This is not precisely a problem in my opinion, but I still think it should be addressed.

We very often see poorly worded questions here. (I asked a lot myself). It's well known that to ask a proper question one has to know half of the answer.

Usually, the community is happy to point out obvious errors and unclear points in the comments.

But sometimes, people give answers which utilize the 'weak points' of the question, even when it's obvious the OP was asking something else entirely.

I don't want to give examples, because there can be controversy for every particular question interpretation.

What I think about this tactic:

1) It's useful, because people need to learn how to formulate mathematical problems properly. Also, sometimes a 'trick' is expected for a particular question, and not a 'straightforward' answer.

2) It's not always good, because such answers will most likely be upvoted by the community and might discourage other people from giving more complete answers to the real question.

What do you think?

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    $\begingroup$ Related: Questions with “accidental” trivial answers $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Mar 28 '16 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ It can be good to encourage people to try and be precise in what they are asking. So that people don't accidentally spend their time answering the wrong question. What may be obvious to you is not obvious to everyone else. $\endgroup$ – mathreadler Mar 30 '16 at 10:16
  • $\begingroup$ I am feeling this post very strongly. I was recently slapped with a week long ban after asking some wordy questions. This led to people honing in on weak wording and generally just trolling me for how I'd asked the question. Also, many of the answers were just heckles and criticisms which didn't attempt to offer any helpful steps at all. At this crucial time in my study it is extremely annoying to feel targeted by users and suspended mostly thanks to their bad attitude. $\endgroup$ – Georgina Davenport Apr 8 '16 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ @GeorginaDavenport I don't have enough rep to see your deleted questions, but I can't see what "trolling" you're referring to. Are you referring to this or rather some wordy meta post? In general, it would be better if your questions are more to the point than this and don't link to external questions so much but rather have the entire question posted within math.stackexchange itself. $\endgroup$ – ahorn Apr 8 '16 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ That isn't what I'm talking about, but thanks. $\endgroup$ – Georgina Davenport Apr 9 '16 at 3:01

I think it is very dangerous to assume that the motives of an answerer are malignant. Just as we cannot occupy the mind of the one who asks the questions, we also cannot do so with the mind of the one who answers the questions.

It is the job of the person asking the question (i.e., the OP) to state the question clearly. I realize that English is not everyone's first language and I have sympathy for that, but the truth is that we conduct our business in English and therefore the OP needs to state clearly what (s)he/they is looking for in English.

Once the question has been set for a sufficiently long enough time and there is an answer that answers the question as asked, it is not proper to modify the question to reflect the original intent (which one can only assume that the person answering the question had no idea about). Rather, the OP should be told that (she)/they need to start another question.

I feel very strongly about this because I know all too well the frustration of painstakingly answering a question in good faith, only to have it changed on me. Each time I have appealed to a moderator, the moderator has sided with me and has had the OP reinstate the original question.

Thus, again, do not assume that whoever is answering is doing so in bad faith. You have no idea, nor do I. All we can do is answer the questions as we understand them.

  • $\begingroup$ "Once the question has been set for a sufficiently long enough time" Could you please quantify this? $\endgroup$ – quid Mod Mar 28 '16 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: Long enough that someone provided a complete answer to the question. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 28 '16 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Then I think it is potentially misleading, and redundant. I think you should remove it to make clear that your sole criterion is the existence of an answer, however hastily written it may be. $\endgroup$ – quid Mod Mar 28 '16 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: I think you are putting words in my, um, mouth. I do not care about hastily written answers. I care about those answers that are the result of hours of work. But to try to get me to commit to a definite time lapse as a policy...no, I cannot. I know when it's time to call the moderator, that's all. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 28 '16 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ What exactly am I putting in your mouth? You said: "Once the question has been set for a sufficiently long enough time and there is an answer that answers the question as asked" but according to your response "Once the question has been set for a sufficiently long enough time" has no meaning beyond "someone provided a complete answer to the question." It is thus redundant, and this redundancy is misleading. $\endgroup$ – quid Mod Mar 28 '16 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ If you do not care about hastily written answers you better should make this clear in your post. You do not. You talk about "answer the question as asked." Pointing out a trivial corner case only present due to an oversight in the formulation can pass this test. The meta question seems a lot more about this case than the one you describe in comments. What is your position on this type of answer? $\endgroup$ – quid Mod Mar 28 '16 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ @RonGordon, it appears my question was also poorly worded, as English is not my first language. I never meant that any answerer's intentions are bad. As you can see if you read my point number 1 at the end of the question. I actually think pointing out trivial cases is useful, I just think sometimes the answerer could ask for clarification in the comments before posting, especially if it seems likely that the OP did not consider this trivial case. I'm also against significantly rewording questions after some significant time (a week, perhaps?) had passed and there is a comprehensive answer. $\endgroup$ – Yuriy S Mar 28 '16 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @YuriyS: so what it looks like here is a meta answer - an example of what happens in the main site reproduced in Meta! How nifty - never happened to me before. Well, as Emily Latella would say...never mind! $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 28 '16 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ @quid: "You better make this clear in your post." Huh? I'm not up for it, so please, downvote the answer. It's irrelevant anyway. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 28 '16 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ I sympathize (and to an extent agree) with the sentiment. However, I would allow a relatively major edit during the grace period (5 minutes) and probably for a bit longer. Simply because the asker may get an OOPS-moment, e.g. realize that they forgot an important assumption, or notice a major typo. This applies with extra force, when the question became suspiciously trivial because of the omission. As I recall it the latter point rarely applies, when Ron chooses to answer, but IMHO this is an important proviso. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Mar 28 '16 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks. The 'problem' is that I think in fact we might mainly agree. @JyrkiLahtonen comment matches my view quite well. $\endgroup$ – quid Mod Mar 28 '16 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ @quid I agree with Ron Gordon that your statement, "your sole criterion is the existence of an answer, however hastily written it may be," is putting words in his mouth, specifically the "however hastily written it may be." I think there are two different situations being described here. In the first (cf. hardmath's answer), a user ignores that there is a request for clarification and quickly posts an answer containing a trivial counterexample. $\endgroup$ – Viktor Vaughn Mar 28 '16 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ @SpamIAm In retrospect I might better have left the half-sentence away, but: What other criterion but the existence of an answer is there given in this meta-answer as clarified in comments up to the point where I made the comment? None as far as I can see (if we admit that "answer" means "actual answer to the question" and not "existence of an answer post"). Please point to it if you can see one. So if there is no other criterion all other aspects of the answer are irrelevant. I highlighted what I consider to be a immediate consequence of what is written. $\endgroup$ – quid Mod Mar 28 '16 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ @SpamIAm well and I said "Pointing out a trivial corner case only present due to an oversight in the formulation can pass this test." This is not a hypothetical. The meta question was asked for a reason. $\endgroup$ – quid Mod Mar 28 '16 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ On "I agree with Jyrki that a short grace period of 5-10 minutes for clarification is probably good." Me too. Again my problem with this answer (and some earlier ones in other threads) is that they do not directly account for this. (And this is relevant in practice.) @SpamIAm $\endgroup$ – quid Mod Mar 28 '16 at 22:54

Very often community members will post Comments that seek clarification and/or point out the trivial result of taking the Question at face value. At the same time, of course, others may post Answers that (as you say) are based on the "weak points" of the original post.

It is not unusual for the clarification branch of the interaction to result in edits to the Question, thereby invalidating the Answers based on the trivial version or interpretation.

It may happen that those who posted these Answers complain that the Question has been changed, so that their trivial interpretation is no longer tenable. In some cases such posted Answers may have been so hastily done that they wind up in the review queues, possibly drawing a few down votes because of the apparent disconnect.

My view is that when someone goes ahead with an Answer when I've already posted a request for clarification on such a Question, they should be prepared to update their Answer to accommodate the clarification, if one appears. I would undertake to do the same.

  • $\begingroup$ What you are saying, I think, is that if someone posts a question, I answer it, and then that someone changes the question, I am under some sort of obligation to update the answer by responding to the changed question. I think, in 99% of cases, if subject to such an obligation (Terms of Service?), I would delete the answer. $\endgroup$ – ForgotALot Apr 2 '16 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ @ForgotALot: Perhaps you overlooked my qualification of such "obligation" that when posting the Answer, the "weak point" of the Question was already explicitly identified and known to the answerer. This is simply a matter of good faith, not of TOS. It may well be expeditious to go ahead and post an Answer that illustrates the "weak point". In the extreme this might take the form of an "answer" that says "there is no answer" or "nobody can do that". I'm not criticizing this tack, so much as noting the two approaches, requesting and waiting for a clarification vs. barging ahead. $\endgroup$ – hardmath Apr 2 '16 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ If the question was not accurate, and confusion will result if the OP changes the question, (s)he should consider deleting the question. $\endgroup$ – ahorn Apr 7 '16 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ @ahorn: Since the Question cannot be deleted without deleting all Answers to it, this seems to recommend throwing out the baby with the bath water. Recall that the meta-question here posits (in the title) "it's clear what the real question is" and (in the body) "obvious errors and unclear points". The Edit history (for questions and answers) is there for resolving the order in which changes are made, and StackExchange functionality is built around incremental improvements to content. $\endgroup$ – hardmath Apr 7 '16 at 11:15

I make a point of answering questions correctly in my tests, even when I think that the lecturer has not posed the question accurately. It is more truthful and valid than to try to answer a different question, that you think the questioner is intending to ask. In a test situation, it means losing marks, but I prefer to uphold my academic integrity. In any case, losing marks for a correct answer can technically be argued against afterwards.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem I have with this point of view is that MSE is not an exam - in spite of the fact that some answerers still think they are sitting in one. Not saying that the same would never apply to yours truly :-) $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 20 '16 at 9:06

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