Today I noticed that this answer to a question is in the form of a questions. Now professors/teachers use this technique all the time to encourage the student to think a little more instead of spoon feeding the answer. But is this appropriate for the FAQ format of Stack Exchange?


It does address directly the question that the OP asked.

I do see, however, that it went nowhere; the OP states in a comment below the answer that he already understands the problem, even though he asks in his question why the error is occurring. This is the most common outcome that I see from rhetorical questions posted as answers.

For that reason, it's probably better as a comment. As the OP points out, the answer is restating the problem, not offering a solution.

  • Do you believe that this extends to the general case for all answers? – Benjamin Leinweber Sep 24 '13 at 22:17
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    Yes. Rhetorical questions in answers work better if you subsequently explain why you are asking them. – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 22:18
  • Since I'm the one who started this by writing that answer let me explain my thought process. Based on what the user originally asked it was not clear to me that the OP fully understood the problem. Now that the question has been clarified I have updated my answer and provided more information. – user2676699 Sep 24 '13 at 23:13

Why would someone do such a thing?!?

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    Indeed meta is different. – bummi Sep 24 '13 at 22:16
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    I see what you did there, but I'm not sure this is adequately illustrative. On the main site, this kind of answer would get removed within minutes. – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 22:16
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    Understood. Couldn't pass it up. – RhinoWalrus Sep 24 '13 at 22:18
  • Just what I was about to do. – Keith Thompson Sep 24 '13 at 22:23
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    "On the main site, this kind of answer would get removed within minutes" by using the "not an answer" flag :D (innocent whistle) – James Sep 24 '13 at 23:18
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    "To flag or not to flag?" – Jamal Sep 24 '13 at 23:47

I do this quite a bit, but usually in the form of a comment. After all, the Answers section of a post is supposed to include answers, not questions (rhetorical or not).


When I see a question that is clearly, obviously, patently homework, and the person asking is just asking for someone to do their homework, I have been known to answer with a Sotocratically leading question aiming at what they need to know. There's a fine line here; I leave a comment unless I feel confident that the leading question leads very clearly indeed to the necessary thing.


What should be done:
- Flag with a custom explanation, and explain why you feel the answer is actively harmful and merits removal

While a debate is was in place in this question that the "not an answer" flag should be used, the official stance is this flag is intended for things like "I have the same problem...", "Thanks, this is a great", and not just any definition that you see as "not an answer" or "did not attempt to answer the question".

Although it should be noted that, depending on severity of the answer's quality, often downvote and a comment might be the right course of action. This provides the answerer chance to come and correct their answer once they're aware of it.
In fact in this particular instance the answerer did just that, and avoided losing a [possibly] decent answer!

The following was/is my opinion, and not actually what should be done (I've left it as it's the basis of the large discussion following this answer):

It's not an answer, it's a question.

It's a question, and therefore "not an answer", given the fact the 1st sentence "does not answer or attempt to answer the question", and the 2nd sentence starts with "What happens if" and ends in a question mark.

Flag it as "not an answer" and (imo) downvote it so it goes beneath other possibly better answers (or at least actual answers) until it's removed. Downvote also signals to the answerer to improve this and possibly their future answers.

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    Be cautious with "Not an Answer" flags; they are intended for things like "I have the same problem, does anyone have a solution," and "Thanks, this is a great post." With answers like the one being discussed here, it is better to flag with a custom explanation, and explain why you feel the answer is actively harmful and merits removal. – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 22:07
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    Well, I see it as a question, and therefore "not an answer" (as per the perfect flag of the same words), given the fact the sentence starts with "What happens if" and ends in a question mark". – James Sep 24 '13 at 22:13
  • It had a "Not an Answer" flag on it, which I declined. – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 22:14
  • That was my flag, because I saw it as a question and "not an answer". It was structured like a question with a question mark as I see it. Happy to understand differently if you care to explain though :) – James Sep 24 '13 at 22:18
  • So in reality, answers like this should not be flagged at all, but should be discouraged through down-votes? – Benjamin Leinweber Sep 24 '13 at 22:19
  • @BenjaminLeinweber: That is my take, yes. – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 22:21
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    Yet another "through the looking glass" rule to remember, along with "off topic" not really meaning "off topic", ... :-( – Peter Alfvin Sep 24 '13 at 22:32
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    @PeterAlfvin: The way out of the looking glass is to ask yourself: "Does this answer have to be forcibly removed because it is actively harming the site?" – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 22:35
  • @RobertHarvey: Yes. By this site's definition of "harming". In the same way answers are removed when are a direct question, even if asking something relevant to the original question. It's very confusing for users to have a strict policy of Q&A enforced in every way, but let something through for no (apparent) reason. A question isn't an answer, rhetorical or otherwise. Since being here, I've always been led to believe by Meta answers & help section that an answer must be an "answer", nothing else, not a rhetorical question. It's confusing, & I can see why the term "looking glass" was used. – James Sep 24 '13 at 22:47
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    @James: But "Not an Answer" flags were never intended to remove answers (question marks notwithstanding) that directly address the question being asked. – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 22:50
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    @RobertHarvey I'm obviously with James here in terms of what constitutes "harm", but note that in addition to this being another instance of an English word/phrase being used in a non-standard way, it's now another case of the usage being defended on the grounds of "but we never intended to it mean that". With all due respect to the designers, I think the language issues are really independent of original intent. – Peter Alfvin Sep 24 '13 at 23:00
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    This is very simple @Peter; just use "Not an Answer" for the unambiguous cases, that's all. Don't make the mods try and figure out what you meant when you flag an answer as "Not an Answer" when that answer clearly addresses the question being asked and is trying to be helpful (again, question marks notwithstanding). It's all about intent, not punctuation. – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 23:04
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    @PeterAlfvin: I also dispute the assertion that your real world is that black and white. Were that the case, no judgments would ever need to be made, and there would be no need for moderators at all. – user102937 Sep 24 '13 at 23:47
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    @Peter: I think it's rather ironic that a discussion sparked from disagreement over the meaning of an answer has devolved into a debate over the meaning of a flag. In both cases, it is helpful to use the context of the words in determining what they mean, or rather were intended to mean. – Shog9 Sep 25 '13 at 0:30
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    @RobertHarvey I and the others who have repeatedly said that "titles matter" are very capable of reading the explanations. Indeed, our objection to the titles is largely based on the fact that the explanations are inconsistent with the real world interpretation of those explanations. – Peter Alfvin Sep 25 '13 at 0:39

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