First, please know that I have read the duplicates to this question. But I still feel the need for guidance.

I've reached a point where I care little for gaining more points (it was fun at first). I enjoy EL&U, have fun researching answers, and I want to help make this community useful and successful. However, I feel a bit silly answering some questions (such as this one) in Answers.

Often, I simply (only) want to make sure a visitor gets an answer on a question with a low probability of a fine answer. I don't care if someone wants to run with my comment, either. But I am very hesitant to close vote a question, even an obvious GR question, without an answer.

Should I not answer in comments? Should I edit the question to make it more relevant (I'm hesitant to do this)? I'm aware that an Answer is preferable, but answers in comments are quite frequent anyway.

  • 9
    Nearly everybody does it. Write answers. In comments. Sometimes it's dictated by hesitancy or uncertainty sometimes it's a stab in the dark, sometimes it's showing off, other times a bad answer is posted and it's been accepted. Horrors! Give the OP the right answer. And then occasionally it's dictated by genuine generosity of spirit, and what's wrong with that? They can steal the thunder from a user who has spent the entire day researching and refining their answer, and that's annoying. But I live with it :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 3, 2014 at 0:43
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    @Mari-Lou: I disagree, obviously. My guess is you, Susan, and bib are by far the most frequent high-rep answerers to Off Topic questions. And bib is a special case who in 18 months on the site has awarded over 2000 upvotes, but only 8 downvotes. Trivial questions can easily be answered in a comment. Why clog up the site with answers (which incidentally I think prevent the OP from deleting his pointless question once he realises how trivial and inappropriate it is here). Mar 4, 2014 at 3:26
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    @FumbleFingers What has bib's voting preferences got to do with Susan's question? And I disagree that I have a tendency to answer off-topic questions. I'd say Barrie England is the champ in that field, but his answers are always perfect, to the point, unambiguous, stylish, and as a result they leave me breathless in admiration. If I were capable of giving such clear explanations which really do help the questioner, I would do so myself. Unfortunately, I lack that wealth of knowledge and clarity of prose he possesses.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 4, 2014 at 8:46
  • @Mari-Lou: You're probably right about Barrie (who rarely votes at all, and very rarely downvotes). I wouldn't presume to advise people like him and John Lawler how they should contribute to ELU - they have in-depth knowledge of the site's primary subject matter and solid backgrounds in teaching, so we're lucky to have their time and attention on whatever terms they choose. The answer I posted in ELL was generally well thought of there, but apparently not so much here. I don't know why that should be. Mar 4, 2014 at 13:30
  • I am probably the user with the strongest opinion against answering questions using comments. Please stop doing this; it just makes more work for me on my quest to contiuously reduce our Unaswered count.
    – MrHen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 19:02
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    I'd think this would make it easier as you can just use the commenter's answer yourself.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 6, 2014 at 23:05
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    The reason I often answer in 'comments' is that I (a) am pretty sure that the question involved should be closed, often as a duplicate, often because easy research would provide a full-ish answer; (b) don't want such a question to receive 'answers', which would confer a respectability ultimately reducing the credibility of the site (poor 'bookkeeping': "This site answers elementary, and worse silly, questions / This site keeps repeating itself"), (c) still (not for silly questions) often wish to help someone I feel I can perhaps help. Jul 26, 2019 at 9:56

2 Answers 2


(Obvious opinions are opinions.)

Should I not answer in comments? Should I edit the question to make it more relevant (I'm hesitant to do this)? I'm aware that an Answer is preferable, but answers in comments are quite frequent anyway.

No, you should not answer in comments. The only time an answer in comments is appropriate is:

  • If you are unsure of your answer
  • If you are confused by the question and need further clarification

The reason answers belong as answers is relatively straightforward:

  • The asker can mark the answer as accepted, thereby helping future visitors also get an answer to the question. Otherwise, they would have to read all of the comments and simply hope that the most upvoted comment is the best answer.
  • Other members of the community can comment on and help improve the answer.
  • Other members can vote the answer up (or down) appropriately.
  • It allows the site to track metrics on questions that have been appropriately answered. Answers in comments are impossible to track and clog up views such as the Unanswered section.

Not caring about your own reputation isn't really relevant. Reputation exists as a carrot in order to get people to post answers. This is because answers are good. At some point, the carrot stops looking attractive but it doesn't change the reason the carrot is being offered.

All of that being said, there seems to be some debate around whether people should answer "bad" questions. If you are willing to answer the question in a comment then it suggests you believe the answer to the debate is yes, you should answer "bad" questions. So please put the answer in an answer.

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).

The reason I do care strongly about this issue is simply because I will get around to your answer in a comment eventually and will convert it to an actual answer. So you aren't really accomplishing much other than giving me more work.*

The other related subject would be whether to answer a question in a comment after the question has been closed. I think you should spend your energy editing the question to be more appropriate for the site but, honestly, I don't really care that much. If the question ever gets reopened then you should move your comment to an answer.

As for people who "dislike" answering on "bad" questions, they are misusing the site and don't understand what downvotes are for. But since the premise of this question is that you don't care much for gaining points I think you should be able to not care much for losing points.

In the end, you need to answer for yourself what goal are you trying to accomplish on this site and then set about achieving that goal in the best way possible. If your goal is to help users get answers then the best way to achieve that is to use answers; not comments.

* Assuming that no one else answered the question, the question stays open, and the question doesn't have a negative score.

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    MrHen, I appreciate your detailed answer. If this receives support, I will regard it as the proper way to serve the community. My only objection is the inference that I create extra work for you. I do not. You choose how to spend your time, not I. Mar 5, 2014 at 20:44
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    It is work I voluntarily signed up for (and I goal I think I am singularly pursuing) but you are absolutely making more work for me. Which is fine. But it still bugs me. :)
    – MrHen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 20:56
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    @Susan: It's up to MrHen if he wants to go around "forcing" all unanswered questions to contain answers by converting "appropriate" comments. But he's not a mod and I've no reason to suppose this is site policy. If it is, I think the matter should be aired more openly, since there's obviously scope for disagreement over whether this is a "good thing". Plus there's the obvious fact that the questions I'm talking about are specifically those that will get closed, so it's not possible to convert comments to answers. Mar 5, 2014 at 22:26
  • There are plenty of fine reasons to stop putting answers in comments. I mentioned a few in this very answer. "Making less work for MrHen" wasn't a serious reason. As for questions that will get closed, I touche don that in this answer as well.
    – MrHen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 22:30
  • We're going round in circles. Often, even if I think a question should have been closed because it's Too Basic for ELU, I will refrain from closevoting if a "not particularly good" answer has already been posted since that would just leave even worse rubbish in perpetuity. At least if it's left open someone might bother to post a better answer eventually, but that probably won't alter my opinion that it should never have been there in the first place. You want ELU to accept just about anything, and I don't. End of. Mar 5, 2014 at 22:45
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    @FumbleFingers: Er, I think you are inferring quite a few opinions that I haven't actually expressed. Your final sentence is very much incorrect. As always, we can dig through the details in English Language & Usage Chat; I don't mind continuing the conversation but our current back and forth in comments isn't clearing anything up.
    – MrHen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 22:48
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    I'd add a third scenario when I feel it's acceptable to answer in a comment: when the question is so basic I don't see the point in providing a full-fledged answer, but I'd still like to nudge the O.P. toward an answer. That's what I did here, for example. In a perfect world, your guidance here would be fine, because all SE questions would be challening posers that couldn't be answered in a one-line comment (but we don't live in a perfect world).
    – J.R.
    Mar 13, 2014 at 22:49
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    @J.R.: A one or two word answer belongs in a comment; I'll agree with that.
    – MrHen
    Mar 14, 2014 at 1:07
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    I'd like to add something. Sometimes i come here to help answer "unanswered" questions. I clicked on Unanswered this evening to find that the majority of those had actually already been answered in the comments. What do i do? Copy the comment and post it as my own answer? Flag it as ... what? Post yet another comment begging the "commenter" to repost as an answer? Assume the Q will be closed because His Majesty has given a good answer in the comments?
    – Martin F
    Apr 7, 2014 at 2:27
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    @martinf: I will typically do something such as this example. If anyone ever complains about it, send them to this meta question to participate in the discussion.
    – MrHen
    Apr 7, 2014 at 2:32
  • 'All of that being said, there seems to be some debate around whether people should answer "bad" questions. If you are willing to answer the question in a comment then it suggests you believe the answer to the debate is yes, you should answer "bad" questions. So please put the answer in an answer.' I disagree; as others have said, giving an 'answer' to a trivial / otherwise inappropriate question sends out the wrong message to the user base, encouraging questions of a similar nature. A response in a 'comment' if at all, and a close-vote, are, in my opinion, better practice. Dec 23, 2017 at 20:52

I hate to disagree with Mari-Lou here.1 Originally, I thought I also disagreed with ELL mod WendiKidd, who posted Call to stop answering off-topic questions on meta there. But it turned out we agreed after all. Anyway, here's the answer I posted there, which also seems appropriate here...

Whereas I hope I don't often fall into the trap of posting an answer to a question that's subsequently (correctly) closed, I do often "answer" in a comment while closevoting. Maybe this does encourage more Off Topic questions - but at least if a question is egregious enough, we can downvote and eventually delete it without (I think) needing mod intervention.

So - in many cases, providing answers via comments to OT questions doesn't seem unreasonable to me. Arguably, it makes the site seem friendlier, so people who originally came here with an OT query might be encouraged to come back again with one that's on topic.

I will admit that I sometimes get quite annoyed when I see actual Answers posted to questions I really don't think should be here. So annoyed that once in a while I even downvote them, regardless of whether they're "correct" or not. Certainly I'm much more likely to judge harshly in such circumstances, and I would encourage others to do the same.

If you see a question has been closed, don't just ignore it. Obviously, first check to see if maybe you can tweak the question so it might get reopened. If not, and you strongly endorse the closevote, check if there are any Answers you can reasonably disagree with - and if so, hammer them.

1 Or maybe not.

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    -1 for suggesting people downvote Answers on Questions that haven't been closed yet. Inflicting your personal opinions on question quality on people who are actively helping answer questions is a misuse of the downvote. (In my opinion.) Please knock it off and just vote to close the question.
    – MrHen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 19:01
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    @MrHen: You seem to misunderstand the point of me posting this answer. If you disagree with my suggestion, by all means downvote it - that is after all the reason why we have voting on meta in the first place, and you're welcome to your opinion. But I would just say I consider it positively impertinent of you to tell me to "knock it off". Personal disparagement is unbecoming. Mar 5, 2014 at 21:41
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    I don't misunderstand the point but I still find your suggestion problematic. I also see no problem with me asking you to improve your voting behavior. "Knock it off" is not a serious or offensive phrase in my culture; I apologize for any offense taken. A lighter way to ask would be: "Please stop downvoting Answers when you have a problem with the Question. A close vote is more appropriate."
    – MrHen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 21:51
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    Well, I won't attempt to change your vernacular. Please note that in my culture, telling someone to "knock it off" is without question overtly dismissive and rude. I don't deny I myself am sometimes obliquely dismissive of others or their opinions, but there's a difference between "subtle" and "in yer face". As to the substantive point of disagreement - your vote is enough to indicate that. No amount of comments at this level are going to induce me to change my opinion as presented in the answer, and I can't really see they'll help anyone else make up their mind how to vote either. Mar 5, 2014 at 22:14
  • A simple downvote would not have be clear which is why I added the comment. I didn't expect to actually change your behavior but I felt you'd appreciate the explanation. The rest of the comment was just me asking someone to stop a behavior I consider damaging to the site. I do this frequently and has little to do with you personally.
    – MrHen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 22:18
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    @MrHen: Although you're actually signed up to ELL, apparently you haven't actually been there at all this year. Which I suppose implies you don't really think the site should even exist. I believe both ELL and ELU are damaged by encouraging low-grade learners' questions on the latter (and these are the main things I have in mind as potential closevote targets). It may be significant that my position as set out above is exactly the same text as posted on ELL meta, where it has been much better received. Mar 5, 2014 at 22:37
  • If you want to discuss ELL we can take it to English Language & Usage Chat; as for low-grade learners' questions, I generally agree with you except I don't think people who answer those questions should be downvoted. I am willing to discuss any of this in chat, by the way. I think we've covered the points enough for the purposes of this comment chain.
    – MrHen
    Mar 5, 2014 at 22:40
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    Users should vote on answers by judging the answers' own merit, rather than the merit of their respective questions. From our guidelines: "Use your downvotes whenever you encounter an egregiously sloppy, no-effort-expended post, or an answer that is clearly and perhaps dangerously incorrect... Instead of voting down: If the question is duplicate or off-topic, flag it for moderator attention. If something is wrong, please leave a comment or edit the post to correct it."
    – Cerran
    Mar 10, 2014 at 15:30
  • I am totally in agreement. I will downvote a trivial (eg LMGTFY) answer by an established user to an off-topic question (even if 'correct'), but might well upvote a better answer (even if not uncontestable). Dec 23, 2017 at 9:44
  • @Edwin: It's obviously something of a polarising issue - as of now, +7 / -5 votes for this answer, and a solid 8 upvotes for Cerran's comment above. The implication is that higher rep users such as you and I should expect to be held to higher standards than the average, which certainly doesn't seem unreasonable to me. Dec 23, 2017 at 15:19
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    But I see the voting system as a quality-control device. Though I won't usually downvote a less-than-1000-rep user who merely supplies a dictionary definition or who answers a question a ten-year-old Anglophone should be able to deal with, I'm tired of arguing that such answers from more established users drag the site into mediocrity. Dec 23, 2017 at 20:44

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