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As has recently become our most-used tag, it seems like a good time to discuss this. Please note that I'm not advocating any course of action, just raising the topic for discussion.


Many questions on this site are of the form "here's a short excerpt from a piece of literature - what does this particular word/phrase mean?" We often tag these with the tag.

  • Some of these questions (for example) are very interesting and thought-provoking, inspiring answers based on deep literary analysis.
  • Some of them involve details of historical context (example) or complex wordplay (example). These too may need lengthy research and increase appreciation of the book.
  • Some of them simply require a dictionary or some knowledge of the English language. It may still be possible to write a long detailed answer with lots of dictionary references or a mini grammar lesson or some illustrative pictures, but in essence these questions could be solved by a short paragraph explaining the standard meaning of an English word or construction.

Historically, some users have voted to close questions of the latter type because "these are ELL or ELU questions, not literature questions". I've always argued against such close votes because these may not be "literary" questions (whatever that means) but they are questions about literature.

Recently I've noticed an uptick in questions, and I remembered what Shog9 said about needing plenty of "meaty" questions as well as the padding of "aperitif" questions. Again I'm not saying we have a problem, but I wouldn't want this site to consist primarily of questions of the 3rd type listed above, without anything that requires more in-depth analysis. And I'm not advocating any course of action, just proposing that we discuss this - now, at this point - to see what we, as a community, think about such questions. Obviously we want to encourage questions of the 1st or 2nd type; how about the 3rd type?

What are your thoughts?

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It’s rare to get a question that can be answered well by giving only dictionary or encyclopedia definitions. Nearly always there is something interesting to say about the meaning in its literary context. For example, the most recent question in the tag is ‘Meaning of this line in Candida by Shaw’, which asks for the meaning of ‘Woman Question’ in the context of the play. If you just give a link to Wikipedia then I think you haven’t really answered it: almost certainly the phrase comments on the action of the play in some way, and we need that connection to fully understand the line. So the dictionary definition would be only the starting point for a good answer.

To see if there is a problem, I looked systematically at the most recent 50 questions in the tag, and divided them into five groups. I find that 43 of the questions are valuable to the site, 6 are ‘basic’ questions that could equally well be asked on english.se, and one was mistagged. Even the ‘basic’ questions have nothing wrong with them, and could potentially be redeemed by an insightful answer.

So my opinion is that there is nothing to do here. A small proportion of basic questions is fine: they provide easy targets for people to get started writing answers.

Difficult (22)

These are questions where the surface meaning of the text is difficult and can’t be easily clarified by giving dictionary definitions.

Contextual (13)

These are questions where the surface meaning of the text can easily be clarified by giving definitions, but a good answer draws out the ways the passage bears on character, plot, theme, and so on.

Allusive (9)

These are questions where the surface meaning of the text can easily be clarified by giving definitions, but where there are puns, allusions to other texts, historical or social context to be explained.

Basic (6)

These are questions where the surface meaning of the text can easily be clarified by giving definitions or short paraphrases, and there does not seem to be much else to say, so that these questions would work just as well on english.se. (But I could be wrong, and maybe more insightful answers could redeem them.)

Mistagged (1)

This question is looking for an explanation of events, and does not seem to be a question in the sense in the tag wiki (“questions regarding the meaning of certain terms or phrases”).

  • If you remove the meaning tag from that mistagged question, and add it to this question, you'll have a nice round 50 again :-) – Rand al'Thor Feb 24 at 15:03

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