I have the impression one loses brownie points when posting an answer to a question that will obviously be closed in short order.

Where should one draw the line in deciding whether to post an answer to a gray-area unsuitable question?

How bad it is to post an answer to an unsuitable question?

I tend to do it out of a desire to help the person out who asked the question. On the one hand, I'm helping the individual by answering the question; on the other hand, I'm apparently diluting the effectiveness of the site. How much of one, how much of the other?

As an example, please see comment: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/361461/mexican-newspaper-el-tiempo-or-the-mexican-newspaper-el-tiempo/361463?noredirect=1#comment841182_361463

In this example, it is safe to ignore the fact that my answer was not well documented. That's a clear boo-boo but that's not what I'm asking about.

I'm also not asking whether you agree with @EdwinAshworth who commented that particular question should be closed. Assume for the sake of argument that it should, but that it wasn't obvious enough to be closed very quickly.

  • 1
    I don't mind at all, and as you can see, my responses are gone as well.
    – deadrat
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 2:32
  • Once you've been a regular member on this website, you automatically know which questions are off-topic, which can be answered easily by a dictionary, and which that are LQQ but can be saved. This is where a good detailed and supported answer is pretty important. It's no longer about supplying a one line answer, it's about saying "I'm taking this question to the next level, so that it helps other users and not just the OP."
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 8:08
  • Are you more interested in how bad it is or where should one draw the line?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 12:14
  • 1
    @Lawrence - I haven't been able to find instructions as to whether it's kosher to post answers to questions of varying degrees of badness. What I've gleaned from this page, however, is that one might get a downvote here or there, but the primary consequence would be that experienced participants would tend to get irritated, because a poor quality question with an answer associated with it doesn't get automatically deleted through a process called "roomba," which I had never even heard of before I asked this question. // Please feel free to add any other information you think might be useful. Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 19:02
  • @aparente001 I might post some thoughts on this later. By the way, Roomba is a reference to a robot vacuum cleaner.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Dec 16, 2016 at 23:24

4 Answers 4


The main reason this is bad that I know of is that it may prevent the automatic deletion of low-quality questions. This makes the site have more low-quality questions that show up in search results even though they aren't useful (or it makes more work for voters to delete these questions manually).

Some people also seem to feel that it's a bad thing because it "rewards" someone who they don't think deserves an answer. I'm not really convinced this is important, though. It doesn't particularly bother me in and of itself, and while it might seem to encourage people to ask more bad questions, people who don't improve will encounter question-bans regardless of whether their questions have been answered or not.

Another reason that some people seem to find this objectionable is that the answerer will get "undeserved" reputation for answering the question. But I don't think this is a big deal either.

Related question: Downvoting an answer because the question was bad?

Personally, I resort to answer-comments if I want to answer such a question, and I consider that an acceptable strategy. I might downvote an answer like this if I think it isn't likely to be useful for the site as a whole.

  • 3
    I agree this is the main reason. Answers that should be helpful comments block the roomba. +1
    – Helmar
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 10:34
  • "Personally, I resort to answer-comments" -- but on another Meta question page, I read, "Here are some common reasons why comments get deleted by a moderator: [...] Comments that are actually answers and not comments at all" (meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/9694/…). So I'm confused. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 6:27
  • 1
    @aparente001: Since I'm talking about questions that will probably end up closed and deleted anyway, it doesn't matter to me that the comment may be deleted.
    – herisson
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 6:39
  • @sumelic - Then why bother providing an answer-comment? Are you saying that a short-lived answer-comment would be helpful enough for the OP, but need not remain in the web archive? Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 6:41
  • 3
    @aparente001: Exactly. The point is to help the OP, or to explain how to find the answer to the question elsewhere if it is general reference (for example, linking to and citing an online dictionary entry). Such comments don't need to survive forever, only long enough to reach the OP. And even if it technically qualifies for deletion, as that answer explains, moderators don't just go around looking for comments to delete. They usually wait for it to be flagged as a problem.
    – herisson
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 6:43
  • If I'm understanding the various things I've been reading correctly, after a month, the whole unanswered question and its comments will be deleted automatically. As far as you know, does that really work in practice? Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 6:46
  • 1
    @aparente001: there are occasional bugs, but the automatic deletion system definitely works. Closed questions can get deleted even sooner if they meet the other conditions.
    – herisson
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 6:55
  • Other conditions? This sounds like it might get to my question about VLQ posts (meta.english.stackexchange.com/q/9775/112436). Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 14:09
  • 1
    @aparente001 I think the referred other conditions are the conditions for deletion (english.stackexchange.com/help/roomba) which can be met as soon as nine days after closure.
    – Helmar
    Commented Dec 5, 2016 at 13:14

TL;DR: It totally depends. Only answer bad questions when you provide a good answer. Otherwise, keep it in the comments.

What would have been a great thing

If however you do see something interesting that might be of use to future visitors then yes please answer. But please answer with an explanation. Any answer on ELU should answer the why. If you had answered and explained why the definite article should be kept the answer alone would be a reason to keep the question as well. Have a look at answers from Sven Yargs or Araucaria who are just two examples of high reputation users who often try to find the redeemable in the questions and answer profoundly. We have a lot of bad questions on ELU that have been saved by good answers.

What happened in the example

I actually completely disagree with your assertion that the quality of the answer is not important. We do have some questions that are by quality of their content or other aspects simply bad. Your example has a trivial question. A question that you do not even answer at all. You should not answer such questions in this way.

That example now has a bad question and a bad answer that in no way addresses the question about the definite article. That is in my view a double no against answering that question that way.

The result is also that the amount of low quality posts was increased, the VLQ review queue was triggered for five reviewers and sabotaged the automatic roomba that is supposed to clean up the site because questions with answers are harder to get rid of than the ones without. You should never do that. If one wants to answer with a single sentence, keep it a comment.

  • I've just read your answer. I don't agree with the answer alone would be a reason to keep the question as well. An answer is irrelevant when deciding to close a question unless the question itself is edited. A question is close-voted based on the merits of the question, not those of an answer. Also, I don't understand what you mean by "the amount of shitty posts doubled". What do you mean by shitty posts?
    – user140086
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 16:49

I was excoriated for doing so.

Let me say this in as a nice a way as possible: It is clear from the guidelines that this is not a place for people learning the English language to ask questions, especially if they are basic questions and/or they evince no research. Yet, my question to you is why do you keep answering such questions... one of many examples. This question should be close-voted for no research. It is actions like yours that only encourages more ELL questions here.

But it's worth pointing out that there might be a double standard. One of our most respected and knowledgeable members, a true linguist, also answered an off-topic question recently.

Propositional Logic Question

I hesitate to bring up anything that would reflect badly on someone, especially since this person is one of our most knowledgeable members, whose answers I value very much. But I hope it will raise an important question. That being, is there a double standard?

  • I can't find the part with the gray background on the page you linked to ("excoriated"). Was it a comment? Did you flag it? Was the comment subsequently removed? Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 7:13
  • @aparente001 It's in my examples at the bottom of my topic post. It was taken from one of the comments in the very long chain of comments. Let me know if you find it!
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 7:14
  • Aack! I'm still not finding it. As noted above, I'm stupid! Can you give me a specific link? I would like to see it in context. Thank you. Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 7:20
  • @aparente001 I would rather not single out the author. But I just checked and it's still there. You can find the gray box at the top of my list of examples. You can find the comment if you expand the comments to my topic post and search on the first few words or the first sentence.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 7:31
  • @aparente001 You could also ping me on chat some time, and I could figure out a good way of sharing it with you.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 7:33
  • The question you cite would perhaps be better asked on Philosophy.SE, but we do have tags for [logic] and [terminology]. It's not exactly off-topic here (although some more evidence of research would be welcome) and it's received an answer. The moderator who initially closed it as off-topic also re-opened it.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Commented Dec 3, 2016 at 10:59
  • I don’t think there’s any “double standard” per se. Sure, there are some here who will downvote answers on what they deem as unfit questions as a matter of practice. But not every user looks at every question. You might get a downvote on a perfectly good answer to a questionable question, and someone else might not, but that might have nothing to do with reputation, and everything to do with what time of day you answered the question, and what the downvoter happened to see when he was poking around the site that day.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 9:24
  • 3
    Just for the record, while John Lawler is indeed very highly respected here, he's never been a stickler for the rules. His answering of a question should not be used as an indication that the community as a whole thinks the question is on-topic and should be answered. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 14:25
  • @curiousdannii - Well, I suppose it is too much to ask one person to be an authoritative source about both English language and usage, and stackexchange protocols. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 20:49
  • I finally found it. I am going to flag it and see what happens. I have actually had pretty good results flagging not nice comments on ELU. I don't know if this bothers the mods, but if the person was walking a thin line, I choose "other" and spell out exactly what was not nice about it. Usually these things come out in the comments. I see this as analogous to the hurtful behaviors at school coming out during recess, lunch and bus. Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 21:33
  • @ktm5124 - Good news, the flag was deemed helpful and the not nice comment was removed. Moral of the story: when necessary, let's not hesitate to flag. Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 5:38
  • @aparente001 Thank you, for taking the trouble.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Dec 10, 2016 at 8:36

I will propose a method to figure out whether it's okay to answer a gray-zone question. Feedback would be very welcome!

Suppose I read an iffy question that has received no answers yet. If it has at least one close-vote already, then don't write an answer, and wait and see if the question survives the challenge. Otherwise, evaluate the question to see if it is an obvious duplicate, poorly explained or documented, a proofreading request, or more suitable for ELL -- if so, vote to close with an appropriate reason. If not, it's okay to write an answer.

Example question: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/361763/what-does-it-mean-by-lie-to-something

enter image description here

By my proposed algorithm, it would not be frowned upon to write an answer to such a question.

  • 1
    It's not easy to propose a method with one example question. Sometimes high-rep users answer off-topic questions and sometimes they post a negative comment to users who do the same thing. The biggest issue I see is there is no consistency on ELU. Just do what you think is right and don't do what you think is not right. Based on my experience and compared with a year ago, its freer to post an answer to off-topic questions now. That's for sure. One thing you need to make sure is write an answer with supporting links and references so that it won't be automatically flagged. Good luck.
    – user140086
    Commented Dec 4, 2016 at 16:44

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