for each and every question like this one, then, sorry, you'll be disappointed in this answer. The process isn't all that simple, and every circumstance provides its own teachable moments.

If you feel like a question could or should be improved, you have all of these options available:

  • Leave a comment. Explain how the question could be improved, or post a link to helpful guidance found in our Help Center or on ELL's meta site.
  • Cast a downvote. This is one way you can indicate that you feel the question needs improvement.
  • Cast a vote to close. If the question is put on hold, the intent is for the OP to make improvements so that it can be reopened.
  • Look for a duplicate question that has been satisfactorily answered. In the case of your example question here, there's a good chance someone has already asked a similar question that might provide a useful answer for the OP. (Hint: Tags may help you do this.)
  • Flag the question. This action will bring the question to the attention of the moderators.
  • Edit the question and improve it. Sometimes it's easier to show a person how to write a better question simply by improving their question and adding some additional details. (This isn't always possible, but sometimes it's a viable option.)
  • Answer the question. Yes, I know that there is a meta question about not "feeding the bears." Nevertheless, sometimes even a poorly-posed question can get a useful answer and everyone can learn from it.

However, that being said, I'll offer the following caveats:

  • Respect views that differ from your own. You might see a trivial question that is easily resolved by consulting a grammar book, while someone else may see an interesting question about an issue that has vexed them for a long time. Don't expect that everyone will view the question in exactly the same way you do.
  • Always be constructive in your feedback. Try to nudge people toward improvement, not just for their particular question, but for the community as a whole. Avoid put-downs, and abide by the Code of Conduct.
  • Understand that newer users are probably unaware of community expectations. Before admonishing a user too severely, take a peek at their profile. How long have they been a member? How many questions have they asked? Is the problem you are noticing a first-time problem, or a recurring problem?
  • Avoid being too legalistic. Barrack-room lawyer tactics often sow seeds of discord and animosity and rarely help the site improve over time.

Lastly, when moderators see a question flagged, they have the same options available as the rest of the community: comment, downvote, edit, answer, or close. (However, when a moderator votes to close a question, the question is immediately put on hold.) You said in your question that you've sometimes flagged a question but nothing has happened. This may be for a few different reasons:

  • The moderators haven't seen your flag yet. We are not on duty round the clock. We are busy people who may go a whole day or two without checking in.
  • The moderators agree with your sentiment, but decide the issue isn't bad enough to intervene. Sometimes we simply elect to defer to the will of the community.
  • The moderators are discussing the issue among themselves. Sometimes we don't feel comfortable acting unilaterally, and will wait for a second or third opinion from someone else on the mod team before deciding upon the best course of action.
  • The moderators disagree with your assessment. Occasionally, a question will get flagged, and not only are we unsympathetic to the voiced concern, but we flat out disagree with it.

With so many people having so many options available, there is no single, cut-and-dried "best" response to a question that perhaps ought to show more details, or may seem too basic, at least on the surface.

Some of our members see themselves primarily as helpful teachers, and they aren't comfortable downvoting or exhorting people to adhere to some elusive standard. Others want to see the quality of the site maintained, so they may be a little quicker to cast a close vote, or to write a comment pressing for more details to be added into the question. Personally, I'm thankful the site has such diversity, and I think the system works best when we appreciate each other's strengths rather than focus on each other's shortcomings.

  • 1
    Even if you happen to find better examples of low-quality questions, my answer remains the same. You (and everyone else on the site) have several tools available to help constructively deal with the situation. Use your best judgement and try to keep things positive.
    – J.R. Mod
    Mar 21, 2019 at 14:54

The core of this question seems to be something along the lines of Where do we draw the line? How much background research can we reasonably expect someone to do before asking a question on ELL?

Personally I think we should always err on the side of caution in this area. Just because most people might find it reasonably easy to resolve their problem if they could find a relevant online resource, and fully understand what they read there doesn't mean everyone can do this.

After all, in the context of ELL, most likely the resource people end up reading will be written entirely in what to them is a foreign language, usually not even aimed at non-native speakers (nns). And don't get me started on the deficiencies of the many "English language resources" that are not only specifically aimed at nns, but are also produced by nns.

TL;DR: There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

  • There are no "stupid" questions, but there are unclear questions. The goal of asking for detail is not to set some artificial quality threshold, but to make sure that we're answering the question that the author intended to ask. It's really difficult to ask questions about a language you're learning using the language that you're learning! It's also very easy for people to assume they know what you're talking about based on what they think is difficult about a language they know quite well and be completely wrong because they don't share the learner's perspective.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 19, 2019 at 17:55
  • @ColleenV♦: Indeed. But like I said, I think the primary thrust of the question as asked here is about lack of research, which is very different to lack of details. And since we're on that point, I'll just say that I have sometimes been just a little surprised to see that you've actually closed a question for that second reason, where I'd have been more likely to post a comment asking for more detail (besides which, even if I did closevote, there might not be 4 others agreeing with me, to see the process through). Mar 19, 2019 at 18:08
  • 1
    You’re always free to vote to reopen or raise the issue on meta. I know it may come as a shock, but I have been know to make mistakes on rare occasions ;) usually if I don’t leave a comment it is because someone has previously received guidance and repeatedly ignored it. I do check back on questions I’ve closed and see if they’ve been edited. If an attempt was made to fix the problem I reopen them.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 19, 2019 at 18:12
  • I didn't mean to be critical of your decisions! So far as I'm concerned, mods in general and you in particular (usually? :) make very good decisions. But I certainly know that at least sometimes, I find myself thinking that perhaps you're under a little more pressure than the likes of me when it comes to taking account of what's good for the site as a whole, in the long run (in particular, defining and upholding standards). Mar 19, 2019 at 18:24
  • And I could fix that “know” that should be “known” but I think it’s funny. I have also been accused of enjoying stupid humor too much ;p I didn’t take offense. I am sincere in suggesting that you speak up if you think I acted too hastily. Maybe I missed something that you saw.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 19, 2019 at 18:27
  • As any fule kno, I too have sometimes made mistakes! In which context a conversation I had with my 20-something daughter last night is relevant. When I was her age, I was axiomatically in favour of capital punishment for certain crimes (always thought we should just shoot Ian Brady and be done with it, not lock him up for life). I'd essentially switched to the opposite position by the time my daughter was born, but now and then (in the immediate wake of things like the NZ shooting, for example) I switch again. What I mean is, anyone can change their mind, and inconsistency isn't a mortal sin. Mar 19, 2019 at 18:37

For me, I delete vote under the "should have looked it up" criterion if they would be able to look it up easily, with a simple search. Vocabulary is the main thing for that. Something like that I would vote to delete as unclear, though if it's a new user I'd comment to give them a chance to fix it first, or as "show your research and be clear what you are asking".

The former I would say because both are correct so it depends on context which might be 'right'. The latter I would say because they've not shown any attempt to work it out for themselves.

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