If the OP doesn't indicate whether they'd prefer a hint, a sketch, or a full answer, and you'd like to leave just a hint, should it be an answer or a comment? Should one option be encouraged? If so, should the other option be flagged?

There's been a lot of previous discussion on Meta concerning asking for hints, offering hints, and answers as comments. But I don't think this particular issue has been raised. Thanks!


Leave it as answer so the question is no longer "unanswered" (assuming someone upvotes it). If you are pretty certain that the hint may not be enough but are not willing to expand the answer yourself at some later point, that's what the community wiki checkmark is for. If you know a short concise hint that may however spoil the fun of solving the problem, put it into a spoiler tag >!

Like so

But please don't leave a hint as comment. Comments are intended to clarify the question's intend or point out flaws in it.

edit As Brian M. Scott pointed out, questions put on hold (despite acceptable quality) are an exception to this, since they cannot be answered. Ideally, the hinting user would convert their comment into an answer should the question be reopened, but this rather hints at a flaw in the impossibility to answer questions put on hold which otherwise does make sense...

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately some high-rep users don't respect this and even post almost-complete answers as comments... $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Aug 13 '13 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ I make a point of posting as comments the hints that I'd have given as answers to questions that have been put on hold solely because they were 'naked' questions. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Aug 13 '13 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott True, if the question is on hold it is not possible to answer (and if the closing reason is disputable), giving a hint despite it's state is a very nice thing to do $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Aug 13 '13 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe we need a flag for "not a comment" like the one for "not an answer"... $\endgroup$ – mrf Aug 14 '13 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ @mrf Indeed. I never really understood why comments should be (programmatically) treated any different than answers/questions, so basically conversion (mods can, or at least could, convert answers to comments after all) should be possible $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Aug 15 '13 at 6:18
  • $\begingroup$ thanks used this here $\endgroup$ – RE60K Oct 29 '14 at 7:38
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    $\begingroup$ Spoilers are annoying, and almost always out of place on this site. $\endgroup$ – quid Sep 19 '15 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ @quid Can you quantify "always" via examples? I agree that used wrongly they do annoy, but this post deals with questions explicitly asking for hints on usually well-understood problems $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Sep 20 '15 at 17:15
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure what you are asking me. The purpose of this site is to provide clear answers to clear questions. It is hard to think up a scenario where hiding information will make an answer more clear. Do you have examples for this? The reason that I said almost always is that maybe for some atypical question, admitted as an exception, it could be appropriate; say, some kind of competition. $\endgroup$ – quid Sep 20 '15 at 18:23

If the question is tagged homework, I will post hints as answers, since I hate questions showing up in the "unanswered" queue despite being fully resolved in the comments.

If I strongly suspect the question is homework, I will post hints as answers to discourage others from spoiling full solutions.

Otherwise, if the hint is very short and I expect others will soon flesh out a full writeup (especially if the "hint" is just a link to Wikipedia) I will leave it as a comment.

  • $\begingroup$ thanks used this here $\endgroup$ – RE60K Oct 29 '14 at 7:41
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    $\begingroup$ This is obsolete as there is no more tag "homework." $\endgroup$ – quid Sep 19 '15 at 10:40


If I feel that a hint is more helpful to the OP, in general, then I leave one as an answer.

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    $\begingroup$ And when you leave a hint as an answer, is it never flagged as "not an answer"??? $\endgroup$ – GEdgar Aug 12 '13 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ Gerald, I don't know. I never saw a flag on my posts, and I'm not sure you can. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 12 '13 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @GEdgar I feel like I leave hints more often than not... I've never had one disappear on me as if it was deleted, and it is not uncommon for the OP to accept them. $\endgroup$ – Nick Peterson Aug 13 '13 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ @GEdgar If you feel the hint is too little to actually solve the question, you can mark it as Community Wiki; that way others can simply expand on your hint instead of posting a new answer (yes, at the expense of gaining no reputation, but, seriously, meh) - in contrast to a conventional/suggested edit CW is an actual invitation to more severely edit a post if deemed adequate. $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Aug 14 '13 at 6:44
  • $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila Probably the only way to figure out whether a voted-upon(!) post of yours has been removed is checking the reputation history for "deleted" (though that also includes "user deleted" where votes of a deleted user are removed). But since you are a >10k user, there might by something in the mod-tools you can access. Anyway, usually a post flagged as "not an answer" / "low quality" will be commented upon pre-deletion (unless the reason for deletion is deemed obvious) and those comments still show up in the inbox + deleted answers can always be viewed by their poster even below 10k $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Aug 14 '13 at 6:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Tobias: I don't recall any deletions in the history of my reputation. This doesn't mean that the posts weren't flagged, though. Just the the flags were dismissed. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 14 '13 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf To my knowledge even mods can only check specific posts' flags but not all related to a user at once. Let's stalk you a bit :P Your daily rep-gain is too much to say for sure, but the only three negative peaks in your rep graph are due to user removal. It's weird that there is no sensible way to figure this out though... A feature-request to allow a search for deleted posts (used together with user:me) would help here, but it has been declined $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Aug 14 '13 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Tobias: Well, one due to a bounty. But yeah, that feature would have helped. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 14 '13 at 12:53

Doing as much as you can on your own is an important part of mathematics education. A lot of questions have a clear-cut answer that is right for them. For example, someone with little knowledge of a particular field might have a specific question about that field that someone who knew the area better would be able to answer. In that case, hints are pretty much useless. A lot of the time, however, the person asking the question could answer most of it on his own (I decided the sex of the questioner by tossing a coin) and has just got stuck somewhere. In that case, a hint is the best sort of answer as it lets the person asking the question think for themselves and gain a deeper understanding than a question would do on its own.

Between these two extremes, you have to use your judgement when answering a question. If you don't think that the person answering the question could answer it themselves, even with a hint, then don't just leave a hint. If you do, then leave a hint.

Note that leaving a good hint is harder and requires a deeper understanding of the subject than leaving an answer. It's also tempting to leave an answer in order to 'show off' your mathematical knowledge, though I think users of this site aren't particularly prone to that. I would find a really good hint more impressive anyway.

So, to answer your question: yes, I think that a lot of the time a hint is the best sort of answer and should absolutely be posted as one, rather than as a comment. Hint answers are one of your most powerful tools as an answerer.

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    $\begingroup$ "(I decided the sex of the questioner by tossing a coin)" But did you make sure you used a politically correct coin? :-) $\endgroup$ – celtschk Aug 19 '13 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ thanks used this here $\endgroup$ – RE60K Oct 29 '14 at 7:39

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