I answered Some odd omission of 'who'? (answer now self-deleted) because one mod has recently been leaving comments that we shouldn't put answers in the comment field. (Here's an example) and here's the verbiage:

Do not use comments to answer (post an answer instead), praise or rebuke (vote instead), discuss (chat instead), suggest edits (edit instead), or comment on site design or policy (post at meta instead). Use comments to ask for clarification, suggest changes, or offer short-lived information.

This is why I made a suggestion in the comments to "pre-paid card" or "prepaid card?" rather than provide an answer.

But I know at least one respected user who says that he downvotes answers that answer close-worthy questions (and I used to also do that sometimes (dv answers that answered really easy questions), but I don't do that anymore because recently I've cut way back on what I downvote). So I am reluctant to answer a question that is not about advanced English (by that, but I mean proper for this site), because I don't want to get a DV for an answer that contains correct information. Does this mean we should be voting to close the roughly 75%-80% of the questions here that aren't about advanced English (by that I mean proper for this site)? And is downvoting an answer that helps somebody because it's too easy a question a legitimate use of the dv?

In other words, if we're cracking down both on not answering in comments and not answering questions that could be closed due to their being not advanced enough (ie, proper for this site), what are we supposed to do anymore? I can only vote to close so many questions...

And this whole thing is relevant to older questions, say from 2011 to 2014, when the site seemed to be much more lax about answers including any references or longer than one sentence, and much more lenient regarding questions that show zero research... Because there a lot of questions from those years that if asked today should be close-voted.

  • 4
    I ignore people who abjure me to convert my comments to answers. Those who are so desirous that answers be posted are free to do so themselves, relying or not on what’s provided in the comments. Like you, I used to downvote answers to close-worthy questions, explicitly to inspire the kind of discouragement you describe feeling here, and, like you, have stopped doing that and in general trying to rein in my downvoting. I don’t want to be “hat guy” and I don’t like that our site is perceived to be unfriendly.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 6, 2017 at 22:55
  • That said, I don’t know what the answer is. Clearly there is a bigger audience for boring, practical questions than for interesting academic ones. We could decide to just give in to popular demand and serve that audience. But if that happens, there’s nothing really here to hold my attention. Contrariwise, we could continue to try to beat back the tides and close those 80% of questions, enervating and sometimes pointless as that feels. There’s a fundamental tradeoff here.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 6, 2017 at 22:57
  • I posted an answer with my general thoughts. To comment on the specific example of the "who" omission question, my main reservations in this case would be about whether questions that ask about apparent typos will really be helpful to any future visitors to this site. One of the main goals of Stack Exchange sites is to build a "library" of useful Q&A content.
    – herisson
    Nov 6, 2017 at 23:09
  • @sumelic yeah I realize the question I ask about is not the best example, given the typo issue. Nov 6, 2017 at 23:59
  • Just for clarification, being a vowel-initiated user, that user is not me! Nov 7, 2017 at 13:12
  • Nor me, @Araucaria! I think I know who it is and he is actually a saintly person and very devoted to both English and ELU. Some questions are either too basic or will get closed for lack of research; latest example of this situation @ Clare: english.stackexchange.com/questions/417407/… I recalled the advice of the member whose name begins with a vowel and posted a comment informing OP that he would surely get his answer if he googled "stab in the back" idiom. Also said he was welcome to get back to us if he still had any confusion in the matter. Nov 7, 2017 at 14:47
  • 1
    (contd) In short I managed to give OP a useful hint without writing an answer to a soon-to-be-closed question, nor posting an answer as a comment, though it is not always possible to help OP without doing either, in such cases. Nov 7, 2017 at 14:59
  • 1
    The WaPo question is, it seems to me, reasonable--a request to explain a sentence that doesn't track in a complex article on a current topic in one of the major U.S. newspapers. It deserves a comment & a cv.
    – Xanne
    Nov 8, 2017 at 5:48
  • 1
    The "stab in the back" question might have been commented + cv'd with a reference to this site--"look it up in the search box at the top." It has, in fact, been previously answered. I think we should be doing more of this--since new users read some of these comments and may get the idea, and begin to use the site for one of its espoused long-term goals.
    – Xanne
    Nov 8, 2017 at 5:52
  • Often, helpful answers to close-worthy questions will fit in a comment box. Here, for example, is your answer to the question you link to above: It's definitely ungrammatical as it stands. It can be fixed by using who, as you suggest, or by using and before was: Leon Trotsky had escaped from Siberian exile and was to be found in Viennese coffee shops;... To me this goes with the flow of the previous sentences, none of which use a relative pronoun to introduce the various folks being talked about. Why isn't offering a helpful answer to a weak question a legitimate use of a comment box?
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 8, 2017 at 21:04
  • 1
    @SvenYargs It is, don’t let anyone tell you different.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 8, 2017 at 21:30
  • @SvenYargs If I knew the answer to that I wouldn't have asked this question. Nov 8, 2017 at 23:19

3 Answers 3


This is a good question, but I don't think there is any clear answer.

Depending on your preferences, you could choose to leave a comment telling the original poster the answer, understanding that a mod might delete it, or you could post an answer, understanding that other users might downvote it.

I have done both of these at different times. Neither has particularly serious consequences. Moderators may delete comments that they feel don't suggest improvements to the question, but I haven't heard of anyone on this site being suspended or disciplined just for leaving answers in comments some of the time.

Moderators may even sometimes leave answer-y comments themselves:

  • Neither the Angles nor the Saxons nor even the Jutes, let alone the English, invented the letter Y. It comes to us from Greek by way of Latin, not from the fuþorc. (What's the history of the English letter “Y” as a “sometimes vowel”?)

  • Whether or not "SV" is pronounced "ess-vee" or "secondary vertex" is entirely up to the writer. If the writer pronounces it "ess-vee", he will write "an SV" as it begins with a vowel sound. If the writer pronounces it "secondary vertex", he will write "a SV" as it begins with a consonant sound. The reader then, in turn, can deduce the writer's pronunciation from the article. If I see "an SV", I know for a fact I am supposed to read it as "an ess-vee" and not as "an secondary vertex", because the latter is not English. (We are physicists and we are arguing over the use of “a” and “an”)

As for downvotes, they affect the score of the answer, but only by one point. The reputation loss is pretty much symbolic for anyone except for an extremely new user. I wouldn't let the prospect of downvotes discourage you if you think you can post a helpful, accurate answer.

While I don't know if I actually act in accordance with the following principle, I feel like I'm more likely to post an answer if I have a lot to say that won't fit in a single comment. If a question seems like it can be answered by merely linking to a dictionary entry, I will usually not make an answer post for that.

I would say to also keep in mind the following points:

  • comments can't be downvoted, and don't bump a post, so they usually are not "vetted" as well by the community as answer posts. I guess the really responsible thing to do is to always research guesses before posting and to explicitly describe any possible uncertainties in a post, but in any case, if you're posting something that you think might turn out to be incorrect, it's probably not a good idea to put it in a comment.

  • Remember that the existence of upvoted or accepted answer posts prevents a question from being automatically deleted. If you are certain that the question is going to end up closed, and you think that it would be best if it were deleted after it is closed, keep in mind that posting an answer may make it harder for this deletion to occur (it would have to be deleted manually by votes, or by a moderator).

As for old questions that don't meet some present-day "standards", most people don't seek them out, but if you're editing one it may be good to keep in mind that bumping it to the front page may result in it being closed.

  • Good point about not answering a post that I think will definitely be closed, although I'm not sure these days.... Nov 7, 2017 at 0:05

Giving a great answer to a poor question has been called "turning sand into pearls". It's saintly. If you're going to do that, don't forget to turn the question into a pearl too.

Downvoting answers to questions that should be closed is not a settled issue. There are good arguments on both sides. See for example: “Should one downvote answers to off-topic questions? – Meta Stack Exchange”. It's not the way I use my downvotes, but it's not an abuse of the voting system.

On this particular example ("Some odd omission of 'who'?"), I don't see how any answer, no matter how true, will really be useful. You may be thinking mainly about how to help the person who posted the question. Sure, but also keep in mind the main goal, to build a database of answers that will be used over and over again. If you focus the majority of your time and energy on the main goal, you might conclude it's a better use of your time to pearlize a different sandpile.

Or maybe that's just a failure of my imagination. That's the beauty of the site design: it's democratic. You decide!

  • Yeah I get that this question is ultimately about an error in the Washington Post but it could be turned into a grammatical question, maybe. It was not one that I had time to deal with and now I've deleted my answer due to the concerns I asked about. Nov 6, 2017 at 23:54

There are a couple of principles at play here.

On one hand, there's the help page that says "Not all questions can or should be answered here", and which goes on to identify some classes of questions that shouldn't be answered. I don't think the question you answered conclusively falls into any of these categories, except possibly the last.

On the other hand, there's Jeff Atwood's note that "all questions are ultimately in service of the people answering them", and that:

The minimum bar for a question is not “is this on-topic?”, but rather “is this somewhat interesting and on-topic?”.

The key determinant is, as the flowchart referenced in Jeff Atwood's blog puts it, whether a question is "complex and interesting for experts".

Where it isn't immediately obvious that a question is "complex and interesting for experts", what you can do is articulate why you found it "complex and interesting". (Aside: for a site with a bar low enough to admit mere serious English language enthusiasts like me - and I'm not sure I even qualify for the serious bit - the term expert has to be taken with a grain of salt.)

For example, you might have chanced upon a whole series of newspaper articles with similar phrasing, indicating some kind of shift in the way English is used in a particular community. In that case, links to a few of those articles can go a long way towards establishing the reason you (in the role of an expert on the English language) found the question interesting.

So to answer your questions:

  1. Should you have answered the question? Yes, if you can articulate why you found it interesting. No, if you can't.

  2. What do we do if we're asked to stop answering in comments and to avoid answering closable questions? Answer those you find interesting. Articulate the point of interest or edit the question to do so while retaining the character of the question. Vote to close questions that, in your opinion, are off-topic per the site's guidelines and aren't interesting to you.

  3. What do we do with older questions? If they've been answered, have at least a couple of upvotes, have interesting answers, or have been viewed many times (see the stats in the little box at the top of the column on the right of the question), leave them be - they were deemed interesting at the time, or were somehow sufficiently interesting to have attracted high traffic. Otherwise, particularly if they have languished with no answers or poor answers, treat them as you would any new question.

  4. Should we downvote good answers to bad questions? My inclination is to say, "No" - if it's a good answer, it's likely to have been objectively useful (per the tooltips on the up/down vote symbols) to the OP or others. On the other hand, I now also accept that some consider usefulness to encompass usefulness to the site as a whole, and that encouraging poor questions isn't going to make the site better. It's a judgement call. For me, I'd prefer to upvote a good answer and downvote / vote to close the uninteresting question, rather than down vote both the uninteresting question and the good answer. This also offers something of a compromise: answers to closed questions are still accessible, and newer questions of the same sort can be closed as their duplicates to discourage uninteresting questions.

  • The respected member referred to by OP has been using the downvote (along with a comment clearly explaining that it's not good site-etiquette to write answers to obviously close-worthy questions) as a very effective deterrent and reminder for members. Each time I am thinking of writing such an answer, I recollect that downvote & good advice, and refrain! It's up to me to find some other way to help OP in such cases. Nov 9, 2017 at 17:44
  • @EnglishStudent Thanks for your comment. As you’ve noted, DV + friendly comment works. But it doesn’t actively improve the site; it’s more like spring cleaning. ...
    – Lawrence
    Nov 10, 2017 at 3:26
  • ... Someone attributed to a classical sculptor the following sentiment about how to sculpt (say) an elephant from marble: first, you see the elephant; then, you remove everything that isn’t part of the elephant. We want to build an interested community, not a clean-up crew. Some questions are obviously interesting; some have hidden elephants. But who sees the elephant when all that’s presented is just a slab of text? That’s where it helps to note what caught your eye in the question.
    – Lawrence
    Nov 10, 2017 at 3:36
  • Definitely, @Lawrence. When the king of Venice asked Michelangelo how he created such amazing sculptures the Master said: you see a huge block of marble; deep in there I see David (paraphrase). But would you recommend making it clear what makes the post very interesting, in the answer or in an accompanying comment? Nov 10, 2017 at 8:37
  • @EnglishStudent Thanks for the reference to the original :) . Elephants. Heh. Regarding what I'd recommend: if you're just pointing out what's interesting, put it in a comment; if you have more to say that answers the question, put it in an answer.
    – Lawrence
    Nov 10, 2017 at 11:50

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .