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There are no stupid questions - or are there?

Sometimes I get downvoted for basic programming questions and people tell me to read a textbook. What type of question is simply too basic for Stack Overflow, and is there a site in the network that would entertain these questions?

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If the question is basic, but clear (i.e. you know what exactly you're trying to do), then it's probably already asked and answered on SO. For instance, this one is already there (only titles on meta tend to be a lot more random than on SO). (flagging as duplicate) –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 16 '12 at 4:28
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How about reading a textbook? :P –  CodesInChaos Nov 16 '12 at 10:24
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marked as duplicate by animuson, Rosinante, Bo Persson, Time Traveling Bobby, amanaP lanaC A nalP A naM A Nov 16 '12 at 16:13

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

3 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Stack Overflow is for Professional programmers and programming enthusiasts. We expect a certain level of skill from people that ask questions, but the bar is not really that high.

If you can:

  • Make your language of choice print "Hello, World!"
  • Write a loop so your language of choice does the above several times
  • Obtain and process user input

... then you are quite capable of asking a perfectly valid programming question, albeit basic. We don't (or at least should not) actively discourage questions that demonstrate a clear lack of skill, we actively discourage questions that demonstrate a clear lack of effort.

Make sure your question:

  • Succinctly summarizes the problem you're trying to solve, to the extent that you understand the problem.
  • Shows what you think is the problematic code, and why you think it's problematic
  • Indicates what you have tried, or at least where you have looked to solve the problem yourself
  • Is properly formatted and employs correct grammar and spelling to the best of your ability

If you can do just that, then noise like 'read a book' is just that, noise. If you honestly feel that you aren't using the site to avoid doing the work that makes us all better at what we do - then take it with a grain of salt.

Given the size of our community, you will sometimes encounter a crotchety Sanka-drinking neckbeard that can't stand whipper snappers on their lawn. That's not at all exclusive to Stack Overflow. You know if you've done your research. If you haven't - then don't ask until you have. It's pretty simple :)

There is currently no site in the network that is geared for questions like:

I want to write an accounting system in Java, where do I start?

This isn't because people aren't interested in helping someone get a start, it's because the Q&A format of Stack Exchange as a whole is not well suited to entertaining these types of questions. Our engine rather depends on the majority of questions asked receiving an answer that can be considered the most technically sound, well written solution.

To answer your question directly, it would depend on what language you were working with and what communities existed outside of Stack Exchange to support beginners in the language.

I highly recommend just learning the basic constructs of your language, studying some of our highly up-voted questions and endeavoring to ask your own with comparable quality. Your skill as a programmer has little bearing on your ability to articulate a question, that's an entirely different skill.

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+1 +1 +1 - "Your skill as a programmer has little bearing on your ability to articulate a question, that's an entirely different skill." Thank you for articulating the difference between a well-written, welcomed, basic question and a poorly written, non-researched question. Asking a great question truly does have little to do with programming skill and more to do with one's dedication to learning via investing time and energy into researching the problem at hand. –  jmort253 Nov 16 '12 at 8:17
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@jmort253 Don't entirely agree. Good coders are not always articulate, but they are usually capable of posting a question whose intent is useful, even if it needs editing assistance to give it clarity. The truly useless questions on this site are almost almost all created by people who are either too lazy, too ignorant or too incompetent (sometimes all three) to have put in the necessary thought. Good coders rarely post truly useless questions. –  itsbruce Nov 16 '12 at 13:23
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@itsbruce - Let's not get too lost in semantics. s/articulate/post researched questions/g. Then I think you'll agree. ;) –  jmort253 Nov 16 '12 at 15:53
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"We don't actively discourage questions that demonstrate a clear lack of skill" Yes, we do. If by "we" you mean "the community at large." Asking a basic question on SO will result in downvotes, or even complaints of people up-voting well-posed albeit basic questions. –  John Dibling Nov 16 '12 at 16:14
    
@JohnDibling While valid, the question shows no effort. Lack of skill augmented by a lack of effort is always going to spell disaster. Still, yes, it is a valid question, but you have to court your audience when asking for something. That's .. just .. common sense. –  Tim Post Nov 16 '12 at 16:41
    
@TimPost how would you "research" that, other than reading a C tutorial? Do you really want the op to write something like "I tried Googling X, Y, and Z phrases, but couldn't find any link that explains this"? –  McGarnagle Nov 16 '12 at 17:25
    
@dbaseman If the OP had searched, we would not be talking about this. –  Tim Post Nov 16 '12 at 17:37
    
@TimPost my point is, that's not something you can search for using a search engine. And if you're a beginner, you don't really know where to look. How is this not the domain of a Q&A site?? –  McGarnagle Nov 16 '12 at 17:55
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The tooltip text for downvoting reads as follows:

This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful

People pointing you to read a textbook is an indicator - to me, at least - that it's a question that could have been answered in a non-subjective way by simply Googling it, which would fit the "doesn't show any research effort" criteria of downvoting.

Generally, if your question can be answered with common sense, by typing the exact question (or a similar one) into a search engine, or through a language's reference pages, it's likely too simple to ask on SO.

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Does this answer the question, or is it a comment on the comment in the question? –  RichardTheKiwi Nov 16 '12 at 3:10
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I suppose sorta both. His original question (before being edited) omitted the second sentence entirely. –  Nightfirecat Nov 16 '12 at 3:49
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You can try answers.yahoo.com, or e-e.com, which for a small fee will abscone you from even the little bit of Google research for the really stupid questions.

I see from your profile that you are a student hence the nature of questions, but this is the phase in life where you go out and find the answers to everything by looking and researching, not posting and waiting!

You can also go to specific forums for specific questions, such as MSDN Transact-SQL forum where you might get a bit more leeway than StackOverflow (for really stupid questions).

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The original question had no "within the network" qualifier. –  RichardTheKiwi Nov 16 '12 at 6:41
    
Yeah, that was me. This question has come up tangentially in several recent discussions, and I did understand his title (which I didn't edit) to mean within the SE network. I just edited it to make it a bit more clear. Still, all answers are valid, since we don't (and probably will not ever) have a site well suited for it. –  Tim Post Nov 16 '12 at 9:31
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