I'm aware of Shouldn't "off-topic" be only about... off-topic? and related questions. Given the resistance to changing this label or moving on-topic subcategories elsewhere, I was wondering if a slight change in the wording around it would improve things in the meantime.

Right now, the generic format of the off-topic close reason seems to be:

Off-topic because this question does not appear to be about {}, within the scope defined in the help center.

To address the dissonance that arises currently when on-topic reasons are included in the off-topic category (as the only vehicle for site-specific close reasons), this could be reworded to read:

Off-topic because this question does not appear to be about {} or is not within the scope defined in the help center.

(Emphasis added - not proposed for inclusion)

I know some were concerned that replacing "off-topic" with broader language would result in overlap with other top-level categories, but hopefully the continued use of the word "scope" in this description would avoid that concern.

1 Answer 1


Hrm, I don't really like this.

First of all, it is not correct. I agree with most of what Robert Harvey says here. We define topicality very specifically. You cannot ask just any question about programming on Stack Overflow. Our requirements are much more nuanced than that, and we lay out those specificities in the help center.

So the "or" phrasing that you're proposing is wrong. The second part of the phrase is required to modify (i.e. define) the first part: your question is off-topic because it is not about programming in the way(s) that we require it to be. The dependent clause explains the independent one.

Which is all great, but this is where I start to disagree with Robert. He says that

"Over time, I began getting into the habit of calling a question 'off-topic' when it didn't meet the scope requirements of the site."

This makes sense, and all of us regulars have done the same thing. Over time, I would argue, we've grown to accept things as intuitive that are not. We associate a lot of baggage with the "off topic" label, baggage that new users cannot reasonably be expected to be carrying.

Like all jargon, it works great as shorthand between experienced users when we're having Meta discussions. But as I've argued before, this nuanced and highly-specific way that we use "off topic" runs counter to common usage. In common usage, when someone says that something is "off topic", it means it has nothing to do with the topic. That much is obvious, I hope. But then the question is, what is the topic of Stack Overflow? Do we honestly think that anyone who does not hang out regularly on the Meta site is going to say "oh, this list of 12 things in the help center"? No. We don't even say that, unless we're called on the carpet to justify one of our decisions. The site itself is very clear about being about programming, so anyone who honestly answers the question "what is the topic of Stack Overflow?" is going to say "programming". And therein lies the rub. There are at least two close reasons nestled under "off topic" that can only be used with questions that are clearly about programming.

So I would also oppose this change on principle because it fails to fix any of the root problems here. At best, it'll just make us think we're doing something to address it when we're really not.

This message is not the confusing part to people. It is the name of the major category, "off topic". If people read this more descriptive text carefully, it is possible that they will come to understand that we mean a very specific thing by "off topic". That thing that Robert, and I, and the other regulars have just internalized, even though it runs counter to common usage. When you tell someone that their question is "off topic" on Stack Overflow, they think about the fundamental topic of Stack Overflow, which is programming. Educating the user about the finer points of how we define topicality would be nice, but it isn't realistic. The users who understand this are not asking these questions and having them closed in the first place.

If we're going to slap a label on the question, it needs to be the right label. That means it needs to be patently obvious to regular people. "Off topic" is not the correct summary of all the closure reasons that fall under that category. And adding some equivocation to the detailed message is not going to solve that fundamental problem.

Stack Overflow is a site for experts on programming. It should not be a site for experts on Stack Overflow. We already have a site for that, and if you're reading this, you've already found it. It is our job to make Stack Overflow the best programming site that we can. If the close reasons are unclear, ambiguous, or subject to honest misinterpretation, which I argue that they currently are, then we have not done a good job. For lack of a better phrase, we've created a leaky abstraction.

I may have said it flippantly here, but I meant it. If we really don't care about making the close process (and specifically the reasons) clearer and more understandable to normal people, then let's get the "not a real question" back. It worked just as well as "off topic" does: your question is not a real question for Stack Overflow, given how we define questions. I will admit to thinking that the hand-wringing about changing close to "on hold was silly. But it seems everyone now thinks that was a positive change. Why? Clarity. We experts all knew what "closed" meant, we knew that it implied an ability to re-open. We knew it meant a temporary "on hold" status. But new users didn't, and those were the people whose questions were getting closed. The way we were using "closed" was inconsistent with common usage. If we're serious about revamping the close system for clarity, we can't just go halfway and declare good enough.

Words have power. And if you disagree, you're a stupid-head.

  • (The tl;dr is the bold portions. You're welcome.) Aug 17, 2013 at 15:24
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    As I think you know, I agree the label itself is the major issue and I would love to see it changed. That said, I don't understand your logic as to why the "or" is wrong. Even with the or, the first alternative (not about programming) is still qualified by the second (within scope). It's just that the the "or" allows other, non-off-topic scope constraints to apply as well. Aug 17, 2013 at 15:48
  • Specifically, I think the rewording is equivalent to: a) not about programming, or b) about programming but not within the scope of programming we cover, or c) about programming, within the scope of programming we cover, but not within the scope of questions we answer (i.e. doesn't meet other criteria) Aug 17, 2013 at 15:49
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    I don't think that's what "or" means. It tends to be exclusive in the English language. If I say that you can have tea or you can have coffee, having both is not an option. Although I guess I can see where you're coming from if I think about it really hard. But that misses the point. @peter Aug 17, 2013 at 15:54
  • Hmm, that's interesting. It never occurred to me that or would be exclusive in this context, where it's about constraints. If I say you can't join the Army if you're too young or too sick, it doesn't imply that you can't be both too young and too sick. Aug 17, 2013 at 16:00
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    That interpretation would have an implicit "...but I don't know which" sort of feel to me. Like, "Error displaying error message because your monitor is broken or your video card drivers are defective." The program doesn't know which one, it just knows stuff isn't working. Either way, regardless of whether both can be true, the latter certainly isn't allowed to define and interpret the former. Aug 17, 2013 at 16:06
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    I agree that there is a "but I don't know which" feel to it, but I think that's inherent in the fact that there are, in reality, both off-topic and on-topic (as 99% of SO uses interpret the word "topic") reasons in this category. I'm just asserting that if we can't get the "fix the title" bill through the MSO "congress", we should perhaps pursue this "lesser" bill which does, I believe, improve things. Aug 17, 2013 at 16:11
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    “But it seems everyone now thinks [‘on-hold’] was a positive change.” Do they now? I didn't get the memo. All I've seen it generate is confusion about what it means, and what the difference with “closed” is. Aug 22, 2013 at 19:56

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