The following question was closed because it was "too broad".

What are the differences between Jacobson's "Basic Algebra" and "Lectures in Abstract Algebra"?

The question asks (and I paraphrase) "What is the difference between these two books by the same author on basically the same subject?" Yes, okay, this is far too broad. I mean one is in two volumes while the other is in three. That is one difference. Another difference is the page count, and of course the title of the first section is different...and...and...and...

Of course, the OP wanted to know why there were two books by the same author on the same subject. Perhaps they also would like a bit of information on prerequisites and which would be better to read first. They didn't ask that, but we can read between the lines and are intelligent people. It might also be useful to put in a couple of sentences assuming they are a graduate student or already well-read. However, closing it is not useful to anyone.

So, my questions are the following.

Are people not allowed to ask questions on books any more? And do we no longer give OPs a degree of grace with respect to posing imperfectly posed questions? That is, are we no longer able to read between the lines?...


Actually, I voted to close as "unclear what you're asking" because it wasn't clear.

It could be about differences in subject matter, the level of the books, which one has better proofs, which one is better as a reference work, and so on. If it is about all of this, it's in danger of being too broad, but actually I considered it underspecified what it was about.

To be clear: A specified question on the differences would certainly be admissible to me.

But the amount of "reading between the lines" (fortunately, there are precisely two lines we can read between) you've done is more than I would consider acceptable. Of course, the question doesn't ask about all differences, just global ones like I outlined above.

  • $\begingroup$ When I was writing the above question I was actually contemplating the close reason, but I chose not to discuss it too much. However, I probably should have! Perhaps this current question is really just a "silly close reason" question, and the close reason is silly because it implies that the question was okay it was just too broad. But that wasn't the case. The question wasn't clear and so came across as being too broad. But that is a subtle distinction! So I chose not to talk about it when writing the question... $\endgroup$ – user1729 Oct 12 '13 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ Also, it would have been useful to the OP if you could have said this in a comment - said how the question could have been improved. As either way the boiler plate reason would have been insufficient (more so for here than for other questions). $\endgroup$ – user1729 Oct 12 '13 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729 That's a very good point you make there. I generally add a comment when I vote to close, but this one must've slipped under the radar. I've added one now -- thanks for the pointer. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Oct 12 '13 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I feel that your comment makes the whole situation better. Perhaps I should just have posted it myself in the first place... $\endgroup$ – user1729 Oct 12 '13 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ (However, YACP's comment seemed to say "How dare you ask a question about comparing books!? This is too hard for us here!". Thus my question...) $\endgroup$ – user1729 Oct 12 '13 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ I don't oppose this question -- it already has several positive consequences (reminding us of the usefulness of commenting when close-voting). I merely explained what I did and why. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Oct 12 '13 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, my previous comment was me giving my motivation for posting this question (and why I didn't post the comment myself). It wasn't meant as a criticism of anything you have done (and I don't think you have done anything wrong). $\endgroup$ – user1729 Oct 12 '13 at 12:28

I also voted to close the question. I did read between the lines, but felt like reading a homework question that the OP has shown no effort. For example, the OP could have said that he had read the tables of contents of the two books and didn't understand the differences, or he could state his repertoire in abstract algebra and his short term learning goal, so that readers can make proper recommendations. Yet he just asked "what are the differences between these two books?" And I wondered if one should assume that he didn't know what a group is.

To clarify the situation, a few rounds of communication are expected. It is more efficient to put the question on hold and let the OP modify his question first.

By the way, the question was put on hold, but not banned. I cannot believe that questions about books are disallowed on this site.

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    $\begingroup$ "To clarify the situation, a few rounds of communication are expected. It is more efficient to put the question on hold and let the OP modify his question first." I don't see this. Why can't communication and clarification proceed just as "efficiently" with the question open? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Oct 12 '13 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson This can lead to questions being answered before the asker has completely clarified their meaning. After successive edits, previous answer can sometimes become invalid/seem off topic which is frustrating for the person who spent time answering, the person who asked the question and wanted a different answer, and anyone reading the question who is wondering how someone could have misunderstood what is (now) a totally clear question so drastically. This is not always the case of course, but it does happen reasonably frequently and should be avoided if possible. $\endgroup$ – Tom Oldfield Oct 12 '13 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom, if that's the worst thing that ever happens on m.se, then we inhabit a very fortunate corner of cyberspace. I occasionally answer unclear questions; I preface my answer with, "If what you are trying to ask is [...], then the answer is [...]." If it turns out my mind-reading skills have failed me, my answer still may be useful to someone else. Also, sometimes an answer to the wrong question is just what OP needs in order to see how unclear her question was, and just what she has to do to get her actual point across. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Oct 12 '13 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson What Tom says is what I thought. You have your point. I think we just had different values. Helping the asker seems to be your first priority. That's admirable. I wanted to lend a hand too if I could, but I was more concerned about wasted efforts. On second thought, putting an unclear question on hold in order to protect the answerers may not be a good idea, because we are not in a position to decide things for those who are more willing or more capable to answer the questions, but the vote had been casted anyway. $\endgroup$ – user1551 Oct 13 '13 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom: In my experience the situation that you describe is fairly uncommon. On the rare occasions when it’s happened to me, I’ve simply changed my answer to match the revised question, added a note to my answer to explain why it no longer matches the question (if I thought that the answer still had some value but didn’t choose to answer or could not answer the revised question), or deleted the answer. It’s not a big deal. And this question wasn’t all that vague in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Oct 13 '13 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ My point with this question was that the effort would most likely not be wasted. If someone asks me about the difference between two books I know well then it takes me about five minutes to write an answer encompassing all the possibilities of what they meant to ask. And anyway, anything less than an answer encompassing all possibilities would not be a very good answer... $\endgroup$ – user1729 Oct 14 '13 at 12:03

It's easiest to deal with recently-active questions.


  • OP writes vague question
  • Someone asks for clarification
  • OP does not clarify
  • Someone votes to close


  • OP writes vague question
  • Someone asks for clarification
  • OP does not clarify
  • The question is forgotten and is lost in the unanswered queue.

Practical approach:

  • OP writes vague question
  • Someone asks for clarification and simultaneously votes to close
  • Either the OP clarifies and the question is not closed or is closed and then reopened or the OP does not and the question is left closed forever.
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    $\begingroup$ Losing an occasional question in the unanswered queue is preferable to encouraging hasty close votes. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Oct 13 '13 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ Note that in each case someone asks for clarification. This did not happen here. I doubt all five people would forget to comment... ;-) Also, I find the approach of "haunting my 'recent comments' list waiting for responses" quite practical. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Oct 14 '13 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott, the unanswered queue is supposed to be for questions no one's been able to come up with a good answer for, not questions that are too vague to answer. $\endgroup$ – dfeuer Oct 14 '13 at 12:05
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    $\begingroup$ @dfeuer: And of course nothing is more important than keeping the bureaucratic house in perfect order. I’ve less than no use for the petty bureaucratic mindset, I’m afraid. I also have (with evidentiary backing) less than perfect confidence in people’s judgements of vagueness, especially in the increasingly close-happy MSE culture. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Oct 14 '13 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott, that is very far from my highest priority. I don't like to see people uploading their homework and getting fully worked solutions in time to turn them in for good grades—to me, that is cheating and immoral, and I think we have a responsibility to try to prevent it. Many others in the community agree. You disagree, and bypass the closure mechanism by answering in comments. As for extremely vague questions, part of the trouble to me is one of respect: I feel like someone who can't be bothered to explain themselves properly is being disrespectful to all who take the time to read. $\endgroup$ – dfeuer Oct 14 '13 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott think closure-minded verses open-minded. That is the problem in a nutshell. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Oct 15 '13 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ @dfeuer: You effectively assume that all people who ask such questions are cheating. This is obviously false, and I refuse to do so. You will note, however, that I rarely offer complete solutions. Vagueness is another matter. I’ve seen many people complain incorrectly that a question was too vague. Moreover, vagueness is sometimes the result of an inadequate command of English, in which case it’s obviously inappropriate to view it as disrespectful. For that matter, some native speakers have a very hard time expressing themselves clearly; the problem isn’t lack of respect, but lack of a ... $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Oct 18 '13 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ ... developed ability. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Oct 18 '13 at 13:43
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott, I don't actually assume so, but 1) I suspect it is very often the case, 2) I believe that requiring a meaningful attempt helps weed out those cases, and 3) I believe a meaningful attempt leads to better-focused answers and also makes both question and answers more valuable to more people. Separately, the two of us have different notions of what a complete solution may be. Third, if someone does not speak English, I would like to see a solution attempt in their native language, which someone else may well be able to translate. $\endgroup$ – dfeuer Oct 18 '13 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ Fourth, someone who cannot express their mathematical thoughts in their native language needs far more than an answer to the question at hand, and MSE is not really well-equipped to help with that. $\endgroup$ – dfeuer Oct 18 '13 at 19:21
  • $\begingroup$ @dfeuer: I said effectively assume. And speaking entirely without hyperbole, I find your attitude repugnant. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Oct 18 '13 at 20:30

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