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The Issues

I encountered two related issues within the last 24 hours. I'm only using these instances to highlight what some contributers who do not have a high reputation get met with.

Earlier today there was a comment to a question stating that it is fine to answer questions via comments, insinuating there was a Meta policy supporting this. Yesterday, I had a now-deleted altercation with a different high reputation user that my answer was not substantial and it belonged in a comment. As a user of this site as a whole for nearly 8 years and this stack for nearly 6 (despite this account's 6 months), I find it odd that high reputation users would insist on using any Stack in a way that is inconsistent with site-wide policy or in an undocumented manner.

I do not see a definitive answer or agreement to what the policy is. Previously asked questions on the topic do not give a clearly stated answer and community resources conflict with this assumed policy.

So I ask two questions:

  1. What is ELU's policy on answer quality and location?
  2. Where is this policy documented?

This is an attempt at discussing, defining. and documenting this policy. To be clear, this is not necessarily asking for a change in policy. I am only asking for the policy to be clearly defined.

What Do Available Resources Say

3 weeks ago a user asked for clarification on the policy and it was closed as a duplicate of this question answered by "off-topic questions can be answered in comments". This indicates that this is the currently active policy. There has been discussion on SE Meta that off-topic questions should be closed without answers to prevent people from asking bad questions.

Every new user is suggested to take the tour before posting their first question or comment. The tour specifically calls out the area for questions, and the area for answers. It also clearly states the following (emphasis is not my own):

Our goal is to have the best answers to every question, so if you see questions or answers that can be improved, you can edit them.

Use edits to fix mistakes, improve formatting, or clarify the meaning of a post.

Use comments to ask for more information or clarify a question or answer.

The SE Meta has a post on Answer or Comment etiquette that is over a decade old. This etiquette policy, to my knowledge, has never once changed. Answers should be answers. It also brings up a secondary reason: answers are always indexed by search engines while comments aren't necessarily indexed.

SE Meta's help page is very clear on their stance:

When shouldn't I comment?

Answering a question or providing an alternate solution to an existing answer; instead, post an actual answer (or edit to expand an existing one)

Background Information

Skip this if you don't want greater context for the history of these policies on ELU.

Not everyone stays active with the meta boards for a particular stack, so some policy changes or clarifications may have slipped under people's radars, or they may have taken a break from ELU while change occurred. Here's a very brief, non-exhaustive history of the policy that I could put together while I was researching this policy myself.

There was discussion of answer policy dating back much farther, but 6 years ago the policy was clearly stated (with 12 votes):

[You] should not answer in comments.

The only time an answer in comments is appropriate is if you are unsure of your answer or if you are confused by the question and need further clarification.

There was a few-year period where some discussion happened with a bit of line-moving but no substantial change. Skip ahead to 3 years ago and a major change in the policy received 10 votes:

Stack Exchange encourages the editing of answers for improvement. This carries the corollary that Stack Exchange recognises that answers may be initially offered in a form that is less than ideal. However, as with some other high-traffic SE communities, the ELU community tends to penalise unsubstantiated answers.

[...]

For simple answers to simple questions, leaving them as comments is fine.

This is the first time I see it clearly stated that answering in comments is fine.

2 years ago the top voted answer with 29 votes was "answers may be made in comments where the question is off-topic but we still wish to help the asker." This more narrowly defines the policy than the entry above: answers in comments are only appropriate for off-topic questions.

Also 2 years ago the top voted answer with 6 votes was created as a community wiki entry. The following answer really requires context, so I suggest reading it directly from the link. I've pasted the answer here for completeness, though.

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

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".

This occurred concurrently with the previous post, is a community wiki post, and also calls for more clarity.

I did not find any more recent policy-related questions beyond those from two years ago.

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    One relevant comment from moderator @tchrist (he may or may not have been a mod when he posted this) that I banked years ago: "We are looking for more substantial answers with documented references, not merely [statements that may possibly be no more than] personal opinion. Those are just comments, not answers." // I'd also point out that ELU is possibly in a unique position in Stack Exchange, with the possibility of questions that are too basic (but otherwise fine), duplicates in all but nAme, overlaps with maths, science, computing; with writing, literature ... being able to answer ... – Edwin Ashworth Mar 6 at 13:20
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    while at the same time signalling that (one considers) the question is inappropriate on ELU, and thus helping the asker while at the same time pre-empting inappropriate answers essentially repeating one's 'comment', which are given too frequently especially by new visitors, seems too valuable an aiding / policing tool to lose. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 6 at 13:24
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    @EdwinAshworth Thank you for your comments. You bring up two main points. The first is answering off-topic questions, and the second is quality of an answer. I believe that answering off-topic questions muddies the water of acceptability and the best way to help askers is to encourage their own research or point them to a more appropriate stack. Even answering in a comment means the user gets their answer and disappears before the community has the time to close or migrate the question, and the user is absent from the maintenance work. – JRodge01 Mar 6 at 15:48
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    @EdwinAshworth For your second point, I agree that answers should not be opinion (unless the question lends itself to that, which most non-word request ELU questions do not). People on any stack sometimes provide an answer without substantiating it with sources because they believe it is obvious, and this is why comments to point out such occurrences and edits to improve the answer are important. Answering in comments, regardless of the questions, eschews the ability to improve an answer, downvote an incorrect answer, and lends itself to a discussion in the comments. – JRodge01 Mar 6 at 16:01
  • I appreciate what you say, but think the major concern is site credibility. Many answers are given to off-topic questions and accepted before the question has even two close-votes. Poor answers can be downvoted, but it's difficult to see why reasonable answers given by people who know the question shouldn't stand should be allowed – and an accepted answer stands with an endorsing tick, which may mislead other enquirers. I try to discourage 'answers' to ELL and below questions, reasonably obvious duplicates etc. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 6 at 17:34
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    I'd ask you to look at this thread [Does 'booze' include wine and beer?], which I consider should have been closed at once. As comments point out, OP essentially gives the answer from dictionaries, without realising it. Unsupported / piggyback answers are strongly upvoted. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 6 at 20:50
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    @EdwinAshworth english.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic states "don’t ask any questions about [...] the meaning of words, [...] unless you have first looked them up in a dictionary or thesaurus". The asker looked the word up and supplied that research, so it satisfies the requirements. The question also doesn't match any of the "questions not to ask" listed here: english.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask. Your example here is an extension of why I posted this meta: you want to act in a way not supported by documented policy. – JRodge01 Mar 6 at 21:04
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    @EdwinAshworth This means that we need to either update the documentation to support your decision, or we need to have an orientation to align all users new and old with what is and isn't on-topic. – JRodge01 Mar 6 at 21:07
  • I think we can close questions of the sort "Two dictionaries say 'Z' means 'X', while one says it can mean 'X' or 'Y'. Does it mean 'X'?" on other grounds, don't you? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 7 at 11:11
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    @FumbleFingers An argument against comment answers accompanying close votes is that only high reputation users get to see the votes until the question is closed. To every other user, it looks like a regular comment. – JRodge01 Mar 8 at 19:05
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    @EdwinAshworth I'm not discussing my opinion on the matter; I'm discussing the policy. Which part of the policy does this question violate that warrants a closure? – JRodge01 Mar 8 at 19:09
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    And I feel rather like you're trying to justify a legalistic process that is not, in the long run, in ELU's best interests. It is primarily a site aimed at the compilation of serious, not merely easily googlable, answers to serious and non-basic questions about the English language. It is aimed at linguists and proficient users, not those with more basic questions (for whom there are many other suitable sites). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 9 at 12:11
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    @EdwinAshworth I don't know what you mean by "justify a legalistic process", but we've deviated from discussing the question I raised. It seems the conflict is that you and others ideologically disagree with some information supplied by the help pages, and many users who read these help pages and ask questions within these guidelines are getting their questions close-voted or removed. If that statement is accurate, then let's work to update the help pages with more appropriate information so that what is and isn't acceptable on ELU is more clearly defined and publicly conveyed. – JRodge01 Mar 9 at 12:27
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    I'm working with what I consider accepted ELU policy. If you're happy to get users who answer in 'comments' because they (a) consider the question n/a (and thus also C-V), (b) consider they possibly have a good answer but aren't sure and don't know how to check on it, (c) consider the question a very-near-duplicate and fear that the answers given will duplicate ones in previous threads, ans list these pre-emptively ... I'm prepared to be asked to leave. A pity, because I contribute a lot here, and feel that ELU is valuable (and enjoy contributing in language matters, if not in policing). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 9 at 12:35
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    @EdwinAshworth Oh! Please don't think I'm upset or asking anyone to leave! It'd be foolish of anyone to diminish any user's contribution. I'm just trying to square away the boring administrative and procedural work by taking initiative to update some older policy and help documentation that doesn't meld with the current mindset. Newer users are being misled by it, is all. – JRodge01 Mar 9 at 12:40
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Two weeks after your question was posted and still no answers. I think this is because there is currently no consensus here on ELU about answering questions.

We have the official, written rules as encoded by the site software itself:

Use comments to ask for clarification or add more information. Avoid answering questions in comments.

etc.

Then we have the unofficial, mostly unwritten (or at least hard to find) rules that some users follow.

No wonder new users are confused when they arrive here! If this is their first Stack Exchange experience, they will be guided by the software, not knowing any differently. If they've used other Stack Exchange sites before, they'll expect some sort of consistency. Most other sites are in line with the software.

So, to answer your questions directly:

  1. What is ELU's policy on answer quality and location?
    • It depends who you ask.
  2. Where is this policy documented?
    • The official policy is documented in the tour, the help centre, etc.
    • The unofficial policy is documented sporadically in ELU.Meta posts.

From the tour:

Ask questions, get answers, no distractions

This site is all about getting answers.

The person who asked can mark one answer as "accepted".

Accepting doesn't mean it's the best answer, it just means that it worked for the person who asked.

You earn reputation when people vote on your posts

Your reputation score goes up when others vote up your questions, answers and edits.

Improve posts by editing or commenting

Our goal is to have the best answers to every question, so if you see questions or answers that can be improved, you can edit them.

Use comments to ask for more information or clarify a question or answer.

The tour's definition of an answer is one that can be accepted (comments can't), one that earns you reputation (comments don't), and one that can be edited by anyone (comments can't). It also says that comments should be used to clarify a question or answer. It doesn't say that comments should be used to ask a question or give an answer, and the hover notification on "add a comment" says: "Use comments to ask for clarification or add more information. Avoid answering questions in comments."

There are 17 results for "comments" in the help centre including:

Privilege: comment everywhere - Leave comments on other people's posts

What are comments? Comments are temporary "Post-It" notes left on a question or answer.

What should I do when someone answers my question?

Comments are meant for requesting clarification, leaving constructive criticism, or adding relevant but minor additional information.

What does it mean if a question is "closed"?

Closed questions cannot be answered, but can be edited to make them eligible for reopening.

If you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope, consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement.

So, either we accept that the rules that were put in place originally are still valid, or we petition Stack Exchange to change the official rules for this site. The current situation where common practice is at odds with the official rules is too confusing and creates conflict.

As for answering questions in comments, it's really hard to stop yourself from doing it. I saw a question today in review that I close voted, and I nearly answered it in a comment too. I had to remind myself that since I considered it off topic, it would have been inappropriate for me to answer it too.

There is a philosophy that responsible citizens don't have the privilege of breaking laws they disagree with while they're trying to get them changed. If you want a different set of rules to be legal, convince the Powers That Be to change the official rules before changing your behaviour.

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  • Thank you for your answer. – JRodge01 Mar 20 at 12:15
  • However you want to phrase it, there is a huge difference between responding to a question and providing an answer. If the question is "Can I do this?" and you comment "Yes," you are technically answering the question. However, not only can you not type "Yes," into an answer box (it's too short), but it's far from satisfactory in terms of an official answer. Simply typing "Yes," is not providing an actual (or good or decent) answer. I often say, "What I said wasn't an answer, it was only a comment. If I saw my comment as an answer, I would downvote it for a lack of detail." – Jason Bassford Apr 27 at 21:08

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