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The title says it all. I'm aware that there have been many related threads in the past. But a new thread on more or less the same topic every once in a while doesn't seem so bad to me.

Specifically, my attention has recently been drawn to the ubiquity of questions that feature one of the following in their title (approximate number of occurrences between brackets):

  • Proof/Prove [>15000q]
  • Help (me) [~2500q]
  • Question (about) [~7500q]
  • Problem [~5000q]
  • Show (that) [~5000q]
  • Please [~500q]

and the like. These clog up the search for related questions/duplicates because of the way the software works. This is unnecessary, because every question on MSE may be expected to be a Question asked by someone to Help them solve a Problem or find a Proof. My point is that these words have zero information content as far as MSE titles are concerned.

So, if you are editing a question, please consider rephrasing the title so as to avoid these words.

It's likely not worth our time to go back and visit/edit old questions just for the sake of this issue. But it doesn't hurt to keep it in mind when you're editing.


Thoughts welcomed, as well as additions to the list. Oh well, just respond as you deem fit.

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    $\begingroup$ So no more questions on the Travelling Salesman Problem?$\;\;$;-) $\endgroup$ – user642796 Oct 24 '13 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ In all seriousness, it might make sense to make an "Editor's Handbook" or similar. This topic has essentially been raised before, and there are likely other things that should be mentioned regarding making good edits to posts/questions (e.g., LaTeX only titles). $\endgroup$ – user642796 Oct 24 '13 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ @ArthurFischer Good idea. This could also make it easier to deal with those editors who toss (sometimes double!) dollar signs around everything and call that "improved formatting". $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Oct 24 '13 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ I really want to re-title this post as "To the editors: strip titles from “”, “”, “”, “”, etc. on-the-fly" but I'm not sure whether anyone else would find it funny. $\endgroup$ – Trevor Wilson Oct 24 '13 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ How about show as a synonym of prove? Would you want to remove that too? IE show this is equal to that. $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica Oct 24 '13 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Dgrin91 Yes. In almost all cases, deleting "Show" or "Show that" from the title will leave a better one. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Oct 24 '13 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that sometimes this conflicts with the directive not to have titles entirely composed of TeX (here's a recent example). I'd be inclined to say that that rule takes precedence over this one, but maybe this is discussion-worthy... $\endgroup$ – Micah Oct 27 '13 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Micah I think L_F does not advicate mechanical subtraction of the aforementioned words, but rather rephrasing the title. E.g., reducing "Help with proof" to "with" would not be a good idea. In your example, "Numerical solution of Poisson's equation satisfies [formula]" would be an improvement: it has searchable key words in the title. $\endgroup$ – user103254 Oct 27 '13 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ @user103254: Your proposed change involves two different kinds of improvements: 1) removing words that are actively harmful from a search standpoint (e.g., "question about why there are infinitely many primes" would be better off as "why are there infinitely many primes" so it doesn't show up as related to questions about the Minkowski question-mark function) and 2) adding terms that are helpful (which often requires a certain amount of subject-matter expertise). I agree that your title is better for both reasons 1) and 2)... $\endgroup$ – Micah Oct 27 '13 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ @user103254: ...but one might naively think that "[formula]" is also a (somewhat less) better title for reason 1) -- and also be more capable of coming up with it. $\endgroup$ – Micah Oct 27 '13 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Micah As you've probably noticed, the question body contains a more nuanced proposal than the title. This was precisely done for cases like "Show [TeX]". It is also why I addressed the editing population, who are more likely to take those other conventions in consideration. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Oct 28 '13 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ Closely related: Retitling Questions: a modest proposal $\endgroup$ – MJD Jun 24 '14 at 12:48
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I would agree that in most cases the words you mention are superfluous. A human editor should keep this in mind, and at least know that removing them might be considered a service to the community.

I would however vote against automatic solutions which actually prevent these words in titles. For most words you mention, I can imagine a scenario where the word in question actually makes sense. I wouldn't mind the software suggesting that a title might be badly chosen, but I'd prefer humans to have the last word on that decision. Here is a list of question titles I invented to support my point:

  • Is there a proof for the axiom of choice?
  • Geometric proof for the irrationality of $\pi$
  • How to help students to understand real numbers
  • Probability of a correct guess for a multiple-choice question
  • Solving Malfatti's construction problem using only a compass
  • Game-theoretic model of a quiz show
  • How many ways can you rearrange the letters in the word “please”?
    (This one is thanks to a comment by Grumpy Parsnip)
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    $\begingroup$ How many ways can you rearrange the letters in the word "please"? $\endgroup$ – Cheerful Parsnip Nov 4 '13 at 19:39
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Wouldn´t it be better that the search engine gets optimized and ignores those words ?

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    $\begingroup$ Yes it would. But I was so sceptical about that ever being implemented (with its site-specific nature) that I didn't bother to write a feature request. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Oct 24 '13 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ I believe it would be more appropriate to use the tags "proof" and "homework" (if they do exist) however I'm not sure if they are optimized for SE's. $\endgroup$ – alexyorke Oct 24 '13 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ That doesn't help with the (common) cases where those those words are more or less the only words in the title. $\endgroup$ – Jack M Oct 27 '13 at 8:50
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Okay, I have stripped those words from your title. (kidding)

I came prepared to downvote, but after reading the body of the Question, I agree: improving titles, to benefit future searches, is worth the effort.

Unfortunately it requires more thought than simply removing low-information content words. In context sometimes the predictable words are needed for clarity or grammar, and an automatic ban is overreaching...

But when I have occasion to otherwise edit posts, yes, improving the title is a rich target of opportunity.

Personal word/phrase title peeves not already noted:

  • asking "to proof" something

  • use of "quick" or "easy" in title

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I don't agree about proof/prove, as it may distinguish from merely asking about truth. "Is there a simple(r) proof of [some result]" seems a perfectly valid question title, and hard to strip of the word "proof". Which is not to say that one could strip "proof" without harm in many other cases. To some extent the same goes for "show", which is often synonym with "prove" anyway.

I would suggest one additional term to censor, "please". Together with "help" and "question", I wonder if it wouldn't be worth a feature request to simply forbid using these words in titles, producing an explanation that also incites using something specific to the question in the title.

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    $\begingroup$ What about the "HELP" (Homotopy Extension and Lifting Property) lemma from algebraic topology? I think banning words from titles will have too many negative ramifications... but maybe "Please" could be banned. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Nov 4 '13 at 10:57

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