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Moderators have long had access to a tool for converting answers into comments. The guidance for this tool reads as follows:

Answers should be converted to comments when they contain useful information, but do not answer the question.

This sets some pretty lenient requirements for the use of the feature; strictly-speaking, you could convert any answer that didn't successfully solve the asker's problem to a comment without violating it. This probably wasn't the intended goal, but (sad to say) I've more than once seen it used as a rep-denial mechanism for lazy-looking answers that no-one felt like downvoting. This just ain't right... And it's our fault for providing crappy guidance to new moderators.

The Not an Answer flag once had this problem as well, which we attempted to address by tweaking the wording slightly. Subsequent hairsplitting aside, I tend to think this has at least made life less confusing for the more engaged users (and moderators, who - with sufficient hair-splitting - have an easy-to-defend reason for declining flags on answers that someone just doesn't want to downvote). I think it's high time to remove the ambiguity for Convert to Comment as well.

Here's my revised guidance:

Answers should be converted to comments when they do not attempt to answer the question, but do provide useful information or requests for clarification pertinent to another post.

My rationale for this change is that "convert to comment" is most useful and least abusive when it is used to preserve comments from users who do not have the reputation to comment, and so post their (useful) comments as answers. It is not meant as a way to convert useless answers into useless comments, or deny reputation from useful answers. Therefore, the guidance should clearly state the requirement that a given post make no attempt to provide an answer, and also make note of the sorts of comments worth preserving (errata).

Anyone have any objections to this change (or improvements to my wording)?

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I think I have done this once or twice. Also, the new wording needs emphasis on one part: "... when they do not attempt to answer the question, but do ..." to make it standout. – AsheeshR Sep 10 '13 at 2:18
I definitely like that wording much better. – Andrew Barber Sep 10 '13 at 2:51
What does "or requests for clarification pertinent to another post" mean? @comments masquerading as answers? Oh, and while we're splitting verbiage hairs, can we do something (one way or another) about this? – Robert Harvey Sep 10 '13 at 3:10
"most useful [...] users who do not have the reputation to comment" but this can be a problem as well. It encourages users without enough reputation to knowingly post comments as answers since in the worst case it'll just be converted to a comment by a mod. – Servy Sep 10 '13 at 3:17
@Servy: The system has always encouraged that. – Ryan O'Hara Sep 10 '13 at 3:20
@Servy: There was a time when I just summarily deleted comments posted as answers from users with insufficient rep to comment (under the theory that I was acting as a proxy for them being able to comment without having earned the privilege), but nowadays if a comment contains useful information like a link to a valuable resource (something that decidedly does not belong in an answer absent sufficient context), I favor preservation over destruction. – Robert Harvey Sep 10 '13 at 3:20
A (non-obsolete) request for clarification from the author of another post, such as a higher-rep user might have posted as a comment. @Robert. And... sure. – Shog9 Sep 10 '13 at 3:22
So basically you're talking about a comment asking for clarification that should have been posted as a comment, but got posted as an answer instead because the user hadn't earned the privilege yet, decided that they just couldn't help themselves, and posted an answer instead? I've got a tool for those posts; it's called the BFG-3000. – Robert Harvey Sep 10 '13 at 3:24
In the worst case, it'll just be deleted, @Servy. And that also happens to be the common case, by a pretty wide margin. The folks who can write useful comments but don't have the rep to post them as comments tend to be a minority at the best of times - I wouldn't worry too much about discouraging folks from gaming the system by posting really useful stuff, even if excessive converted-to-answer-comments didn't result in q-bans. See also: – Shog9 Sep 10 '13 at 3:25
OK, well if you're going to do that, I'd just drop the words "pertinent to another post." "Requests for clarification" is sufficient; everyone knows what that is. – Robert Harvey Sep 10 '13 at 3:29
Heh... Realistically, these are almost never worth preserving on SO because they become obsolete so quickly. On some other sites, there are few enough experts in niche areas that getting someone new to show up and evaluate a niche question is hard enough that it makes sense to bend over backwards a bit for them when they're being helpful. @Robert – Shog9 Sep 10 '13 at 3:30
I can get on board with that. Seriously, though "pertinent to another post" is really confusing. To me, anyway. – Robert Harvey Sep 10 '13 at 3:31
@Robert Harvey: I think it will be less confusing in the UI because you will be looking at a post that is nominated to become a comment. On the other hand, cutting it out would make the message shorter. Hmmmm... – Jon Ericson Sep 10 '13 at 4:26
would this mean sort of official prohibition to convert link-only answers? And oh, if you're going to wash my brain with downvote-this / edit-this advice, first help me understand how it could make sense when there are 24K positive score posts of this kind (and over 1K of these have score 10+ – gnat Sep 10 '13 at 14:47
I don't yet have data to discuss this in depth. So far though, it looks like yeah, that "broken" query reveals a fair amount of close/delete-worthy questions. As for what to encourage, I tend to stick with the perspective presented here: "If a link-only answer is accepted, it is especially important to delete it (converting to a comment if the link isn't broken yet)... If a question has an accepted answer which consists solely of a link, this sends the wrong message..." I am thinking of drawing the line between pearls and sand here – gnat Sep 10 '13 at 18:28

Combining Robert's guidance with my own:

Answers should be converted to comments when they do not attempt to answer the question. A comment should ask for more information or suggest improvements to the post; poor or incomplete answers should simply be downvoted or improved.

Leads with a description of what the tool should be used for, ends by explicitly calling out scenarios where it isn't appropriate. (Hyphen on "down-vote" removed for consistency at Anna's request)

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Looks good to me. – Robert Harvey Sep 10 '13 at 19:51
Shucks I was hoping to sneak in one hyphenated "down-vote" to set the precedence. Downvote is not a word. grin – Robert Cartaino Sep 10 '13 at 19:55
@RobertCartaino Wait till I go on vacation and then change all the copy. ;) – Adam Lear Sep 11 '13 at 0:54

The criteria I use to convert an answer to a comment is a misuse of the answer function. The word misuse is key here. Poor or incomplete answers should be dealt with through voting and editing, but comments should not be used as a repository for "poor answers."

I tried to lay out that distinction very concisely.

Here is my improved guidance:

Convert to comment when the author is misusing the answer function. A converted comment should ask for more information or suggest improvements to the post; poor or incomplete answers should simply be down-voted or improved.

share|improve this answer
It's debatable (at least to me) if a user with insufficient privileges to comment posts clarifications in the form of an answer is really "misuse". Since this is the best use-case for converting to comment, it seems like employing (and bolding) the word "misusing" will lead newish moderators into either considering further sanctions against the user or being reluctant to use the function in the cases we really want them to. It would be better to focus on the distinction between a comment and an answer, since the line is often subjective and fine. – Jon Ericson Sep 10 '13 at 14:52

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