Ok so there is a trend on Area51 to write example questions with lots of square bracket "variables", like this:

What [things] should I [do] with my [stuff]?

This is done in order to indicate that the words in brackets could be replaced with other words, and the new question would still be covered by the example.

I admit that I have done this myself. However now I am wondering if it's a bad idea.

I'm thinking that an example question should be an actual concrete example - not a formula for concocting an example. Humans are smart, we can easily derive the "type" of question that an example exemplifies.

The square brackets just end up looking weird, and not really helping anything.

What does meta think: Is [this] the way we should be [writing] [example questions]?

  • 3
    They're placeholders: What's with all the [phenomenon] on [SOFU Site]?
    – Pekka
    Jun 28, 2010 at 9:48

3 Answers 3


Leave out the brackets. Write typical questions. Hard ones, not simple ones. This is what will make the site look awesome.

Check out Mathoverflow.net. When a math person sees this, and they see the question

Homology of algebraic varieties in Okounkov’s paper on enumerating algebraic curves

they immediately know that this site is SERIOUS and they know who it's for. That's so much more powerful than a sample question of the form

[Some hard question] from [Some guy's] paper on [some algebra thing]


In the beginning it wasn't clear what kind of question should be asked, however after Robert's answer about exemplary questions, I think we shouldn't be using [brackets] to generalize the question.

Either it's exemplary, in which case everyone knows what it's about and how it could be used for different examples, or it isn't. So no need for using [brackets]

Edit: it seems Robert used brackets himself too:

Personally, I'd like to see specific questions written like this:

"What is the average length of a [dalmatian's] hair?"

It shows the generic nature of the specific example, you don't have to decode the author's intentions, it's easier to read, and the final proposal won't end up looking like a bad Mad Libs.

For me using [brackets] would make the question less specific, so I vote against using them. Also, you should be asking real, expert questions, not generic ones

Ask real, expert questions.

We want you to capture the moment that plumbers feel when they look at PlumberOverflow and say, "Whoa! That's my kinda site!" On a site about plumbing, there are 200 easy plumbing questions, and they've all been asked 100 times on other sites. Don't suggest questions like "How do I unclog a drain." Instead ask, "If you run 2.5 GPM through 50 feet of 1/2" galv pipe, how many psi will be lost to friction loss?" Remember, the pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around!

  • The idea of brackets is not to use them as general place holders, but as an indication that similar terms might be used as well, just to prevent others from posting the obvious relative questions Jun 28, 2010 at 10:15
  • 3
    I know, but if someone doesn't understand he should replace Facebook with Twitter to get another example, he's also not going to understand it when you put [brackets] around it
    – Ivo Flipse
    Jun 28, 2010 at 10:45
  • at least it should motivate him to think twice. Uhm... Yeah, assuming others to think the same way as oneself is probably not really wise... Jun 28, 2010 at 11:14
  • 1
    YES! HEAR HEAR! Every time I show somebody mathoverflow.net, they IMMEDIATELY get it. This is the feeling we want. The feeling that you get from "Homology of algebraic varieties in Okounkov’s paper on enumerating algebraic curves" that you can't get from "[Some hard question] from [Some guy's] paper on [some algebra thing]". Jun 28, 2010 at 21:30

I like the specific+ brackets, it helps preventing others from posting too similar questions and splitting up the votes. Of course for the ultimate FAQ the generalization might be confusing and should probably be reduced to an actual example.

+) EDIT The word between the brackets should be specific, e.g. "How to derive the [Newton's formula for gravitational force] out of [the theory of general relativity]?" without the brackets would be a real question, while "Is [theory] true?" is rather useless.

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