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I'm confused. There appears to be conflicting ideas as to what constitutes a canonical answer on EL&U.

Simply saying it is the best answer, is too subjective. Best for whom? Best for the OP who is asking the question? But how would the user recognize the best answer without some previous knowledge? Best because of the number of upvotes an answer receives? But sometimes the funniest and cleverest answers are the most upvoted ones, and therefore, objectively speaking, not necessarily the most correct. Best because the answer is beautifully written in flawless English?

Please see the most recent bounty set up for: A word for a "non-logged in" user
I am confused as to why the user offering the bounty believes his answer (currently standing at 70 upvotes) is not ‘canonical’. There is, however, an answer that has 80 upvotes so far, an eighteen-word-long post. Would anyone agree a single sentence answer is canonical because it has more upvotes than any other?

Here are three more examples of bounties set up with the aim of receiving a canonical answer.

  1. Framing a question whose answer is an ordinal number
    This post earned the bounty because it had the largest consensus.
  2. How can I reliably and accurately identify the passive voice in writing or speech?
    Here the bounty was NOT awarded to the highest upvoted answer.
  3. Did English ever have a formal version of "you"?
    Objectively speaking, the user awarded the bounty is EL&U's most authoritative user/author. Does that mean the answers which earned 415, 78, 41, and 31 upvotes are not canonical?

If we take for granted an answer consisting of one or two sentences can rarely be considered canonical; that EL&U encourages every user to support their answers with references and cited sources, and a wrong answer cannot be ‘canonical’, what exactly is a canonical answer?

Can someone please explain what the criteria is?

  1. Is it based on the number of upvotes an answer receives?
  2. Is it the most “accurate” and/or most “correct” answer, regardless of the number of upvotes?
  3. Is a canonical answer the most objective?
  4. Is it the most authoritative because of its author?
  5. Is it the best written? (due to style and accuracy)
  6. Or something else?

Can users please provide examples of canonical answers that they believe are exemplar and explain why?


If we can agree what makes a canonical answer, would it not be best to mark it some way so that users and visitors can easily identify it? That way we block users from setting up “canonical” bounties on questions which have been abundantly and satisfactorily answered.

This feature would not prevent bounties on questions and answers that need to be updated (although an answer replying to a grammar question five years ago is still going to be a correct answer today) or awarding bounties on answers that are considered worthy of greater attention.

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    I recently used the terms "canonical question" and "canonical answer" in my meta post, but I'm not sure if they were the best terms for what I wanted to say. What I was thinking of was this: there are certain topics that accumulate a large number of "duplicate" questions. These duplicates tend to be closed. So, I think they should be closed as duplicates of the question that's the most "representative" of all of them. In terms of answers, the "canonical" answer would be one that addresses all of the common issues with the topic. – sumelic Sep 5 '15 at 9:45
  • @sumelic I think the term canonical question in your case is perfect. I'm dubious as to what constitutes a canonical answer on EL&U. Or if there is such a thing. – Mari-Lou A Sep 5 '15 at 9:50
  • You appear to be looking for a set of rules that define how an answer should be made. I think the general agreed guidelines are enough to encourage users to provide reference to 'formally' support what they want to express. Stricter rules might actually discourage users and invalidate many less accurate answers in my opinion. As to what the definition of 'the best answer' may be, I think that is largely a matter of 'personal opinion' as up-votes and down-votes regularly show us. – user66974 Sep 5 '15 at 12:53
  • @Josh61 I am asking how EL&U defines "a canonical answer", not how users should reply to questions. There have been bounties set up with the expressed aim of receiving a "canonical" answer. Well, what is it? I'm the first to say "best" is subjective. Is there such a thing as a CA or not? – Mari-Lou A Sep 5 '15 at 12:57
  • Relevant, if not required reading before answering: blog.stackexchange.com/2011/01/… – TimLymington Sep 5 '15 at 13:25
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    I don't think ELU actually has "canonical answers", and I'm not convinced it really needs them either. The only one that comes to mind is How do the tenses and aspects in English correspond temporally to one another?, which in my experience is mostly just cited in "duplicate" closevotes that would once have been closed as Too Basic. But we do have some excellent canonical answers on ELL (where the emphasis is on learning English, rather than discussing obscure features of the language). – FumbleFingers Sep 5 '15 at 20:31
  • @FumbleFingers - your last sentence seems to contain an implicit criticism to ELU. – user66974 Sep 6 '15 at 10:03
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    @Josh61: It's not intended as a criticism of the site per se. I just think it's in the nature of what interests linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts that there won't be many "canonical answers". To the extent that I intend to be critical of anything, it's the fact that far too many questions on ELU are from non-native speakers wishing to learn basic English. Those questions (often asked repeatedly in slightly different forms) would benefit from canonical answers on ELL, not here. – FumbleFingers Sep 6 '15 at 12:13
  • @FumbleFingers and what constitutes a canonical answer on ELL? – Mari-Lou A Sep 6 '15 at 14:08
  • @Mari-Lou: It's a rather imprecise/impractical concept in the context of SE generally, as comments & answers here indicate. But broadly, it's one where either/both of these apply: A - the OP claims it's "canonical" (and by implication tries to generalise any specific issues implied by the question), B - many other users recognise it as such, and thus choose to upvote it and link to it in duplicate closevotes wherever possible. – FumbleFingers Sep 6 '15 at 14:20
  • I don't think this is about "canonical answer", but about "best answer". "Canonical answer", in my knowledge, is the answer that answers all the question. In physics (my major), a canonical method is the one that guarantees to solve the problem, although it can be slow and require a lot of work. – Ooker Sep 12 '15 at 18:29
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Of course there is no clear definition for 'canonical', any more than for 'best' (which is presumably why Stack Exchange per se uses neither term). There is, however, general agreement that some answers are better than others; each voter decides which post or posts to upvote, and the highest-voted is the best in the 'opinion' of ELU as a whole, no matter what you or I may think of it (the accepted answer is presumably the best in the opinion of OP).

Similarly, there is general agreement that certain questions are asked repeatedly, and it would be useful to (for example) close every "What is the question to which the answer is Xth?" question as a duplicate of one particular example. There is, however, no agreement, far less an official line, on which example that should be. So you close the next one as a duplicate of your preferred example, I will do the same with mine, and perhaps a canonical post will emerge.

  • How to account for the following bounty message: The question is widely applicable to a large audience. A detailed canonical answer is required to address all the concerns. Isn't this telling users that there is such a thing? – Mari-Lou A Sep 5 '15 at 11:07
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    @Mari-LouA: please reread my post. Of course 'canonical' has a meaning, and Shog9, just like you and me, has an idea of what it means in this context. All of us would like a canonical answer to exist for each problem question, but no one person can canonize it I think it was Mitch who pointed out: 'If you have to say that an answer is canonical, it its not as canonical as you thought.' – TimLymington Sep 5 '15 at 13:19

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