The topic of answers in comments has been brought up before (here and there and elsewhere), with MrHen providing a good summary of the community's attitude:

My opinion on that subject is that answered questions are better than non-answered questions regardless of the question's quality. If the question is "bad" enough then it should be closed; but the only time an answer is actually inappropriate is when it is (a) wrong (b) the question is unclear and likely to be edited or (c) you are unsure of your own answer.

Downvotes handle (a) just fine and comments are appropriate for (b) and (c).

- MrHen

This question doesn't intend to rehash old ground, but instead is focused on the moderators' recent efforts regarding answers in comments:

Avoid answers in comments. We get it: standards for comments are low, they get an undeserved privileged position on the page above answers, and they cannot be community edited or peer reviewed. But this discourages people from posting actual answers and defeats the core answer ranking process. A better place to post an answer is in the answer box. See: “Privileges - comment everywhere”, “Is SE enforcing ‘no answers in comments’?”. – MetaEd♦ Feb 1 at 17:43

Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, by not being editable by the community for improvement, and by not having a visible edit history.. Comments are to be used only for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – tchrist♦ Jan 28 at 23:08

On the other hand, I also see moderators posting what looks like answers in comments, such as this:

Q: Can i use past continuous for past habits? Comment: Although it is possible to construct a theoretical framing that would allow that sentence, it is not how one would normally express this.

Here's my question: what standards are the moderators using to determine whether a comment is deemed to be an 'answer'?

When mods deem a comment to be an answer, they sometimes delete the comment. This is a moderator action, so my question is directed to moderators rather than the community as a whole. I accept that comments are treated as ephemeral constructs, and there's no suggestion of the abuse of mod powers here. It would be nice, though, to have the moderators articulate what constitutes 'answers' in comments.

I don't expect a quantitatively precise answer, but "I know it when I see it" is too generic for an answer to this meta question. I'd like to see guidelines such as:

  • it's okay (or not okay) to state generic principles in comments;
  • it's okay (or not okay) to offer unsupported guesses or hypotheses in comments;
  • it's okay (or not okay) to offer personal perspectives like "this phrasing sounds fine/awkward to me" or "people in my area (AmE/BrE/AuE/...) actually do speak like that".
  • etc

In the past, I used the rule of thumb that only supported answers go into answer boxes; anything else is a comment. This keeps the quality of the repository high.

With my recent awareness of moderators' distaste for answers in comments coupled interestingly with greater tolerance for lower standards applied to answer answers than I'd have previously been comfortable with, I've tried to cooperate. Occasionally, I'd post as an answer something I might have used a comment for before, or I might start a comment but discard it altogether without posting an answer at all. I don't think this improves either the community or the repository, but I'm not sure how else to comply with the no-answers-in-comments policy when I don't have the time or the inclination, or both, to more extensively research a question.

Then I saw several instances of what look to me like 'answers' posted by moderators in comments.

I'm not sure where the lines are drawn anymore on this topic, so some guidelines from the moderators would be helpful.

Alternatively, a move to only-good-answers-in-answers would suit me just fine, with comments quietly moved to chat at the whim of any moderator - or even deleted after due consideration. This helps to engage the community and to promote higher quality in answers. Not needing to weigh the absolute or relative 'answeriness' of their own and others' comments makes it a touch easier for mods. It's also easy to explain: only good answers go into answers; everything else goes into comments. Comments can disappear, but while they're up they're fair game to be incorporated into anyone's answers or community wikis.

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    We expect answers to be substantial, and backed up by references. [<--- This therefore is not an answer. :-] – tchrist Feb 28 '18 at 3:39
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    @tchrist That comment doesn't address the question. It is more relevant to answer posts, not comment posts. That is, it's a reason why some answers should be deleted or voted down, not why some comments should be deleted or deemed to be answers. – Lawrence Feb 28 '18 at 5:44
  • Are you sure about that Lawrence? – Tonepoet Feb 28 '18 at 6:26
  • @Tonepoet I'm sure that tchrist's comment doesn't address the question, at least, not sufficiently so. See my contribution to the community wiki you started. – Lawrence Feb 28 '18 at 7:32
  • I'm getting a bit weary of seeing mods converting comments (answers?) into CW. Especially in meta. Why do we need CWs in meta for? Why are comments deleted in meta? If someone agrees with a user, then post it as an answer saying "why" you agree. Mah... – Mari-Lou A Feb 28 '18 at 11:23
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    This is great timing. Yesterday I started reviewing all the meta QA about answers in comments, noticing that though there's a posted policy in Help, there seems to be no meta FAQ about it. – MetaEd Feb 28 '18 at 15:52
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    As one of the new guys on the mod team, what I will do is ask the rest of the mods about answers in comments, reference this question, and try to get some answers for you. – MetaEd Feb 28 '18 at 16:02
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    Thanks @MetaEd. For what it’s worth, my preference is only good answers (substantiated, referenced, etc) in answers, everything else in comments, for the reasons given in the trailing section above. – Lawrence Feb 28 '18 at 23:00

"We expect answers to be substantial, and backed up by references. [⬅️ This therefore is not an answer. :-]"

By this, I suppose what tchrist means that because his comment does not qualify as an answer, due to a lack of substantiation, that it has immunity from the rules against answers in the comments. This explains part of the reason why he did not post it as an answer: He does not believe it to be one. However, another part of the reason why he did it that way may just be that he intended it to be self-illustrating.

Consider the following example in light of the quote above:

Question: Questions about the verb “coin” when coining an idea

User Comment: To "coin" means to take a piece of nondescript metal and stamp it with a pattern that makes it a recognizable piece of money. In other words, create something of clear, discernible value out of raw materials. Other meanings are metaphors on that concept. – Hot Licks

Mod Comment (bold in original): @HotLicks Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, by not being editable by the community for improvement, and by not having a visible edit history.. Comments are to be used only for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. – tchrist

Hot Licks's comment wasn't answer-worthy, per tchrist's note that "We expect answers to be substantial, and backed up by references". This contrasts with the (earlier) "Please don't write answers in comments" from the same moderator.

We need clearer guidelines about what constitutes an "answer in comments".

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    How about "please don't think you can bypass the quality standard for answers by putting your low-quality answer in a comment"? – Kit Z. Fox Feb 28 '18 at 16:46
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    @KitZ.Fox Feel free to quietly dispose of low-quality answers-in-comments. It’s easy and clean, compared to deletion in the answer section. Deletion of comments shouldn’t even need mod comment, though I’d prefer that banter and other good stuff are shoved to chat rather than deleted outright. Comments are ephemeral - more like post-it notes than published chapters. It’s ok to let people write partial answers and hypotheses in the notes - others can save the good stuff and flag the rest for deletion. Reframe answers-in-comments from ‘LQ answer’ to ‘brainstorming’. – Lawrence Feb 28 '18 at 23:40

I am aware that you are actually looking for answers from moderators, but this is how I understand the rule of thumb for answers in comments:

If it would be a proper and complete answer to OP's question if adequate references were added then it should be posted as an answer by incorporating those references, and should not be posted as a comment.

If it is an on-topic suggestion that doesn't really answer the question, or if it is a fragment of an answer, or simply points OP in the right direction then it should be posted as a comment and will probably not be deemed as "answering in a comment."

Simple Example: OP asks,

Which is the largest mammal?

I comment

Blue Whale.

This is an answer in a comment. I should find a reference to prove that blue whale is the largest mammal, and post it as an answer.

If I write

it is likely to be one of the largest whale species, please read up about Cetaceans online

then it can stand as a comment.

So, whenever I write a comment providing a suggestion for OP, I immediately review it to see if it could be an answer if supported by the appropriate references: and if so, I post it as an answer and delete the comment.

Having said that, ELU has been quite tolerant of users posting answers in comments, based on the unofficial view that an answer in a comment is preferable to a proper answer that went unposted due to lack of time or inclination to find and cite the correct references. Answers are also posted as comments when a question is obviously going to get closed, in order to help OP without actually answering a close-worthy question.

However, comments cannot be peer reviewed and that is a very good reason for moderators to insist that answers should not be posted as comments.

  • Thanks for taking the time to post an answer. I'm particularly interested in the part about answers in comments being preferable to answers going unposted. I agree with that position. The current mod stance against comment answers prompts me to either not post altogether or to post more watery answers, rather than post unsubstantiated answers in comments. ELU mods have historically been respected for their governance and consistent implementation of site policy, so I'm prepared to adapt if that's what they want. But here they sometimes flip flop. So I'd like to know what they really want. – Lawrence Feb 28 '18 at 10:56
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    A senior member once said: "better an answer in a comment than an unanswered question." I am pro-active about not posting answers in comments because I agree completely with the principle of it. It would certainly help us if the mods would let us know what they want on this matter, @Lawrence. – English Student Feb 28 '18 at 11:03
  • I agree with your position @JJJ. Maybe my comment was not clear?: "I am pro-active about not posting answers in comments because I agree completely with the principle of it" __ the principle being that there really is no reason to post an answer as a comment. – English Student May 15 '18 at 20:12
  • No; you are right @JJJ: the ELU community tacitly allows answers in comments -- but the moderators are probably trying to bring site policy more in alignment with the general guidelines of the SE network. However, the top voted answer to this recent meta Q asked by a mod does seem to indicate that ELU wants to retain its own policy on the matter: see english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/11326/… – English Student May 16 '18 at 12:13

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