Maybe I am too blunt sometimes. However in most cases I find that a comment pointing out a weakness in someone's answer or comment is taken well. Speaking personally, I've often edited my own answers and acknowledged the commenter if they have pointed out an error I've made.

Given that excessive courtesies are discouraged on Stack Exchange, can anyone give me some tips for pointing out inaccuracies and requesting further clarification from answerers without this ending up in, at best a blustering and unconvincing counter-argument, or at worst a personal attack?

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    Could you provide a couple of links to threads where your comment wasn't as well received as you would have liked? Sep 7 '15 at 4:00
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    I wish they would change the colour of the comment notification icon from red to something psychologically more neutral. I'm an infrequent commenter, but every time I see it, I think, 'STOP! Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.':) Sep 7 '15 at 4:48
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    I find smilies usually help :-) Sep 8 '15 at 12:13
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    @aparente001 - I've considered doing so but finally decided it would simply be pointing the finger rather than leading to a positive discussion. Also, in the past I've flagged the very occasional insulting comment and it's been removed so the worst examples don't exist any more. Sep 8 '15 at 12:18
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    @chaslyfromUK I find that of all the Stack Exchange sites, EL&U has been the most hostile. I haven't had a lot of questions (OK, just one) but that was enough. A user with extremely high reputation didn't like my question and assumed that I didn't really know what I was asking about. Instead of just moving on to something more interesting, I got a scathing rebuff. Of course I won't name the individual but users of high reputation have a responsibility beyond the "integrity" of the site. They also need to realize their potential to influence the culture here. Sep 19 '15 at 20:51

I hope this helps. Some things I've learned:

IRL, you can only control your own behavior; the same is true here. If you believe framing a comment in a certain way will guarantee that you won't be met with defensiveness or worse, your expectations are unrealistic.

Be direct and polite. Remember that people can't read tone from a short sequence of written words, and no one likes to be corrected in public, so treat someone as you'd like to be treated (please disregard this advice if you like sarcastic mockery as a response to your own answers!)

If someone is flat out wrong, you can simply state what you know to be true, adding a link. Then walk away knowing you've alerted the next reader to a possible inaccuracy.

You can ask the user an honest question if you're confused. Most people are happy to explain. I can't remember this ever going wrong for me (other than egg on my face if I was wrong), though I'm sure it has.

Avoid rhetorical questions.

Avoid snark. If you feel snarky about an answer and show it, then expect an attack. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

...at best a blustering and unconvincing counter-argument...

It takes two to spar. You've made your point; if you don't like to spar, just walk away.

Assume the best about the user. You don't know the person you've directed the comment to.

Remember you can just DV, flag, or move on.

From experience (and advice from others on SE for a longer time), the best thing is to make your comment and move on. Drop it. Don't engage. It's perfectly OK to not reply to a comment challenging yours in an unproductive manner, if this is what concerns you. Flag something if someone answers you in an offensive manner.

Given that excessive courtesies are discouraged on Stack Exchange...

They are? I mean, I don't start my comments with Dear Sir or Madame, etc., but I never saw a prohibition of common courtesy, even in excess (except for welcoming new users, and that varies from site to site.)

Things I know in my head but have yet to put into practice consistently:

Don't argue with people with fragile egos or certain mental illnesses.

Good luck. I've briefly read over some of your comments and you don't come across as offensive to me at all. I don't think this should be a big problem for you here.

(I've made a lot of mistakes. If I've ever given you a hard time, I've forgotten, so please just accept my apologies.)

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    Thanks. That's very heartening. It's funny but I don't mind scathing criticism of my own answers provided it is reasoned. My approach is to address each point individually. If the criticism is justified I edit or in some cases delete my answer. Sep 7 '15 at 18:40
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    To this excellent answer I would add that much of the good in any interaction at EL&U (as in real life) depends on the other person's willingness to view his or her contribution as part of a collaborative endeavor (as opposed to a communique from Mount Olympus). People who see informed criticism of their answer as helpful rather than impertinent are unlikely to react badly to a polite, well-intended comment—even if the thrust of the comment is off-point or to some extent incorrect. For the rest, "Don't argue with people with fragile egos or certain mental illnesses" is classic good advice.
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 7 '15 at 20:19
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    @chaslyfromUK - I've deleted or corrected many answers. One answer on the subjunctive (I was new-ish) took me two days and numerous corrections to get right, but I learned it, and am very grateful for the help I was given. Sometimes I'm lazy and just upvote the comment or suggestion. :( Sep 8 '15 at 3:50

Medica's post is spot on and I very much agree with its sentiment. However, I would like to make a small expansion to the point about flags and it was too large as a comment.

With regards to personal attacks, there is no room whatsoever at Stack Exchange for that behavior. If you encounter a direct personal attack simply flag it as rude and move on. Moderators here are very good at dealing with this content and also with users who have a pattern of that behavior.

Some users become very adept at being insulting without directly insulting you. In this situation the comment can still be flagged as non constructive as it is not beneficial to the overall conversation or post.

Keep in mind that comments are second class citizens at Stack Exchange and they will be removed if there is no topicality to them with a flag rather easily. Given that status, please also keep in mind it can take 12 to 36 hours for a comment flag to be reviewed.

tl;dr; Feel free to trust in the moderating team for your exchange, they tend to be very classy people.


As mentioned in medica's excellent answer,

People can't read tone from a short sequence of written words, and no one likes to be corrected in public.

In consideration of these two factors, I like to take a page out of Ben Franklin's book - specifically, page 42 of his autobiography:

I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering, I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this charge in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.

The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with other to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right."

I find that this approach allows one to adopt a comfortable middle ground, avoiding both the one extreme of "excessive courtesies" that weaken one's own position, and the other extreme of absolute conviction that can come across as argumentative or hostile (or prove terribly embarrassing, in the event that one turns out to be in the wrong).

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