First of all - I'm not going to bitch and moan to moderators in this topic. I'm here to ask clarification because I've had a flag declined and I really have no clue what I did 'wrong', or how to avoid the same 'mistake' in the future.

I flagged this answer as Not an answer, because the description of that flag states:

  • Not an answer. This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

It was declined as follows:

Declined flag

As I said in the comment below, before flagging it, it's technically a completely valid comment, there's nothing wrong with it on its own, it just does not remotely attempt to solve the question in any way. It's like someone asks "What's your favorite color?" and you answer "Today's Tuesday". While a perfectly correct statement on its own, it does not attempt to answer the question, and should have been a comment. Which is the exact description of the Not an answer flag, so I selected that flag, and it was declined because I should not have flagged it for "technical inaccuracies or wrong answers".

I was under the impression that all remarks that might be technically correct, but do not solve issues directly related to the question at hand, should be added as comments, not answers, since they pollute the 'Knowledge Base' aspect of the site for future visitors. If this is not enforced, the flag should be renamed to "Not relevant to question" or something like that.

(the original post also contained a reference to another declined flag, but that was sufficiently explained to stem from different interpretations of what is considered 'spam' and thus removed as not to pollute the discussion on the other one)

  • 5
    I can certainly understand why the spam flag was declined; it's an appalling question but it's not necessarily spam... Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:28
  • Well, I read the post a few times before flagging it, and in the end decided it looked all too much like the crap I fish out of spam filters on a daily basis - fake somewhat ontopic incoherent content surrounding a link, hoping people will click it out of interest. I admit it's the weaker case of these 2 examples. Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:45
  • I'll edit the part about the declined spam out, I understand the post in question could either be seen as spam or not, and is not considered such within SO interpretation. I'll keep that in mind :) The other one has sparked an interesting discussion below so hopefully cleaning up the post to focus on that gives it more attention. Commented May 14, 2013 at 22:01

2 Answers 2


The first answer is still an answer. It may be wrong, it is still an attempt at an answer. "Not an aswer" should be used for:

  • Thanks, that solved it! -- thanking is not answering
  • Why are you using regular expressions? You should totally use a parser! -- critique and asking for clarifications
  • My question is: how do you know the answer to the ultimate question is 42? -- new questions posted as an answer.
  • Your exact question was answered in this forum post: [link] -- link-only answer with no context.

Moderators are not expected to judge answers on technical merits; too many topics, too few moderators, too much scope for uneven moderation if they did.

It is not an answer in your view because it proposes a totally different approach. It may be a dumb approach, may be avoiding answering the actual question even, but saying it is not an answer would require a judgement on technical merit.

  • Your forgot Nothing but a URL answers. And, really, the first is a non-sequitur. Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:37
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    But your clarification all the more means that the 'Not an answer' description is right out wrong. It was not an attempt at an answer to the question, the question was about layout, and the answer was a completely unrelated remark about the semantics of the HTML. And if you can give an advanced and technically semantically correct alternative markup, you also know it has nothing to do with implementing "A variable width div to hold paragraph elements?". It was relevant, but still not an answer. That's my point. The examples you give all boil down to "Irrelevant to original question". Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:37
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    I disagree that the first question was an attempt to answer the question. It looks like the answerer knew it was an offtopic tangent and was merely suggesting an improvement to the code unrelated to the question being asked, which makes it an appropriate comment, but not an answer.
    – Servy
    Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:37
  • @Niels: The moderators cannot judge answers on technical merits. Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:37
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    Well, I hope some can Martijn :-). Maybe "All moderators cannot possibly judge all technical content and so a conscious decision has been made to not judge the technical content of any post in order to ensure even moderation across the site." Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:43
  • @MartijnPieters I don't expect them to, at least not in great detail on every possible subject. But I do expect moderators to globally recognize that when someone asks a question, and an answer is posted that does not attempt in any way to solve the problem itself, it's offtopic, or trust the people tagging it as such. It even got upvoted, so visitors to the topic may now actually think it's a possible solution to the problem. That does not fit SO's "Question and Answer Knowledge Base" target methinks. Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:43
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    Most specifically, if the policy is that moderators will not judge answers on their technical merits, it should not be possible to flag an answer as "posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question." because they cannot judge that aspect without understanding what is being posted. Commented May 14, 2013 at 21:50
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    @Niels you can certainly judge that "I have this problem too" or "Can you email me some code" or "Please help" or "I like pie" are not answers
    – Doorknob
    Commented May 14, 2013 at 22:24
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    And those are the kinds of things we are looking for when we see a "Not an Answer" flag. We're not expecting to see answers that actually contain technical content, nor are we expected to evaluate such answers to determine if they actually answer the question or not. True "Not an Answer" answers are blissfully content-free.
    – user102937
    Commented May 14, 2013 at 22:33
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    For answers containing actual content that don't actually answer the question asked, if you genuinely feel that the answer is harmful, flag with "other," and explain why you feel the answer should be removed.
    – user102937
    Commented May 14, 2013 at 22:40
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    @RobertHarvey sure, duly noted, but that I know that now from this discussion doesn't fix the nagging feeling that the flag description doesn't fit that intent, and these issues will keep recurring for other 'fresh moderators' in the future. Actually I just did a lot more digging in meta search, and this exact same problem was already happening in 2011. The first comments are notable, quoting Jeff as saying that 'well-intentioned flags should always be marked helpful', and many also request a new description for the flag. Commented May 14, 2013 at 23:27

The fundamental problem is the description on the flag is grossly misleading. Posting as an answer to this out of the many "not an answer flag confustion" questions here on meta. Per the flag (and as quoted by the questioner):

not an answer This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

As has been stated in the other answer and many times on meta, the flag should not be used on something that has technical problems, but could be an answer. Okay then, put that in the flag description. But that only covers half the confusion.

Often when reading a question, there are "answers" that are obviously replies to other answers. Flag as not an answer? Not so fast, the moderator will not be looking at the question or other answers. They will not know if the "answer" is in reply to the question or a comment on an answer. I'm not even sure that they know the questioner's username to determine whether the reply is directed at them. Especially if it contains something that could be an answer to anything on-topic on the site (in the case of SO if it contains any code at all), it should not be flagged with the not an answer flag, as the mods will not be able to tell.

Here's a personal example, I flagged an "answer" that mentioned an xml file referenced in the other answer to the question but not in the question at all, and got "declined - flags should not be used to indicate technical inaccuracies, or an altogether wrong answer". As a result I have stopped flagging many comments posted as answers because I'm not sure what types of flags cause the moderators to review the context around the flagged answer and which do not.

Proposed rewording of the flag text:

not an answer This was posted as an answer, but it is obvious without the context of the current question and answers that it does not attempt to answer any possible on topic question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

(This needs improvement and is not particularly pithy, but the point is the new clarifications. Perhaps there is a better way to communicate that, as Robert Harvey says, "True "Not an Answer" answers are blissfully content-free." )

  • Some alternatives: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/141210/… (the discussion in that link culminated in the flag description that's current as of this writing) Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 19:14
  • Unfortunately it looks like all of the suggestions there fall short of clarifying that it is not to be flagged in relation to the current question but in relation to any question... Though I really like your third suggestion. I'm a big fan of interrobangs and ellipses.
    – jball
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 19:50

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