I asked a short time ago whether there is a policy the following: If a question contains a mathematical error that could be pointed out in a posted answer, or is ill-formulated for reasons that could be explained in a posted answer, is that a reason to close the question, and more importantly, is there a standard policy or convention on that?

In that earlier posting I mentioned a specific example, and so everyone decided to comment only on that specific example. Therefore I will mention no actual examples here.

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    $\begingroup$ I deleted the earlier incarnation of the post. (edited) $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Apr 7, 2018 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ If an asker makes an error in their demonstrated effort, I appreciate the effort, and see no grounds to close. If an asker asks a problem statement question, "correct" or "incorrect", I will close "correct" as off topic, and the "incorrect/incomprehensible" as off topic or as unclear. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    Apr 7, 2018 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ Just an example that showed up an hour ago: here. Look like a pretty well-formatted question, but is still pretty unclear. I could just post an answer pointing out the error, but (1) it might not be useful to the OP, since they did not show how they have that incorrect statement, and (2) I don't think it is useful to other people. If that OP did not respond to that, I will vote to close as unclear. $\endgroup$
    – user99914
    Apr 7, 2018 at 18:26

2 Answers 2


When a question asks without detailed context to do something that is impossible or otherwise ill-posed due to errors, then it is usually "unclear" and should be closed as such. (Specifics should be pointed out in comments, so that OP can clarify.)

If there are details that allow to isolate the specific problem of an OP, it can make sense to provide a clarification of those as an answer.

If somebody asks "Why is two plus two equal to five?" then there are too many possible underlying causes for the problem to allow for a meaningful answer. A direct answer of the form: "It is not five, it is four." may actually not be helpful.

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't "or otherwise contains errors" include at least 25% of posted questions that get lots of upvotes and answers? $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2018 at 17:14
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    $\begingroup$ I changed that formulation to make the point more clear. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Apr 7, 2018 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ "A direct answer of the form: "It is not five, it is four." may actually not be helpful." How possibly can that not be helpful? $\endgroup$ Apr 10, 2018 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ @R_Berger for one thing, it could have been a typo and the intended question something else. Now of course this scenario is never excluded, but in a case where what is written does not make any sense, it does make sense to first check if what is written is even what was intended to be written. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Apr 10, 2018 at 23:22

Long answer:

Responding to

If a question contains a mathematical error that could be pointed out in a posted answer, or is ill-formulated for reasons that could be explained in a posted answer is that a reason to close the question, and more importantly, is there a standard policy or convention on that?

There is a lot of variations here, each quite different. Let me go through a few with some examples (disclaimer: most, if not all, will be answers I gave simply because it is easier to remember the cases where this happened with me).

  • The question contains an error because it is about the error (or potential error).

This may seem rhetorical, but could be an interpretation of the situation you are asking. Obviously (I think), a question should not be closed because of that. Here is an example.

  • The question is ill-formulated, in the sense that the person asking is missing some subtlety to make the question completely meaningful, but not in the sense that it is wrong.

Since this case may seem a little abstract, here is an example. I believe this case is a little more complicated and can have a lot of variation. For instance, answering these kinds of questions can be inviting yourself to a discussion which goes nowhere. And these kinds of question can oftenly fall under "unclear what you are asking". If that is the case, I would expect that closing would not be a clear-cut decision. Some people are more lenient towards unclear questions, some less.

  • The question is wrong (i.e., asking a false statement).

I could not find an example for this, but I think that someone asking "Prove that $(0,1)$ with the standard topology is compact" would be good. Consider that it is also contextualized, for the sake of that not entering the point here.

This may also fall under the "unclear what you are asking" case. I don't know if the person would be content with knowing that $(0,1)$ is not compact, or if the person wants an example of a simple compact set and for some reason thought that this example should be true, or if they meant to say $[0,1]$. I could put all those things together in an answer and still not touch what OP wanted. And it is not clear for other users what OP wanted. Again, there is a high degree of personal interpretation if this is low quality or not, so closing is highly personal and dependent on the specific instance.

EDIT: Found one perfect example.

  • The question has no context and is wrong.

This is a case where I am very inclining to closure, but I admit this is personal. Risking myself to be putting words in another person's mouth (and also risking mentioning part of the fuss of the now-deleted question, but because I think that there is a good point there), when it was said that "the question has no context and is mathematically wrong" I believe that you read this as the question (has no context) and (is mathematically wrong), but it should be read as the question (has no context and is mathematically wrong). Saying that this justifies a closure does not mean that each reason, separately, justifies it. It means that the adjuction of those two characteristics makes it a low quality question. At least, that is what I gathered from that, and I agree that this is, in general, good reason to close a question.

Quick answer:

Directly and solely because of that, no (in general). But the particular way that the error is embedded in a question may be related to other issues which justify closure.

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    $\begingroup$ This whole "no context" thing is something that I doubt has ever been sufficiently explained. If someone posts "Compute the following integral." and nothing more (besides the integral), then it's not clear that there is any question present in the poster's mind; it's probably just copied from a textbook with no understanding. If that is what "no context" means, then I understand it. I wonder if in some cases something else that makes sense is intended. $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2018 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy 'This whole "no context" thing is something that I doubt has ever been sufficiently explained'. True, but also true for "too broad" and "unclear what you are asking", for that matter (maybe even worse for these cases). This is unavoidable: there are extremes like you point out, and a grey area which is difficult to discern. And unless a better idea emerges, the status quo seems fair enough (the "democracy" of votes, with meta post for controversial situations). $\endgroup$
    – Aloizio Macedo Mod
    Apr 8, 2018 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ Grey areas and borderline cases are not the same as lack of definition. $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2018 at 4:19
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy There is some explanation about context in How to ask a good question. It seems that several users find this explanation detailed enough - for example, this was chosen as the duplicate target for this question: What Do We Mean by “Context”? $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2018 at 4:27
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy If you click on "Off-Topic" after initiating a vote to close, you can then click on a link which explains what providing context is supposed to mean. The first answer, which explicitly says "Provide context", explains quite thoroughly what can be considered as "context". The grey area most times is regarding what is or should be sufficient enough context. $\endgroup$
    – Aloizio Macedo Mod
    Apr 8, 2018 at 4:27
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    $\begingroup$ You missed one case: The question is one of many crank posts from the same user. =) $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Apr 8, 2018 at 6:05
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy: (example comment) For future reference, posts that appear to be simple cut-and-paste exercises are very likely to be downvoted and/or closed. If an exercise is assigned to you, you should at least attempt the problem before posting here and use that attempt to add "context" to the post beyond the mere restatement of the problem. For example, are there similar exercises which you already saw worked, or does the exercise seem intended to reinforce material you recently covered? While evident to you this sort of context can only be guessed at by Readers without your contribution. $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Apr 8, 2018 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ @hardmath : Your comment seems largely a repetition of part of my comment. $\endgroup$ Apr 8, 2018 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHardy: It is an actual example of how I explain to users what they need to do to avoid having Questions closed for lack of context. Since your Comment expressed doubt as to whether lack of context "has ever been sufficiently explained," I thought it worthwhile to post it here. If it largely concurs with your Comment, that is a good thing. $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Apr 8, 2018 at 14:20

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