Wikilawyering is a critical term which describes various practices to be avoided in Wikipedia. It may refer to:

  • Applying a portion of a policy or guideline to achieve an objective other than compliance with that policy or guideline. Particularly when doing so in a way that is stricter, more categorical or more literal than the norm.
  • Abiding by the letter of a policy or guideline while violating its spirit or underlying principles (gaming the system)
  • Asserting that the technical interpretation of the policies and guidelines should override the underlying principles they express
  • Willfully misinterpreting policy or relying on technicalities to justify inappropriate actions
A Wikipedia editor engaging in Wikilawyering by using formal legal terms in an inappropriate way when discussing Wikipedia policy

The term may also be used in other cases, e.g., when a person superficially judges other editors and their actions by jumping to conclusions and slapping labels while brandishing Wikipedia policies as a tool for defeating other Wikipedians rather than resolving a conflict or finding a mutually agreeable solution.

Wikipedia policies and procedures should be interpreted with common sense to achieve the purpose of the policy, or help with dispute resolution. Typically, wikilawyering raises procedural or evidentiary points in a manner analogous to that used in formal legal proceedings, often using ill-founded legal reasoning. It can serve to evade an issue or obstruct the crafting of a workable solution.

For example, while it is often impossible to definitely establish the actual user behind a set of sock puppets, it is not a defense that all the sockpuppets which emerge were not named in the request for arbitration.

As another example, the three-revert rule is intended to prevent edit warring. An editor who reverts the same article three times day after day is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the rule, and can thus be sanctioned for edit warring.

See here for an actual example of conflation of judicial proceedings and Wikipedia arbitration procedures. (It is probable the poster intended this to be satire in an attempt to make a point about a particular editing dispute.)

The mild commonplace meaning

Wikipedia's policies and guidelines are written in a manner that usually is more fuzzy and open to interpretation than laws are. They create certain rules and principles which are applicable in many situations but are not a "how to write a good article" instruction, nor do they replace good decision making. So, the "rules" and guidelines are just a part of the decision making process, and there is usually latitude on how they are interpreted or to what degree they influence a broader decision. Also, without even getting into secondary sets of rules there are about 73 official policy pages and about 280 official guideline pages, many that are obscure, unknown, overlapping, or with wording that is not carefully written. So, in those cases, whatever you are trying to do (such as win a debate or battle) you can probably find or interpret rules to help you win the battle though enforcing that rule is not per se the concern of yours. So, in those cases, your object isn't to enforce the rule, your objective is to use the rule to achieve a different purpose. In short, you are using technicalities to achieve a different objective. While not a good thing, this is not some horrible rare behavior, it is a common practice and the most common meaning of "wikilawyering".

Unlike Wikipedia, the legal world is 90% about technicalities, and it is a lawyer's job to achieve a result using technicalities. So "wikilawyering" merely means taking a practice that is a good idea in the legal world and moving it into Wikipedia where it is a bad idea.

Use and misuse of the term

Some Wikipedians allege that the charge of wikilawyering is used, particularly by Wikipedians more influential than them, to avoid giving careful attention to their claims. It is also said that newer users tend to believe nuanced complex policy (particularly WP:Neutral point of view) conforms to their own point of view, and will repeatedly refer to policy rather than providing rationale for their edits.

The word wikilawyering typically has negative connotations, sometimes mild, sometimes severe; those utilizing the term should take care that it can be backed up and isn't frivolous (see WP:No personal attacks and WP:Civility).

The types of wiki-lawyering vary from mild commonplace even inadvertent behavior to quite severe deliberate misuses of the Wikipiedia policies, guidelines and systems. It can also be about a specific action or a broader characterization of the individual. So an assertion that it is occurring is not necessarily a strong accusation.

As with any critical term, car should be taken to, at most, criticize the practice or action and not attack the person. For example the message "Therefore I conclude that you are stretching the WP:What Wikipedia is not policy here beyond common sense, i.e., you are wikilawyering", while aggressive, is not an insult, but rather a pointer to an identifiable wikibehavioral pattern. Similarly, "This proposal is wikilawyering a bit, because ..." is a comment on the content or nature of the proposal, not on the personality or motives of its author or supporters.

Because reasoned arguments in a debate necessarily include both elements of fact and references to principles, disputants who lack such an argument sometimes try to undermine arguments they can not otherwise overcome by just tossing out the naked accusation that their opponent is a wiki-lawyer. This is not a good-faith tactic and does not foster a collegial consensus-seeking atmosphere. Therefore, any accusation of wikilawyering should include a brief explanation justifying use of the term.

Occasionally, editors who engage in semantic discussions about the language of a policy or guideline, or propose minor changes in the wording of a policy or guideline, will be accused of wikilawyering. In such cases, it may make sense instead to assume good faith and engage in the discussion productively rather than tar those editors with the wikilawyering brush. And simply being a stickler about Wikipedia policies/guidelines and process does not make an editor a wikilawyer; remember that Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee closely modelled on a court of law, a system of elections of administrators and bureaucrats, Featured Article and Good Article review procedures, and various other formal processes.

See also

Policies, guidelines and essays


Further reading