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What can I do to ensure that my question on the meaning or translation of a word or phrase or the difference between two words is on-topic and attracts good and useful answers?

This is a FAQ to help new users and to be linked in our custom close reasons, as discussed here and in chat.

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For your question to be on topic, it has to meet some requirements. Fulfilling these is not only easy in most cases but also likely to improve question and answers:

Consult a dictionary first (and tell us about it)

Before asking, consult some dictionaries or similar resources. Tell us what you found and why it didn’t help you. The benefits of this are twofold:

  • Replacing a dictionary is something that we cannot and do not want to do. Questions that can easily be answered by a dictionary are considered off-topic here. (Also, if you find an answer in a dictionary, your problem is solved.)

  • If the answers obtained from a dictionary fail to satisfy you, explaining why is very likely to clarify and improve your question (see below). Even if you found nothing, elaborate this to prevent closure.

Note that while machine translations such as provided by Google Translate can be useful in some situations, they cannot replace a dictionary. Therefore consult at least one resource that is not a machine translation.

Ask a question of general interest

Do not directly ask for a translation of the specific sentence you are struggling with (or assume a highly specific context otherwise). While there is nothing wrong with using your specific problem as an example, your question should be asked such that answers to it are useful to others. You can ensure this in the following ways:

  • There usually is one word (or phrase) which you fail to translate or where you fail to decide between translations. Your question should be about this word and not a whole sentence.

  • Try to boil down your example by removing parts of the sentence that do not matter for your problem. Maybe what remains is already a frequently used phrase and thus of general interest. However, think twice before relying on the boilt-down example only, lest your question becomes unclear or too broad.

  • Find other example sentences.

That being said, some sentences are used so frequently or prominently that their translation is of general interest.

Explain and clarify

As for every question, the more information you provide, the more likely is your question to be understood and the more helpful will answers be for you. You should consider in particular:

  • Provide some example context.

  • Tell us what you already know or found and what you do not understand. We cannot retrace your research and we need to know where to start explaining. Remember in particular that many difficulties faced by language learners are not obvious to native speakers at all.

  • If you are asking for the translation of a word or phrase, make sure that it is clear and not ambiguous. If necessary, define or paraphrase it. After all, we can only translate what we know. This particularly holds if dictionaries do not contain the word and if the translation is not between German and English.

  • If asking for differences, try to explain why you think that the meanings of two words or phrases overlap in the first place.

Some example questions

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    Help is appreciated, especially with the examples. I think that for these quality should not be the exclusive criterion and it is more important to feature a range of different questions. – Wrzlprmft Jan 26 '14 at 23:54
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    Honestly, "Difference between Erfahrung and Erlebnis" is far away from being a good question and I can't help but discourage anyone from asking a question in such a way. I don't understand how this question received so many upvotes. Yes, it's true that both words are translated the same way and that English actually doesn't have a word like "Erlebnis", while both "Erfahrung" and "experience" basically have two meanings one of which covers "Erlebnis". So, it happen to be a tricky thing but just the pure fact having the same translation does not make up a good question without further content. – Em1 Jan 28 '14 at 12:56
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    Actually, this is also valid for the other two "difference"-questions, for what it's worth. – Em1 Jan 28 '14 at 13:03
  • @Em1: While I agree that these questions are certainly not the best, they do meet the minimum requirements and I would know little to add to them except for some example context. Anyway: Feel free to replace them with better examples. – Wrzlprmft Jan 28 '14 at 13:08
  • For instance you could start with telling where you looked up and what else you might figured out, because it's not helpful at all if I would quote those dictionaries you already looked at. And it shows me that you did not only check a single bilingual dictionary, got confused and asked but that you tried to understand it on your own by checking a dictionary containing explanations ;) – Em1 Jan 28 '14 at 13:18
  • @Wrzlprmft: would it be to offensive to include under "dictionaries" -> "Google translate is NO dictionary / rather a hint in the direction than a dictionary." – Shegit Brahm Aug 29 at 11:06
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    @ShegitBrahm: Please see my edit. – Wrzlprmft Aug 29 at 13:33

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