# What should we do with poorly posed questions?

This is regarding Bill Dubuques post. After reading the discussion, I agree that the community should be more welcoming and friendlier. I personally am not sure what to do when someone asks poorly posed questions. (also see this) There are at least a few options:

• Vote to close.
• Vote down.
• Edit and make it a better question. (possibly putting words in the OP's mouth)
• Ignore it and answer anyway
• Edit and make it nicer, but leave a constructive comment for the OP about how to make it nicer in the future.

I don't really like any of these options, but the last one seems the most reasonable to me. I think it is important that as a community we should have an agreed upon standard, and reserve closing for unarguably poor questions.

The point of this post is: What should do about poorly posed questions?

Please post what you think, and hopefully we will be able to adopt the most supported answer.

Note 1: I don't care too much about the FAQ's say or don't say. It seems better to agree upon something as a group, and choose what we think is the right thing to do.

Note 2: When I refer to poorly posed questions, I mean questions possibly with interesting mathematical content, that are posed in a bad way, such as the imperative, or the exact way a question appears on an assignment.

• For starters I think we have to agree that simple (mathematically) questions that were obviously copied from a homework assignment sheet, posed imperatively and show no sign of work from the OP are very poor questions, which deserve to be closed. – Asaf Karagila Apr 24 '11 at 21:25
• @Asaf: Those are exactly the type of question I am asking about, and it is not clear to me that they should be closed. The fact is, most people don't read the FAQ's, and it seems reasonable for a first time asker, not understanding the site structure, to just post their question plain and simple. Should we just close it right away? I am not sure, hopefully this thread will clarify things. But I do think it is more constructive to help them the first time, and explain that in the future they should ask differently. (Then close the questions if they continue in the same way). – Eric Naslund Apr 24 '11 at 21:32
• If the question is imperatively telling me to prove DeMorgan's Laws for sets, I will vote to close it. Not only because this should be asked, and nicely, the user should also use the search button (I'm certain it has been proved before) and show their own work. – Asaf Karagila Apr 24 '11 at 21:47
• One possible solution to decrease indiscriminate closing is for Moderators to raise the bar (higher rep) for closing a question higher (possibly also charge some reputation points) while making the bar for opening a question lower (not sure how low). This would definitely make it a bit more friendly on new users. – Mark Apr 25 '11 at 0:54
• @Mark: Moderators don't have any more power to change the formal rules here (about closing, rep, flagging, whatever) than you do. – Hendrik Vogt Apr 25 '11 at 13:22

April 24th 2013 note: Please see the answer here: Proposal: ban verbatim homework questions which have no accompanying text, as it is significantly different from the proposed solution below.

This is my proposed solution:

If it is a users first time asking a question, (that is they have $0$ question asked) then edit the question to make it a bit more polite and understandable, and also leave a descriptive and helpful comment. The comment should be nice, and explain how to ask questions. Something along the lines of "@User_example: In the future when you ask a question here, try to tell us what you have tried so far, and what you are struggling with. That makes it a lot easier to answer, since asking in the imperative almost seems rude. Also, if it is homework, make sure to use the homework tag!"

If it is not a new user, then a similar comment should be left, and the post should be either downvoted or closed.

The idea is to give brand new users one or two breaks when adjusting to the current standards of the site.

I think this is slightly nicer to new users, since it is unreasonable to expect them to know how the site works the first time they ask a question. In all fairness, if you were to ask a math question on a site for the first time it seems reasonable to just ask the problem itself. At the same time, hopefully this solution shows that these types of questions are not desirable.

Any suggestions for improvement are welcome.

• @Eric I disagree that it is unreasonable to expect new users to know how the site (or, for that matter, human communication in general) works. There is ample history of old and ongoing questions and conversations. A person with some manners will observe the tone and the general level of the questions, before barking out. It is not unreasonable to expect people to have some manners, especially those who are asking you for help. – Alex B. Apr 25 '11 at 6:51
• @Alex: Unfortunately, the types of people who try to "get a feel" for a site before jumping in are now rather uncommon... a lot of people nowadays seem to be accustomed to "I want x now", and thus post without pausing to have a look at the FAQ, much less past threads. So I think Eric's sugar-coating might be a necessity. – J. M. is a poor mathematician Apr 25 '11 at 8:33
• @J.M. It is only a necessity if you are hell-bent on helping those "I want x now" types. Personally, I am not. I also don't think that better brought up people are a rarity. I often see good and thought out questions by new users on this site. It's just that the others are more noticeable. And besides, I don't agree with the general principle that if good manners on the internet are rare, it is unreasonable to expect them. This is our community and we decide on the rules by which the game is played. Nobody is forced to stay. But I find it reasonable to expect that those, who want help, adjust. – Alex B. Apr 25 '11 at 8:42
• I think closing is way more radical than downvoting. Keep the question around if anybody wants to answer it, but downvote (with explanation) to help the user know that things aren't right. (and even then, maybe the comment is good enough and a lack of upvoting or answering will guide the user's behavior). – Mitch Apr 25 '11 at 15:28
• @Alex But there are other folks who are interested only in the mathematics, not in etiquette, manners, grammar, homework issues, etc. Voting to close questions based on such extra-mathematical criteria prevents those folks from contributing valuable content to the site (and possibly alienates such folks). Instead of voting to close, why not simply downvote if these extra-mathematical matters bother you so much? (please do so constructively by leaving a comment). – Bill Dubuque Apr 25 '11 at 15:50
• @Eric: +1. I think this is really good advice. I'm happy to support it wholeheartedly. – user02138 Apr 25 '11 at 18:09
• @Eric: I appreciate your question and your proposed solution: Just as we're asking users to be thoughtful about the questions they ask and how they present the question, you've taken on the challenge to be thoughtful about how to respectively interact with a user, how to convey information about site norms, and how to answer various questions. I wish more here would do so; I'm hearing a lot of "It's my (our) way, or the highway." Good etiquette and respectful communication is a two way street. – Namaste Apr 25 '11 at 20:23
• ...If x and y are interacting, and x fails to observe (not necessarily universal) etiquette norms (which vary considerably from place to place, time to time), I think it's childish to respond by feeling justified to be rude. Either point out what troubles you (to the user!), or feel free to ignore the question. There are indeed user's who take time to get a feel for the site, test the waters, etc., who could easily feel intimidated by some of the rudeness readily seen on the site, the arbitrary closing of questions, etc., the judgments of merits of questions... – Namaste Apr 25 '11 at 20:31
• @Eric: I just wanted to let you know that I really liked the way you dealt with this uniform convergence question. I think that's a very good and nice way to deal with new users. – t.b. Apr 27 '11 at 23:57
• @Eric: +1 for your proposed solution. But regarding the question that Theo refers to in the above comment: I thought it wasn't cool to add the "homework" tag without clarification from the person asking? – ghshtalt Apr 28 '11 at 14:29

Questions should be closed only if they cannot be edited so as to make a useful question. This is a matter of the maximization of information.

In doing this, it's polite to leave a note to the OP explaining why the changes were made, and it's reasonable to request that the OP modify their posing in the future.

As far as questions which "imperatively" tell the reader to do something, this will be construed as impolite by some, but I personally don't see it as impolite. To claim that such a question is impolite is to claim that a substantial fraction of mathematics books are impolite (perhaps nearly every one I've read). If someone sees it as impolite I think they should take it upon themselves to edit the question into "polite" form, but I see it as an unnecessary edit.

• If the imperative is taken at face value, it is impolite here because it is a person asking for help by -telling others to help him. In a text, there is the authority of the text writer who is telling the exercise doer what to do, a well accepted pair of roles. – Mitch Apr 25 '11 at 1:16
• @Carl Can a question that will be answered by a straightforward google search be made "a useful question"? And if yes, then how? That's one of the issues under discussion. – Alex B. Apr 25 '11 at 6:48
• @Carl What do you propose if you see something impolite or offensive in a posed question or comments? Just politely editing it out and then helping the offensive poster out with their question? Do you think that this is a reasonable demand? – Phira Apr 25 '11 at 10:52
• @user9325: that is a hard question - help the behavior of the questioner by telling them what's wrong or save effort and just edit the question to help for everybody else. – Mitch Apr 25 '11 at 15:30
• @Alex Re google searches. I suppose there are some reasons for not trusting everything you find by google and so this gives an excuse for our leaving such simple questions here. The things that come to mind are subjects that are popular among cranks. While these subjects are rare, by refusing to allow that sort of question here, we force the naive questioner to take his chances. – Carl Brannen Apr 26 '11 at 2:06
• @user9325; The whole question of "polite or not" is one that is so non-mathematical, so determined by societal conventions, that I don't see why we would want to seriously debate it at a mathematics website. I say: "If you find a question impolite, then don't answer it." Others might say: "If you find a question impolite, you should respond in some specific way." But in my view, a lot of those specific ways are in themselves impolite. – Carl Brannen Apr 26 '11 at 2:08

If I see a (very polite and well-intentioned) recent question starting with "Sir,", then this is not welcoming and friendly to me. In varying degrees, the same holds for impolite or badly-written posts, too.

I do not understand why you feel that anyone is obligated to be friendly or polite to people who are not friendly or polite.

Basically, you are making here rules for good manners for answerers because it is unfriendly to have rules for good manners of questioners.

• Noone is obligated to be friendly to anyone, but if someone is (or appears to be) impolite to me, my experience shows that a good solution is to be polite nevertheless. Often this makes the other person politer, too. (If it doesn't, you're still free to downvote, vote to close, flag for moderator attention, leave a snappy comment, whatever you like.) – Hendrik Vogt Apr 25 '11 at 13:29
• @Hendrik: Yes, I agree that the leading by (polite) example is better than responding in a surly manner. – Mitch Apr 25 '11 at 15:32
• Another important point: Experience also shows that it helps being more polite than usual when you don't communicate with people face to face. (@user9325, just to practise being polite myself: I do understand your point and feel offended by some questions, too, but I try to be polite nevertheless.) – Hendrik Vogt Apr 25 '11 at 16:34
• @Hendrik I agree that it is a good solution to be polite nevertheless, but there is a difference between being polite in the face of impoliteness and being obligated/exhorted by others to do so. I hope this clarifies my position and why it bothers me when people write what "we" "should" do. – Phira Apr 25 '11 at 20:05
• All good points, here. My experience has taught me that "modeling" desired practices gets you much further than condemnation, or preaching, etc...whether it's modeling respectful, polite communication, or modeling strategies (e.g."thinking out loud" for how one might successfully approach a given problem. – Namaste Apr 25 '11 at 20:39
• @user9325: Ah, now I really understand what you mean by "obligated", thanks for the clarification. You're right, noone should try and force you to be polite. That in itself is impolite in my opinion. I only wanted to suggest being polite, and say that I made good experience with it. – Hendrik Vogt Apr 26 '11 at 17:45