Irritatingly I have taken some noise recently on my original answer (prior to editing) here - My original answer was "Are you referring to "open secret"...".

This was jumped on almost immediately by a small number of people intent on pressuring me to conform to the "rule" that Answers are for answering and question may not be asked within them.

I completely agree with this principle- Using an answer to draw out more information or clarification from the OP is clearly wrong, I accept that and I uphold the principles of the SE family wherever I am. However, as I explained twice (one block of comments has since been withdrawn by me and their author), despite the fact my opening statement was interrogative, it was not actually a question it was merely a less formal way of offering my answer.

This seems to have got several people all excited and a few have offered admonitions and downvotes (seems like some people get more joy out of correcting others than offering helpful suggestions or answers, or maybe I am just suffering from selection bias) culminating with a polite request from a moderator not to frame answers as questions.

Now, having been somewhat annoyed by the entire approach to my answer I did check out, in detail, the documented rules for answering. I do believe that if I have broken rules then moderator intervention is justified and will be observed. However there do not seem to be any relevant guidelines for how to frame answers, certainly nothing that says you cannot ask a question in an answer, and nothing I can find justifying the interest from several people in trying to make me uncomfortable enough about my answer to conform to the stated "rule". It just isn't part of the "manifesto" of this site, yet has been metaphorically rubbed in my face and I have certainly seen the reaction deployed elsewhere here.

Why have I been put under so much pressure from community members and why was it felt that moderator intervention was justified? What community "rule" backs that up? I would be considerably less annoyed if I was genuinely asking a question designed to elicit information or even a response from the OP, but my answer style was merely less formal and more like how one person would speak to another in the real world. One person was so incensed that they edited my entire answer to make it the way they wanted to appear, together with reference (another common demand that appears nowhere in the "rules"), downvoted my answer and left a comment telling me they had done so because my answer did not actually answer the question.

I'm afraid that, given the lack of "real" rule, all the interventions seem somewhat petty and sanctimonious. In the end, following the moderator's response I did edit it as I have no desire to be a troublemaker. But I did not, and do not think that I needed to have done so and I feel slightly bullied.

3 Answers 3


I'll take your word that it's not written anywhere. Lots of stuff that's expected to be observed here isn't, and lots of stuff that is written is ignored, even (and inexplicably) by seasoned users and moderators. Every site has unwritten rules that are learned in time, and this is one of them. SE prides itself on being a Q&A site, so the "?" in the answer set off a knee-jerk response.

This place is far from real life, and our better angels are not always on display. You aren't the first person to be made to feel uncomfortable here. Please see Bring back the Summer of Love, aka make new users feel more welcome, What is the target quality of answer on this site?, The New new Be Nice Policy, or even this ?question to see how contentious the seemingly simple issue of being nice is, partly because that is defined differently by different people, and partly because you have nothing but a block of cold text - you can't divine the intent behind it - in a comment.

If you have a thick skin, please hang around for a while. You are welcome here. If you're tender-hearted, get out while the getting is good, because this is how it is. Not always, but enough that you just experienced it.

  • 1
    Thanks Medica, I do have a thick enough skin. Browsing those links makes very interesting reading. It is tempting to construct armchair-psychological theories to explain this (seemingly common) behaviour, but ultimately asinine. So I won't. I would only donate this plea to the general community: You may be proud of this site being a Q&A site, but that does not mandate it must also be a stuffy, dusty and dry library of quotable facts- We are ALL human beings interacting on a website and it is possible to allow some humility in without losing focus.
    – Marv Mills
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 10:16

I made the change to the answer to conform to the rules:

  1. I made the edit because it's okay to edit questions and answers here.
  2. You were given an opportunity to make a change to make an answer an answer and refused. That, not simply by inaction, but by stating unequivocally that you wouldn't be bound by such formatting restrictions.
  3. OK, I'll take the heat on being terse about editing and downvote but considering I hadn't downvoted until the edit, I was hoping that the conversation wouldn't have gone that far. My intention was to provide an opportunity for a better structured answer to exist, versus flag for a moderator.
  4. Since your post had presented a question encompassing a valid answer, I moved to make it look more like an answer than a question.
  5. The OP didn't consider the answer valid.

It would be assumed (by most people?) that an answer is an answer and not a question. That is, that the entirety of the answer should not be a single sentence that begins with an interrogative word and end with a question mark.

how to answer:
Answer the question

Read the question carefully. What, specifically, is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that – or a viable alternative. The answer can be “don’t do that”, but it should also include “try this instead”. Any answer that gets the asker going in the right direction is helpful, but do try to mention any limitations, assumptions or simplifications in your answer. Brevity is acceptable, but fuller explanations are better.

Provide context for links

Links to external resources are encouraged, but please add context around the link so your fellow users will have some idea what it is and why it’s there. Always quote the most relevant part of an important link, in case the target site is unreachable or goes permanently offline.

See also: What are you trying to achieve?


The "moderator advice" was mine, and followed flags raised on a comment in the post (I tend to read the context around comment flags, particularly when something flagged as "not constructive" might actually be constructive criticism). The comment in question is one of those which has been deleted.

My advice was, I thought, polite and explanatory, and was an effort to avoid more flags, perhaps on the answer itself, particularly since by this stage it had been edited, deleted, rolled back and undeleted.

Please don't phrase answers as questions. Answers should be answers. It's ok to start with "You may be referring to..." if you believe there is some uncertainty.

I could just have edited the post to do that. I could have construed the answer as a request for more information from the asker and summarily converted it to a comment — another user actually commented "Is this an answer or a comment?"! I chose to do neither, but comment myself instead; I would far rather answerers edited their own posts. However, if you felt my comment was not constructive, you could simply have flagged it — another moderator would have dealt with that flag; I don't moderate my own flags.

As to rules, some may well be unwritten and a part of site ethos. We try not to maintain that situation, although in any community it's somewhat inevitable. Rules are occasionally codified after something happens. It may well be that this Meta question highlights a gap which needs to be dealt with (one way or the other).

Sometimes, rules are mentioned in a number of different places which need to be referred to together to form a complete picture.

For example, there is the site Tour, which has elements common to all Stack Exchange sites.

Ask questions, get answers, no distractions
This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat.

Note: it's not a discussion forum. Answering a question with another question may invite discussion, which would probably be conducted in comments. Comments are definitely not for discussion, so answers should never invite it. Giving an answer with no distractions satisfies this stated aim in the Tour.

There are a couple of Meta questions tagged which might also be useful. For example, Is it a better idea to check some resources before answering to the questions? contains advice from Stack Exchange's founder, Jeff Attwood:

You should always try to cite sources or data for your answers, even for subjective ones.

That may not be directly relevant, but it does indicate that answers should be backed up with corroboration. Corroborated answers aren't generally phrased as questions — or if they are, then they can be read as rhetorical questions which contain their own answer.

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    I did not have any issue with your post Andrew, it was polite. My point, which seemingly continues to be missed, is that despite using an interrogative form to propose, informally, the answer, it was not actually a question. Therefore any appeal to or justification by an unwritten rule not to use answers for asking questions appears groundless. Are you seriously proposing that my answer was either discussion or seeking clarification? Because that is what this whole brouhaha turns on.
    – Marv Mills
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 10:40
  • 1
    I would also add that if this rule is so very important then it should be codified and documented for all to see. Invoking unwritten bylaws to justify behaviour leaves an unpleasant taste in one's mouth.
    – Marv Mills
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 10:41
  • 3
    I am saying that yes, your answer was a question (self-evidently: it uses an interrogative form and ends with a question mark). One other user actually commented to that effect. If in fact it was a rhetorical question, then you should have provided the answer to that rhetorical question -- which could have been as simple as a Freedictionary definition. [You're right: this sort of discussion is important to codification, one way or the other, although rather like British law, the total corpus is important.]
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 10:47
  • 1
    Sorry but that does not answer my question- Clearly, technically, there is a question in the text. That is beyond dispute. I asked whether you believe I was seeking clarification or inviting discussion, since those are actually the prohibited modes.
    – Marv Mills
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 10:59
  • I believe you were attempting to provide an answer to the question, but in order not to be seen to be seeking clarification or inviting discussion you should phrase any answer so that it definitely does not do that. That's why I commented to get you to do that rather than act on your post myself. Even a simple citation would have helped here. (I think I've said both of these comments in my answer above)
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 11:04
  • 1
    Ok, this is my last word on the subject, particularly since I am sure we are all bored of it by now: If anyone had bothered to phrase their comments like that, i.e. "I can see you are trying to provide an answer but it would be best to remove the interrogative form to avoid confusion on whether you are inviting discussion or seeking clarification" then there would have been no issue here. The arrogance and self-righteous demands (I am not talking about your post) I comply with a completely unwritten rule are what stuck in my throat. Lessons to be learned all round I feel.
    – Marv Mills
    Commented Dec 13, 2014 at 11:11
  • "rules are mentioned in a number of different places which need to be referred to together to form a complete picture." This is so true, and this is precisely part of the problem. The Tour is not enough, but, it's a two minute intro, so that's undertandable. The help page is so short on helpful information as to be almost useless when trying to guide someone. Often I have to dig something up in SE Meta or somewhere else. It's absurd, and I've been here for a year. Can't we just start working on revising the help section? Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 1:25
  • "your answer was a question... it uses an interrogative form and ends with a question mark". That's pretty prescriptivist. It was clearly an answer that people jumped all over, simply because @MarvMills framed it politely, in a question form, as so many of our parents have taught us to do so as to avoid appearing arrogant. "Where are your best suits?" asks someone gruffly. "Perhaps you might find something suitable on the third floor...?" That is an answer. Unless ladies undergarments are on the third floor, in which case, it's a great insult! Why all the dancing around? Commented Dec 14, 2014 at 1:34

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