I understand it's frustrating when you want to help but can't understand what the person needs help with but at the same time you have to balance that with the user's interests since ultimately that's the value this website contributes to others.

I've ran across several questions where someone has voted to close without ever even asking for clarification on any particular point. I don't think "unclear what you're asking" should be a synonym for "I just don't know the answer" or "you made grammatical mistakes in your post" since closing questions for either reason doesn't help anyone.

This is something I found this morning. I've since edited it, but the question was clear enough to me and it seems obvious that the OP is just ESL.

There are several more votes to close like this just this morning as I browse but it's something I've seen off and on for a while. It seems like a good way to scare off new users or make people feel like it's not worth contributing to this particular SE.

  • This issue has come up many times before. meta.stackexchange.com/questions/226338/…, unfortunately, no there isn't a mechanism such as this.
    – slm Mod
    Feb 6, 2015 at 14:01
  • BTW, if you search on the SE meta site you'll find this brought up in many threads (another example): meta.stackexchange.com/questions/215705/…. I'd suggest that it's a community issue to help others by being the voice of reason when you come across it and try and help the OP salvage their Q when you can. I've left a comment to this effect on the Q you cited. Many ppl regularly hang out in the UL chat room and we attempt to bring salvageable Q's up there and get them fixed as quickly as we can.
    – slm Mod
    Feb 6, 2015 at 14:02
  • What does ESL mean? Feb 6, 2015 at 14:27
  • "English as a Second Language" I'm a native English speaker but I don't think we should hold it against people from other countries just because they never found it important enough to improve their English skills.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 6, 2015 at 14:29

4 Answers 4


This is sort of interesting because it's something I've gradually changed my mind about. Several times in the past, I've argued in chat that I think the first close vote should require a comment.

I don't feel that way anymore. I'm not sure if it is a matter of becoming more cynical -- or less, with regard to putting faith in the efficacy of the system. I admit the hold banners are explicit enough and often do not require a further comment.

In the case of your example, looking at the original edit, I'm trying to imagine a version which demonstrates less thought put into it. The fact that it is a simple and straightforward question is no excuse; in that case, it should be even easier to make sure it is completely clear. That the OP had a problem with English perhaps makes it an unfortunate corner case, but often people with that problem make it clear -- so maybe there is still a lesson in this for the poster. You're not clear by consensus. What are you going to do about that? Just because someone's English is poor does not mean they are stupid and cannot solve elementary communication problems, starting with, "My English is not good..."

But some people seem to approach the task thinking that they should begin by making as little effort as humanly possible, then if that doesn't get them what they want, maybe they have to try harder. Hence, we are explicitly asking them to try harder, and that is not unreasonable. Do we always need to elaborate on "unclear"? There's a whole paragraph explaining it in the "hold" bar, including the invitation to leave a comment.

I also believe a lot of people who don't answer questions sometimes have a hard time empathizing with those who do. I'm not saying they should have to answer questions if they can't or don't want to, but I think they should step back and consider that just because you get something for free does not mean it is a product of unlimited resources. If you can't be bothered to try, why should anyone else? Why should the community give you time?1 Answers are not a product of unlimited resources, and therefore, there need to be limits and standards imposed on questions. If S.E. arbitrated for money instead, I'm sure people would make an effort to be very clear about exactly what they are looking for, lest they get, "Sorry, the answer genie did answer your question as asked; if you want another, they are $5 each".

There are plenty of forums, etc., around where you can act as slovenly as you like. I think setting a higher bar results in an all round better site. Does this catch some people off guard at first? Sure, but they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. To do facilitate that, they need to be pointed out.

1. The objection could be made that if you don't want to answer a question you don't have to, but that doesn't mean you should vote to make it impossible for anyone else. My problem with that has to do with the broken windows theory. Allowing really low quality questions to float creates the impression that it is okay because someone who isn't so fussy will come along eventually.

  • Regarding "need to elaborate on unclear" one purpose of requiring elaboration is to try to get more information from the OP and/or demonstrate to others what it is about the post that you don't get. It's about not assuming because the voters don't understand the post that it must be the case that the post itself doesn't make sense. I'll also point out that laziness and inexperience often look very similar. In this case, it seems the OP's command of the English language was too poor for this forum in which case it probably took a lot of effort just to get a semi-coherent sentence up there.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 9, 2015 at 14:15
  • Regarding "I think setting a higher bar results in an all round better site." I agree but the bar doesn't need to be set higher just for the askers, it should also be set somewhat high for people answering as well. I'm basically saying votes to close shouldn't be given out like water.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 9, 2015 at 14:17
  • I'm also not saying that we shouldn't edit posts. I think editing poorly worded posts when they get popular would solve the broken windows concern. Also, lazy questions are rarely interesting enough to get popular anyways.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 9, 2015 at 14:19
  • WRT people with poor English skills, I think the baby does get thrown out with the bathwater sometimes. But what to do about that that? Note that sometimes those people indicate their issue. Maybe I was being a little Devil's advocate above, but part of my change of heart about requiring an initial comment has come from moderating on another exchange, where I can (and do) close questions by fiat everyday. Many of them I do leave a comment, but many of them I don't -- there are certain questions that just don't deserve the benefit of any doubt...
    – goldilocks
    Feb 9, 2015 at 14:39
  • ...I don't have time to waste on those and I don't think anyone should either. If they want to come back and fix their mess, great -- that invitation is explicit in the banner. That's what I meant by maintaining a "high" (aka, reasonable) bar. We have to have a reason to close something, and that reason is given a decent explanation in the banner too. It's spelled out already and often simply doesn't merit further explanation.
    – goldilocks
    Feb 9, 2015 at 14:42

In general, requiring comments seems a bit annoying, since in many cases the explanation given by the close box covers everything. It's not that a particular line is unclear, that's usually fixable, it's that the whole post is totally unclear to the degree that nobody knows how to fix it.

On the other hand, this site in particular seems happy to close imperfect questions that are easily fixed. I don't think requiring comments would solve that though, people just leave generic comments instead.

  • "the explanation given by the close box covers everything." Except the close box only comes after the question has been closed rather than preemptively trying to simply get more information from them.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 6, 2015 at 14:47
  • 1
    Requiring comments would at least send out the message that people need to cool down with the "close question" thing and maybe ask a question. I've seen plenty of questions that were clear to me. I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt that others may have just been confused by the wording, but the solution to such an individual problem is just to ask.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 6, 2015 at 14:48
  • Not to mention, even if it's a vague comment, it's at least something that indicates what the person felt was confusing about the question.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 6, 2015 at 14:49
  • 3
    @Bratchley remember that when a question is closed, any editing will automatically place it in the reopen queue. Closing as unclear does not kill the question, it just gives the OP the chance to edit it and make it clearer.
    – terdon Mod
    Feb 6, 2015 at 15:49
  • @Bratchley What terdon said; closing as unclear is specifically in the hope that the asker will fix it. That's why "closed" was even renamed to "on hold", and the dialog explains what to do if the question is fixable Feb 6, 2015 at 15:52
  • Are there any stats on how many questions put on hold actually get back to an open status? Also how many people just give up at that point? My point also isn't that "close as unclear" isn't ever a valid option, it's just that effectively shutting a post down while it's apparent that no attempt was ever made to actually get more information seems like a bad idea. If you make an attempt at clarity and the OP just doesn't cooperate then closing makes sense.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 6, 2015 at 15:56

There comes a point where it just is not worth the effort trying to help someone ask their question in a way that would solicit valuable responses.

I happily vote to close as unclear if the question is poorly worded1 and:

  • shows no research effort; ie., is help vampirism

  • is obviously homework (related to the above)

  • has all the signs of an X-Y problem

  • where the OP has a history of drawing commenters into protracted exchanges that amount to handholding and/or hair splitting

  • are, or should be, tagged

  • include the phrase "comprised of"...

Ultimately, this site is a wiki; every question isn't worth saving. And, like the other FOSS support sites on the Internet, no-one is entitled to 24/7 support from the community. Make an effort, show your work and try and contribute a question that will be as helpful for anyone else reading the site as it will serve your immediate needs and you will be doing everyone a favour, not just scratching your own itch.

1. The exception being txtspeek: then I just vote to close, I don't require any additional criteria...

  • Is that point really at the point of posting the question? Have you never posted a question that confused others? That's effectively all my proposed solution would do: just require that someone have made an attempt to get clarity from the OP. At least on the community level since U&L isn't really suffering from question overload.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 6, 2015 at 19:28
  • Also, if you're already having problems communicating in the language of the forum, it may be hard to not qualify for some of the above especially since people tend to think of their problems as being highly specific to them when they're usually very general (causing them to not be able to locate easily understood references online).
    – Bratchley
    Feb 6, 2015 at 19:32
  • @Bratchley re-read my answer: lack of clarity is only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition (except in the txtspeek case)...
    – jasonwryan
    Feb 6, 2015 at 19:42
  • I actually just caught the "comprised of" joke (at least I'm assuming it was a joke) but my point is that if you're a novice at both the language and the topic it's actually really easy to qualify for a lot of that stuff. Especially the research criteria, 99% of the questions here don't show research because the OP just thinks the question is too simple to show research. My point is just to give the OP a chance to redeem themselves before sending the Q off to languish in "on hold" status.
    – Bratchley
    Feb 6, 2015 at 19:46
  • @Bratchley a little more of the post is tongue in cheek, but only to make the point that not every question is worth saving... Erring on the side of caution makes for a better long term outcome for a wiki.
    – jasonwryan
    Feb 6, 2015 at 19:50

Regardless of the reason for it, if you encounter a question that you understand and others are confused by, edit it to clarify! There are even badge to recognize this activity...

Comments are not a panacea; all too often, comment critiques based on misunderstanding lead to even more confusion.

Right now on Stack Overflow, we're experimenting with a system to quickly sort new questions according to how they're initially perceived, with the goal of funneling the majority of confusing or otherwise-problematic questions into a path where folks like yourself can find and improve them rather than going through the sometimes-laborious close-edit-reopen process. We're not sure if this can be made to work on smaller sites like this yet, but it does offer some hope for a smoother process in the future.

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