# How should we treat subjective titles?

One big problem that can plague Q&A sites is the subjectivity within the variety of topics. In our community one person might find it interesting to deal with algebraic geometry, while another will find that tedious and would prefer to work on Banach spaces, and so on.

How should we avoid (as best as possible) from the use "Interesting" and similar words, as well "Easy"/"Hard" adjectives - preferably both in the body of the post as well in the title?

From one side it is not unusual that the OP finds the question interesting, and hopes that others may share his enthusiasm, while on the other hand it can be quite tiresome to see "Interesting X" (replace X by something you find tedious) lurking on the front page.

Edit: To clarify, while I do not like the use of subjective words in titles I do know that at times they are used in a particular way, and I am willing to accept this occurring, what I cannot stand (which explains why I usually sit down when checking the website) is the titles that reveal absolutely nothing about the question and being subjective.

Some examples: (no offense to the askers)

• More seriously, I wonder how far we can get by simply asking them to change their titles? I feel out of place changing their title for them, unless this is something that we feel should be done. – davidlowryduda Jul 26 '11 at 17:20
• While we're at it, what should we do about titles that are merely "A tricky problem in topic X!"? Sometimes even the "topic X" part is not there. – Rahul Jul 26 '11 at 17:29
• In my opinion this is dangerously bordering censorship and should be avoided like the plague. Mathematics is full of many beautiful observations and one should welcome them - not attempt to censor them. I will not participate in any community that does such. – Bill Dubuque Jul 26 '11 at 18:40
• @Bill: Firstly, I am not promoting any editing. I am asking whether or not it is a personal pet peeve or is it something of consensus. Either way, I disagree that writing "Help me with this interesting but hard problem" has any beautiful insight as a title. I want to know what is inside before opening up, or at least get a hint. In most questions with such title I do not find anything I consider interesting. – Asaf Karagila Jul 26 '11 at 18:48
• @Asaf Then simply ignore it and move on. Don't propose solutions to non-problems that could highly insult those who go to great pains to expose the beauty in mathematics. – Bill Dubuque Jul 26 '11 at 18:51
• @Bill: And what if this is a really interesting question? Why should I miss that just because of a poor title? – Asaf Karagila Jul 26 '11 at 19:01
• @All: I asked who I believe to have been the inspiration for this post to write a title more descriptive of the question, and he did. And this is how I like it. As I stated previously, I still feel out of place editing their titles for them. – davidlowryduda Jul 26 '11 at 19:06
• @Asaf Do you object to the word "gems" in the title of Honsberger's award-winning Dolciani expositons "Mathematical Gems"? Would you change the title of "A Beautiful Mind" to "A Mind"? – Bill Dubuque Jul 26 '11 at 19:08
• @mix Generally, I think it is fine to post polite comments requesting more descriptive titles. There are already folks who find our community "unwelcoming" to new users. Let's not propose policies that could make matters much worse. – Bill Dubuque Jul 26 '11 at 19:16
• @Bill: I have asked what should be done about uninformative and subjective titles. As for "Gems" and "A Beautiful Mind", these are books not questions on a Q&A site. Also if I am not mistaken, the former is a collection of many problems, and not just one question; the latter is a prosaic biography. Not a mathematical question in a website. – Asaf Karagila Jul 26 '11 at 19:26
• @Bill: I used to think that I have extreme analogies. Since I cannot prove the existence of a soul, I will refrain from attempting to rip it. I do like your suggestion about ripping out their hearts. Let's do that. – Asaf Karagila Jul 26 '11 at 19:38
• Why not choose to ignore all questions that have subjective words like "interesting" and "beautiful" in the title. Perhaps there should be a section in the FAQ about creating a good title. – Jay Jul 26 '11 at 22:44
• FWIW: it takes me as much willpower to ignore the words "interesting" and its ilk as it takes to ignore those "move these comments to chat" prompts. :) – J. M. is a poor mathematician Jul 27 '11 at 2:02
• @Asaf The problem with all that titles is not subjectivity but lack of actual description of the question. Title should be informative, not objective. – Grigory M Aug 13 '11 at 13:00
• @Asaf I agree with Grigory. The problem with the listed example titles has little to do with the use of subjective words. In such cases I think it is fine to edit the titles to make them more descriptive. But such editing should not include removal of subjective terms used by the OP (except, of course, if they violate site norms, such as being offensive, spam, etc). – Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '11 at 15:51

The problem with most titles from OP, as Asaf himself puts it "If you can look at these titles and tell me anything meaningful on the questions <...> you're a better magician than me.". And that is the real problem: not subjective titles, but uninformative titles. So let's discuss the later problem, not the former one (which, frankly speaking, looks non-existent to me).

• ...And the problem with questions like "What is the most important number in maths" has nothing to do with its title (note that it's closed and heavily downvoted). – Grigory M Aug 13 '11 at 16:19

Okay, this is a sort of a poll-answer. Vote up if you agree with the following sentiment. Vote down if you don't.

It is certainly true that we should avoid the use of titles with subjective words such as "interesting, boring, easy, hard, tedious, tricky, etc." The use of such words in a title likely prevents the title from actually containing the content of the question. We should therefore consider editing the title so that it does not contain such subjective titles, and so that it describes the actual question if necessary (perhaps after brief discussion on meta).

In short, we should edit the titles.

• I suspect many folks would be quite insulted if one edited their texts to delete such words as interesting, beautiful, gem etc. I certainly would. The risk of alienating folks is far higher than any space regained. Better to let sleeping dogs lie. – Bill Dubuque Jul 26 '11 at 18:35
• I find that good editing is the answer to 80% of all problems on any Stack Exchange site. – Jeff Atwood Jul 26 '11 at 18:44
• @Jeff Censorship is not "good editing". Please refrain from advocating such. – Bill Dubuque Jul 26 '11 at 18:47
• @bill how is editing censorship? Because every word is sacred? That's not what the faq says – Jeff Atwood Jul 27 '11 at 2:39
• @Jeff Suppose eminent mathematician ABC joins the site. In a first post, ABC mentions a beautiful little-known proof of XYZ that deserves to be better known. If someone edits that post to censor the word "beautiful" then there is probably good chance that we will lose ABC forever. I know many folks who'd never participate in a site that censors such subjective remarks. They are crucial for pedagogical purposes, e.g. conveying intuition. FYI: At the highest levels mathematics is an art as much as a science. As such, beauty often plays a large role (something not well-known to most laypersons). – Bill Dubuque Jul 27 '11 at 3:19
• There is no reason to argue by giving artificial or extreme examples. As with everything, good judgement needs to be applied. If one isn't sure of one's own good judgement, one should refrain from making such edits. But there are plenty of obvious cases. If somebody writes as a title "a tricky homework problem", then editing the title to something more useful has nothing to do with censorship. One would even do the person a favour, because he would note that his title was not terribly well-chosen and would hopefully learn for the future. – Alex B. Aug 13 '11 at 15:58
• @Alex Why do you think the example is "artificial" or "extreme"? I have seen such examples in many other forums. Are you proposing that it is OK to delete subjective terms such as "tricky" from the title? If so then I strongly disagree. That amounts to censorship and should not be tolerated in any form whatsoever. – Bill Dubuque Aug 13 '11 at 16:41
• @Bill I still maintain that editing out useless "information" is not censorship. Most of these "tricky" homework questions are not so tricky in the eyes of the answerer, so the word doesn't convey anything useful. In mathematics, crisp and to the point formulations are something that one needs to learn, and this site is not a bad place to learn it. But it looks like we will have to agree to disagree here and let the majority decide. – Alex B. Aug 14 '11 at 4:17
• @Alex While you may not find such subjective words useful, please keep in mind that others may. Such words often convey very useful information to the answerer. I am always interested in what sort of questions students find "tricky" since they may reveal useful pedagogical information, e.g. gaps or rough spots in standard expositions, or methods that have not been presented at the right level of generality, etc. Any useful meta-level knowledge should be welcomed since, generally, there is far too little contextual information presented in most questions. – Bill Dubuque Aug 14 '11 at 5:01

This is simply something we have to consider on a case by case basis.

Sometimes, the use of a subjective word or phrase adds nothing to the question, and causes annoyance among some users. Among such cases, it will sometimes be appropriate to edit or request an edit. Of course, the judgment that it adds nothing to the question is subjective, but that need not stop us from trying to improve the quality of questions when we deem it appropriate.

Other times, a subjective word or phrase may be essential to the question. In 52319, I ask for a "nice" description of all measurable multiplicative maps on $\mathbb C$. In 3215, Aryabhata asks for a "simple (and preferably elementary)" proof that $\sqrt{n}\sin\sin\cdots\sin 1$ ($n-1$ iterations of $\sin$) converges to $\sqrt 3$. In 35623, Theo Buehler asks for an "easy" example of an infinite dimensional Banach space $X$ and a nonempty compact subset of $\mathbb C$ that is not the spectrum of a bounded operator on $X$. These are just a few examples that come readily to mind, and it would bother me if any of these subjective words were removed. Note that these examples all seem to have been well received as written.

It might be a good idea for certain uses of subjective words to be discouraged in the FAQ. For example, I would hope that no one would ask a question here without being interested in it, and therefore calling the question itself interesting often seems like noise to me (I'd rather not pick on a particular case, but there have been questions phrased similarly to "Will you help me solve this interesting problem on X?" with no context to illuminate the use of "interesting"). On the other hand, if the OP explains why the particular problem is interesting, this may provide useful and informative motivation.

• One of my favorite subjective titles is Bruno Joyal's A fun Pascal-like triangle: It's a very nice question (but it only asks for interesting properties, so nothing all-too-specific), the fun part is amply justified by the contents and it indicates that the OP doesn't expect there to be anything "deep" or "useful", but still wanted to share it. Editing out the subjective and non-informative parts would mutilate one of the nicer questions that I've seen here so far. – t.b. Aug 12 '11 at 19:53
• @Theo: Thanks, I hadn't seen that question, and it's a good example. Whether or not others agree that it is fun, putting "fun" in the title helps describe the motivation for the problem. – Jonas Meyer Aug 12 '11 at 20:00
• @Jonas It is important to keep in mind that the users of this site span many different knowledge levels. What is interesting, difficult, beautiful, etc. to one may be completely trivial to another. A leading expert in some field might consider everything discussed here to be trivial. Does that mean we should disallow such subjective terms so as not to offend an expert? Of course not! This is by charter a general level math site. One should respect the subjective judgements of junior colleagues. Knowing that a problem is difficult, or interesting is useful context to answerers. Leave it be! – Bill Dubuque Aug 12 '11 at 20:16
• @Jonas: In all three links, the title of the question was devoid of subjective words. I have no problem with "spicing" your post with subjective adjectives, if your post is well written and the general notion of "nice" or "easy" is to some extent clear to the possible answerer (I would not expect a freshman economics student coming to ask about statistics and finance to answer Theo's linked question, for example). My grievance is directed only towards titles that imply the question has subjective properties, and less on its content. In fact, "A simple proof of Fermat's last theorem" is fine. – Asaf Karagila Aug 12 '11 at 20:51
• @Asaf: It is incidental that those titles are devoid of subjective words; the subjective words are integral to the questions. In the case of my question, I guess it was sort of of a marketing decision; I left out the word "nice" to make the title more snappy. (BTW, you wrote "both in the body [and] title.") Nonetheless, thank you for clarifying that you are only referring to subjective words modifying the question itself, which I didn't know from your original question. In that case, however, I think that Theo provided an example where even that can work well. – Jonas Meyer Aug 12 '11 at 21:05
• @Jonas: I wrote preferably, this does clarify - but does not modify. As for Theo's example, I don't find the fun in that either. However Theo's comment also explains the use of the word "fun", as opposed to my original intent which was against titles as "Oh my, the most interesting problem in math!!!11" (if you allow me this hyperbole :-)), and of course that when you open the question you will find some attempt to defile the axiom of choice by proving somehow that all cardinalities are countable... – Asaf Karagila Aug 12 '11 at 21:30