All too often I see questions getting closed by direct moderator action for "Unclear what you're asking", when it's obvious that English is not the asker's native language.

In many of those cases, with about 30 seconds of thought and careful interpretation, I'm able to figure out what the user is trying to ask and make an edit to clarify it on their behalf. Often I can summarize the intent of the question in just one or two sentences. I don't think I have any magical translation superpowers, so if I can do that, it follows that others can too. But for some reason they hit the Close button instead.

So I guess I'm asking if mods can just take a little more time before hitting the Close button, and at least make an effort to interpret the question first (or give the community a chance to do so - often this happens within 5 minutes after the question has been asked).

I know that sometimes it's hopeless, and I'm not saying bad questions should get a free pass just because the asker isn't a native English speaker. But we need to understand that not everyone is fluent in English and have a little patience with them. Asking them to clarify the question often won't help, because they've already expressed it as clearly as they are able within the confines of their limited grasp of the language. A question that shows thought and an attempt to solve the problem shouldn't be closed simply because of the author's lack of English skills. The edit button is there for a reason.

Whenever I make an edit to clarify a question like that, I put my attempted translation at the top, then leave the original wording below in case I got it wrong and someone else (or the OP) has a different interpretation. I clearly mark my translation and the original question so it's obvious which is which. I rarely spend more then a minute on this, but by the time I've finished editing the question I find that it's already been closed, and now the OP can't get the answers they're looking for until (and unless) the question gets reopened (which often doesn't happen, or by the time it gets reopened the OP has already given up in frustration).

Slow down and think before hitting that Close button. Try to interpret the question first, and submit an edit to help clarify it if you can. If you can't, wait a while to give the community a chance to do it - someone else might have better interpretive skills than you do. If a day goes by and the question still hasn't gotten a better translation, THEN consider the Close button. But consider it carefully - don't use it unless it's absolutely necessary.

  • 1
    Closely related: How soon should I vote to close?
    – jscs
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:12
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    I expect askers to spend enough of their time to make a question understandable. I don't expect perfection, but if I can't understand what they're asking, it gets a close vote. They're not the end of the world, and can easily be reopened if the asker puts in the effort required.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 19:57

3 Answers 3


Stack Overflow is rapidly approaching 9K questions per day.

It would be truly impressive if there were enough willing editors to clean up that many questions every day. It would also be a very poor use of their time in many - if not most - cases.

It's true: a skilled editor can salvage nearly any question. But then again, a skilled asker can do the same. Given who stands to benefit the most from this salvage, who do you think should be expected to invest their time doing it? ESL is not an excuse: if you want to participate on an English-only site, you should be motivated to learn how to communicate using English. There are good resources available for this purpose...

I would prefer that editors devoted their time to salvaging questions that have managed to attract exceptionally good and useful answers rather than burning out on the waves of barely-intelligible questions. It would be even better if the folks answering these questions put that time in...

Of course, you should edit whenever you feel you can do some good - it's your time to use as you please, and I certainly respect your dedication to improving these questions. But please don't think poorly of folks who do not wish to spend their time here trying to make sense of such questions. Especially when even you aren't completely confident in the accuracy of your edit...

Whenever I make an edit to clarify a question like that, I put my attempted translation at the top, then leave the original wording below in case I got it wrong and someone else (or the OP) has a different interpretation.

Don't do this. It's just noise, and it makes the question look worse which is probably what you were trying to avoid! When editing, do your best to make the author look good - if you're not confident you can do that, there are plenty of other posts where you'll likely do more good.

  • "But then again, a skilled asker can do the same." Not necessarily and this approach also obscures the purpose of SE websites. An asker is by definition very likely to be unable to intelligently discuss the specific topic they're asking about especially if they're ESL. The purpose of sites like SE in the first place is to help people, not make it easier to help people.
    – Bratchley
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 14:08
  • "It would be even better if the folks answering these questions put that time in..." If someone else understood the question well enough to answer it, then the question was in some sense intelligible since someone who happened to know the answer found it and was able to understand enough to post an answer.
    – Bratchley
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 14:10
  • "But please don't think poorly of folks who do not wish to spend their time here trying to make sense of such questions. " Then don't. Nobody is forcing you to read the question at all. Just let it roll down the page and be forgotten. I can understand closing really confusing questions where you've attempted to get information from the OP and they just haven't ever responded and you want a way to tell people browsing that it's not worth reading the body but it's not like there are only two options ("vote to close" and "upvote") here.
    – Bratchley
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 14:11
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    Please don't patronize ESL people, @Bratchley; speaking a different language doesn't make you somehow mentally deficient, and treating them like it does helps no one. You're right on two points though: we are here to help people, and close votes are not "super downvotes". Helping folks learn to ask good questions is one of the best lessons we can offer here; as for letting questions drop out of site... See: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/278380/…
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 17:16
  • I never said ESL people were somehow mentally deficient, I think you're projecting. I'm merely saying that it's not everyone's priority is to attain a high level of proficiency with the English language. Being ESL makes it harder to communicate what you're saying to English speakers. Also, people don't come here to learn to ask good questions, they come here for help on specific problems.
    – Bratchley
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 18:33
  • And learning how to communicate the nature of specific problems is how you get help, @Bratchley. A skill which largely transcends language. I've been working with ESL programmers for half my life; this notion that native-English is a prerequisite to being able to break down and explain a problem is complete nonsense.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 18:40
  • Explaining your problem doesn't require language skills? You've never encountered an ESL person who stumbles over their words or often restarts their sentences so they can rephrase what they said? It's not possible for someone with only rudimentary English skills to come onto a SE website? As for your last point, thanks, that's my point here. To be understanding of others at least to the point where you don't shut them down because they don't use your native language as well as you do.
    – Bratchley
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 18:43
  • The problem I'm talking about and the OP is talking about is where people vote to close if the person's question is in the least bit confusing. That is just going to be biased against ESL people (just not ESL people who have become fluent).
    – Bratchley
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 18:46
  • Why are you fixating on such superficial things? Many, many of the top questions on Stack Overflow matched what you're describing, and were edited and answered and went on to benefit many others. Stumbling over a word or phrasing isn't a death sentence; failing to explain - or understand - what you need is. There are thousands of programmers, English and ESL, who are in over their heads and struggling not because of their language but because no one taught them how to learn. By fixating on ESL, on superficial aspects, you ignore the root problem and rob yourself of seeing the solution.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 18:55
  • In terms of why I'm interested in this you can read this. There is an actual problem on SE where someone can post something that's more or less clear but people vote to close for little to no reason. My original suggestion was just to require that someone have submitted at least one comment before voting to close because it's unclear becomes possible. There can be exceptions to the rule but I've seen many areas (such as above) where that's not the norm.
    – Bratchley
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 19:02

Closing does not mean, "This is unsalvagable," it means, "This question is not currently up to par; take some time and try and fix it." Closing is an opportunity to edit the question into shape by both the author and the community at large. If it is successfully fixed, it can be reopened. If it isn't, then it generally makes sense to delete it, once it's clear that it's never going to be fixed up. The reopen queue helps ensure that closed questions that really do get edited into shape are very likely to get reopened, and that they won't be lost to the sands of time.

Waiting to close an unclear question only provides an opportunity for low quality answers to be posted (because answers to unclear questions are virtually always of very low quality). This is harmful in a number of ways. It can be confusing as the question is updated, it can cause the impression that the question is being completely changed to invalidate existing answers, when in fact the existing answers simply misinterpreted the question, it can give other readers the impression that the question is solved, even though it likely isn't, etc.

The close button is not a last resort. Deleting is a last resort. Closing is the first step in helping a sub-par question get back on track.

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    Understood. But why not edit the question to clarify it instead of closing it? As I said, it usually takes me less than 30 seconds to do just that. Asking the OP to clarify the question often won't help, because they've already expressed it as clearly as they are able to within the confines of their limited grasp of the language. Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:24
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    @JeffLoughlin A good edit of a question that's in that bad of shape is generally going to take quite a lot longer than that, to get it into a truly good question. If that's all the time you're spending, based on my experiences, either the question wasn't that bad to begin with, or you're not leaving it in great shape by the time you're done with it. And while you can improve most "unclear" questions to some degree, usually if you're closing them its because additional clarification will be needed from the author, in addition to clearing up what's there.
    – Servy
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:29
  • I'm specifically referring to questions that only take seconds to fix. These are questions that can be summarized in one or two sentences, where the OP has struggled to put it into words. I agree that more complex questions can't be salvaged this way. Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:45
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    @JeffLoughlin If the question is only a sentence or two then it's likely lacking in critical details and doesn't contain enough information to make it clear what the problem is. It almost certainly needs more information from the author, and can't be edited into suitable shape, even if it can be edited into better shape.
    – Servy
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:47
  • Except when it can... Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:48
  • @JeffLoughlin And do you have examples of lots of those types of questions being closed? I find that the vast majority of questions that short are lacking in sufficient detail, and for those that really are fine, they almost certainly aren't going to be closed by a moderator right away.
    – Servy
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:50
  • Here's one example: stackoverflow.com/questions/22543576/…. Simple question, asker had trouble expressing it, so I clarified for them. Only took 30 seconds. Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 18:55
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    @JeffLoughlin First off, if you're going to edit it, edit it into a good question. Don't include meta discussions or revision notes in the question itself. If you re-write something, really re-write it, so that future readers just see a clear question. If you're not clear what's being asked for then you shouldn't be editing that, you should be commenting to have the author help you figure out what's being asked.
    – Servy
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 19:01
  • @JeffLoughlin I also see that question as a rather low quality question, even after it's been edited, which isn't a good sign. The post is also confusing and ambiguous; expecting the author to clarify is entirely reasonable in my mind.
    – Servy
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 19:02
  • As a user that's not how I interpret "closed"; I interpret it as "game over". Sounds like there might be a messaging mismatch here?
    – bob
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 14:51
  • @bob That's why they've updated the message at some point in the past 5 years to say "on hold" instead of closed, for people who are unwilling to even read the message to see that it's specifically telling people to fix their question so it can be reopened.
    – Servy
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 14:54
  • That makes sense (though regarding "unwilling", it's worth considering that many/most users of stack exchange have limited time too--it may be business and not unwillingness; we're all pretty busy :)). But as a user seeing someone else's closed question, it still says "[closed]" which looks pretty final.
    – bob
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 14:56
  • @bob If it's not worth their time to see what the problem is with their question and what to do to fix it, then that's their decision to make.
    – Servy
    Commented May 2, 2019 at 15:05

I've always believed in active moderation: being the change I wish to see in the world.

As such, when a question needs to be put on-hold for any of the reasons we put questions on hold, I'll do that.

As Servy has mentioned, a question being put on hold is not a death sentence; it's a sign that says,

"Hey, as written, we don't understand your question and, we can't easily help you. If you can improve your question, we can help you."

As Shog9 points out, we get a lot of questions per day. A lot. We can't really take the time to improve every question we see, and with a few thousand flags in the moderator queue, I don't really have the time to edit every question that is unclear. I'd like to, but I don't have the time for that. What I can do is put a question on hold and put a comment in, so that when someone else sees the question, they have a clear understanding of why it's in the state it's in, and how to fix it.

My choices are:

  1. Ignore the question, hoping the user magically figures out there's a problem with their question (or that for the 9K questions we get, we have enough people on hand to actually close the questions that are unclear).
  2. Take the most time I can spare to that question to let the user know why I'm closing it, and putting the impetus on them to fix their question
  3. Take more time, edit it for the user, hope they learn something from the experience, and maybe they'll formulate the question better next time with that magical experience of me editing their question.

Which of those actions has the greatest liklihood of spreading change throughout the userbase and effecting positive change? It's not #1, and #3 will always lose to the masses.

The second part to "being the change I wish to see" is to show by example what questions the community has decided are appropriate and are not appropriate. That means that every time I close a question, I take into account our established guidelines, and I follow those closely. That means that when someone else comes along and sees a closed question (for the reasons of 'too broad', or 'primarily opinion based') they'll see what that actually looks like. It's not "I know it when I see it" any more, it's, "Oh, here's an example of too broad."

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