A look at my question history will show that what might be grouped under the umbrella of 'uncharitable close votes' is a bit of a hobby horse of mine, and I fully accept that the community as a whole takes a stricter view than I do on the subject.

Nevertheless, I was thinking about the oft-used close reason of 'answerable by a dictionary', and how it might be improved to make the site more useful, without asking contributors to duplicate the effort of the OED.

The starting point of my thoughts is that I quite often find the advice 'use a dictionary' on questions such as this one to be unhelpful in the context of a learners' website, albeit entirely correct under the rules of the site.

In the example cited above, the questioner can answer their question from any English dictionary. Indeed, they seem almost to have done so, or to have tried to. But they remain unsure. They would not be asking their question if not for the fact they already know that 'shrunk' is a possible irregular form of 'to shrink', and simply looking at a dictionary definition of 'shrink' hasn't resolved their confusion.

Dictionaries are not always as clear as one would hope, especially if we assume that most users of this site are trying to read a dictionary in a foreign language, or an 'English to Other Language' dictionary (which, in my experience, are even more terse and impenetrable in their explanations of what is going on grammatically).

My search engine's top link for a dictionary definition of 'shrink' is copied below (deliberately provided as a screenshot of the page, with all ad-blockers off): Screenshot from dictionary.com of page for verb 'shrink'.

From a design and usability perspective the dictionary.com website, and nearly all free online dictionaries, are a horrific mess, designed to maximize clicks, not easy comprehension. In this example, before the user can get to the definition, they have to wade through a large area of more-prominently highlighted links to non-relevant content, not to mention the acres of distracting ads.

But even the best dictionary is seldom user-friendly to learners. Having got past the ads and links going to places that do everything except explain the meaning and forms of the word, they then need to be able to understand the technical jargon used by the dictionary to provide a definition. But they're an English language learner: they may have a weak understanding of grammar, tenses and much else - in their own language, let alone English. Most can probably get as far as the basic definition that 'to shrink' usually means 'to contract or lessen in size' (assuming they aren't derailed by the first definition that 'shrink' can mean 'to retreat' or 'avoid' - note how the 'correct' definition for this example is the very last thing on the page). However there is no plain English explanation that "'to shrink' is an irregular verb, with 'shrank' or 'shrunk' as viable past forms, 'shrunk' or 'shrunken' as viable passive forms, and 'shrunk' as the past participle. The information is there, but good luck working it out as a novice in English grammar.

Let's face it: even in plain English, there's a lot of foundational knowledge required to understand just the summary I give in the previous paragraph of the common forms of 'to shrink'. As a native speaker in my teens, I wouldn't have understood any of it. I only acquired that grammatical understanding much later, and as I write this I'm still not as certain as others on this site will be - even after looking at multiple dictionary definitions - that my own 'plain English' forms above are accurate. How is the average learner supposed to solve their problem using the far less user-friendly definitions found in dictionaries?

Putting myself in the shoes of the questioner in my example, if somebody had said 'look at a dictionary', I would have been left in a situation where my best option was to make an informed guess based on my existing partial understanding. That's not helping them solve their problem, and it's not helping them to answer future questions for themselves.

What would have been useful would be a link in any closed/off topic notices for 'answerable by a dictionary' that

  1. Recommended specific dictionaries that the community believes provide definitions in as non-distracting, accessible and simple a way as possible, avoiding some of the worst online dictionary sites;
  2. Provided a link to a plain English explanation of how to use those dictionaries effectively, including the common abbreviations and formatting styles used to convey information about irregular forms, participles, plus FAQs for people stuck on their understanding of a dictionary definition.

Is this a suggestion worth pursuing?

  • 1
    This post comes at a pretty good time. I posted earlier this month about editing the "research/dictionary" close reason on ELU, and I planned to have a similar discussion here. I like your idea for a having a dictionary guide.
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 20, 2023 at 21:52
  • 2
    I was also hoping to give users some help before asking a question, which is another place guidance like this could be helpful. (I just have more ideas than time.)
    – Laurel Mod
    Sep 21, 2023 at 0:54
  • Apologies @Laurel ... I started replying days ago and then stopped because my phone kept messing up my text. The situation on ELU sounds even more extreme. I really think here we could do a better job of helping learners answer their own questions if we won't, or help teach them how to ask better questions. There are a lot of "good faith, well meaning" questions that get closed here where I get the impression the demand to "provide more details", "what have you done" or "use a dictionary" is met with a confusion because the learner doesn't know where to start.
    – fred2
    Sep 24, 2023 at 3:15
  • The most important thing appears to be that close messages have more space now in which helpful and more friendly suggestions could be given.
    – fred2
    Sep 24, 2023 at 3:17
  • This answer could be used as a starting point: ell.meta.stackexchange.com/a/4722/2789
    – fred2
    Sep 24, 2023 at 3:21


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