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I often see users, including moderators, leaving "helpful hints" comments on various posts. They could be posted on off-topic homework problems pointing the user in the right direction on how to solve the problem, but I also see them on ligitimate posts in the sense of "you should think about this to arrive at your answer"$^*$.

Now, I don't see where this type of commenting falls according to the help page about the commenting privilege. I don't think it falls under any of the three "When should I comment?" reasons, but I also don't think it falls under any of the "When shouldn't I comment?" reasons either. So where should this type of commenting end up?

As has been expressed before, answers in comments are not allowed because they cannot be down voted, thus preventing incorrect content from being explicitly labeled as such. It seems like "helpful hint" comments would also fall into this category, as no one can down vote incorrect hints as well. I feel like one should just make an answer if they have a helpful hint.

At the same time, though I'm still not convinced of it, others have argued that such comments fall under the "Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post" reason. IMO such comments only help the user arrive at the answer themselves and don't have anything to do with improving the post itself, but I suppose it's still something to consider.

I feel like what sets PSE apart from other sites is the lack of comment clutter, thus giving more attention and emphasis to good-quality questions and answers. Of course, maybe I'm just taking the comment policy way too seriously, but this is an edge case I've been wondering about for a while.


$^*$As an example, consider the question

Why do two objects in a vacuum in a uniform gravitational field experience the same acceleration even if they have different masses?

"Hint comments" might look something like the following examples.

Hint: Set up Newton's second law with the appropriate forces.

Have you tried applying Newton's second law to this scenario?

Think about what the gravitational force is proportional to.

Think about what Newton's second law says about forces and accelerations and how they are related.

Of course in reality I have seen more elaborate questions with more elaborate hint comments, but those are harder to contrive and still be more general, and I don't want to go looking for examples and call any user out in particular.

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I happened to notice this question, and this is something I always had a strong opinion about so I figured I might as well share it: no, providing hints is not a suitable use of comments. The underlying rule I'd go by is this: in order for a comment to be appropriate as a comment, it should be implicitly or explicitly suggesting an edit to be made to the post. The goal there is to change the question in a way that helps future readers better understand it, and hopefully even to answer it. If a comment isn't going to lead to an improvement in the question, it shouldn't be a comment. (It may or may not be suitable as an answer, but that's a separate matter.)

Here's how I would apply this to the examples you posted:

Hint: Set up Newton's second law with the appropriate forces.

Not a valid comment. This is helping guide the OP to the answer but doesn't suggest any change to the question that would improve it.

Have you tried applying Newton's second law to this scenario?

This one actually is a valid comment IMO, because if the OP edits the question to say whether they have tried applying Newton's second law (and perhaps what they found when they did so), it will probably focus the question on the real conceptual issue they're having. Or if nothing else, it will make it clear that "Try applying Newton's second law", which would otherwise be a reasonable (albeit not particularly helpful) answer, isn't the response they're looking for.

Think about what the gravitational force is proportional to.

Also not a valid comment, for the same reason as the first one.

Think about what Newton's second law says about forces and accelerations and how they are related.

Again, not a valid comment, for the same reason.

I suppose different people might have different interpretations of whether these comments are suggesting edits to the question or not. I would advise people to use the guideline I proposed before: if it looks like a comment is suggesting that the question be edited, it's okay, otherwise it's not. That being said, I think all these comments except the second one are far enough removed from explicitly suggesting anything that I would find it quite odd if someone decided to keep them under that guideline. If that means you think the the second comment is too implicit as well, then so be it. It certainly would have been much better for the commenter to say something like this:

Have you tried applying Newton's second law to this scenario? If so, could you edit the question to ask about the specific part of that process where you got stuck?

Anyway, in the end it's not that big a deal if the occasional comment gets treated the "wrong" way (or, not the way you or I think it should be). With a select few exceptions (like the autogenerated comments that link to chat rooms), there are really only two things that should happen with a comment: either the OP (or rarely someone else) chooses to edit the question in response to the comment; or they choose not to do so. Or they might decline to make a choice and just let the comment sit there forever, but I would lump that in with the second option. Either way, the comment has served its purpose and can then be deleted. So the comment's ultimate fate doesn't even depend on whether it was meant to ask for a clarification or not.

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  • $\begingroup$ "This one actually is a valid comment IMO, because if the OP edits the question to say whether they have tried applying Newton's second law (and perhaps what they found when they did so), it will probably focus the question on the real conceptual issue they're having." I agree with the benefit of the edit, but I don't see how the second example is anymore of a "call to edit" compared to the other ones. Yes, the OP could answer the question and say "yes, I did try that," but they could just as easily reply to the other comments and say the same exact thing. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 28 at 6:14
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    $\begingroup$ One could argue the other examples are just as implicit of an edit suggestion as the second one is. Certainly one could have that intent behind all of them. I feel like either all of the examples should be allowed or none of them should be. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 28 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ I think many of us have been conditioned to see questions like the second one as leading questions that are actually trying to guide the person to the answer, because they're often used that way in a teaching context, but I think taken at face value it's just asking for a clarification. Anyway, I suppose what really matters is how the OP interprets it: either they choose to edit the requested clarification into question, or they choose not to. Either way the comment has served its purpose and can then be deleted. $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 28 at 6:27
  • $\begingroup$ ...and I have edited the answer accordingly :-P $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 28 at 6:41
  • $\begingroup$ I think the edit does help! However , one more thing: "Anyway, I suppose what really matters is how the OP interprets it: either they choose to edit the requested clarification into question, or they choose not to. Either way the comment has served its purpose and can then be deleted." So then isn't that an argument that all of the examples should be allowed at least for a certain amount of time, and thus are acceptable comments? $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 28 at 6:48
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    $\begingroup$ No, I definitely do think it's better to not post things as comments which shouldn't be posted as comments. I'm just saying that if people get it wrong sometimes, or if the community decides that it's a subjective matter and the course of action taken with a particular comment isn't the one that any given person thinks is correct, then it's not that big a deal. I'll edit again to clarify that. $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 28 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion. Please take this conversation to a chat $\endgroup$ – Razor Oct 1 at 5:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Razor We usually don't care about such stuff on meta. Discussions in the comments are fine on meta. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Oct 1 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ One thing that this answer misses is that question comments can also legitimately guide the questioner towards a self-answer. $\endgroup$ – JdeBP Oct 9 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ @JdeBP No, I didn't miss that. I intentionally didn't mention it because it's not one of the intended purposes of comments. $\endgroup$ – David Z Oct 9 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ On the contrary, prompting and encouraging people to self-answer has always been the case at Stack Exchange. meta.stackexchange.com/a/312177/167145 meta.stackexchange.com/a/17467/167145 $\endgroup$ – JdeBP Oct 9 at 8:45
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    $\begingroup$ That's true, but nothing about that contradicts what I said. Encouraging people to self-answer is fine, but guiding them toward an answer is not an appropriate use of comments. $\endgroup$ – David Z Oct 9 at 8:53
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Since a question is supposed to be well researched, I would say that the type of comments you suggest are, in fact, covered in the "When should I comment?" section. Specifically these two points are relevant:

  • Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post;

  • Add relevant, but minor or transient, information to a post (e.g. a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated).

If someone says "You should think of this to arrive at your answer" I think it falls a bit under both of these categories. On the one hand it suggests maybe they didn't research a particular topic that would have helped them arrive at an answer, and as such the comment implies (albeit it not explicitly) that the post lacks proper research by the user and that the user should consider the suggested path and if they still haven't arrived at an answer add to the question the additional research and why they were unable to come up with an answer after looking into the specified topic that was suggested.

I'd say it also qualifies as "minor or transient information"... just as alerting someone that the question has already been answered and where to get the answer, it alerts someone as to a place to look that may give them the answer, without actually spelling out what that answer is. It's minor and transient as it is just a nudge in the direction with which a user should look, and not itself a complete answer or even really an answer that would be acceptable by community standards as is (since it only directs a user to a topic and doesn’t provide the full answer, even if the additional step to get to the full answer is not a big leap from there).

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    $\begingroup$ A hint isn't telling the user anything to do to improve the post. The transient category appears to be more for "meta" information as seen in the examples of "a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated". I don't think hints fall into either of these categories. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 27 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ I do agree hints are not full answers, but that's not a good argument as for why they should be posted as comments. Not answer$\neq$ comment. Why not just put in a little more effort and make an answer? $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 27 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist "A hint isn't telling the user anything to do to improve the post. " While I do agree that "Hey you should do some research by looking up XXX and then update your question to show your research if it still doesnt answer your question"... would be a more helpful form of a hint than just "Have you looked at XXXX". So while I agree it may not be the best approach, or at least not the most explicit one, to helping the user improve their question, I do think it still falls under the category. I see it as the right reason for a comment, but poor execution. $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Phillips Freeman Sep 27 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ I should have been more clear about what I mean by hints. For example, if the question was "Why do two objects in a vacuum in a uniform gravitational field experience the same acceleration even if they have different masses", and someone commented "set up Newton's second law with the appropriate forces", that is a hint comment. It doesn't answer the question, nor does it seem to be an appropriate comment. I wasn't really talking about posting references and further reading in the comments. I'll update my question though. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 27 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist So really sounds like you mean unhelpful hints :) in which case I'd agree that really isnt all that useful if you cant even give enough information to help the person take the next steps and are stating something they probably already know. $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Phillips Freeman Sep 27 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ Don't get too caught up in the example. There certainly are cases where the hints are actually more helpful. I'm just trying to give a general idea $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 27 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ Regardless if the rules explicitly allow it, and I certainly have no objection to adding more verbage to the rules to make it more explicit. I would say if a hint is helpful, it should be allowed, particularly if it isnt sufficient to be considered an answer. If that isnt made clear by the current wording of the rules I'd encourage whoever has the power to update the rules to make that explicit. $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Phillips Freeman Sep 27 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Right, I guess that's where I'm at too, although I'm probably on the other side thinking it shouldn't be allowed; just put in more effort and make an answer. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 27 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist While Ideally I'd love to see someone put in more effort and make a proper answer, if they are uninterested in doing so for whatever reason, but might offer a hint that is helpful, I'd like to see it allowed simply because, well its helpful, I see no reason not to allow things that help. Afterall by virtue of the fact that it is helpful it may lead the user or others to an answer and ultimately allow the question to be answered. I understand you cant downvote comments but that just means comments are at-your-own-risk to follow them. $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Phillips Freeman Sep 27 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, I saw a lot of cases where people thought they would have to put in more effort to make a proper answer, when in fact they could have just copied and pasted the content of their comment into the answer box and it would be a legitimate answer. $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 28 at 5:57
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ I think a bit part of the reason for that is the nature of SE. There is pressure to give high quality, detailed, well cited answers or else get down voted. While this in and of itself isnt a bad thing, it drives quality, I dont think the problem lies in the rules so much as the community. I find answers get downvoted without anyone helping to improve them, sometimes they even make it personal and follow someone around and give them a hard time. The solution is to encourage people to offer comments or edits to questions to help improve them, constructively, rather than jump to downvote/ $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Phillips Freeman Sep 28 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, I agree with that. $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 28 at 18:02
  • $\begingroup$ @JeffreyPhillipsFreeman I agree with the goal, but I think the divergence occurs in whether or not hint comments do this. I don't think they often do encourage question edits or post improvements. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 28 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist Not all the time, I agree. That depends on the OP if they have the good sense and desire to contribute to the community after they have their answer, or if they even bother to do the research at all. But I'd argue even in the case where the question is neither edited nor the post improved it still did more good (potentially helped the user) than to have said nothing at all. So I see no reason to discourage it. $\endgroup$ – Jeffrey Phillips Freeman Sep 29 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ The reason to discourage would be because we want content that is actually helpful and important to be found in answers, and because we don't want questions / answers to be cluttered with comments. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Sep 29 at 2:30
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I think that this kind of issues should be discussed having in mind the spirit of why a site like this exists, more than scrutinizing which comma of a set of rules is exactly allowing a given behavior.

What should be the main goal of the community behind PSE? I think we all are interested to improve the quality of the site and to increase and to renew the community.

In the vast majority of the cases where helpful hints are added to the question, the OP is a newcomer to this site. I think this circumstance should be taken into account.

Guidelines stress more than in one place, the advice to avoid to be rude, in particular, in the case of new users. I think that it may be much a better investment for future good contributors, to stress the rules of the site and to flag the question, if it is the case, but, at the same time giving just a hint about some key point.

I think this could be the right balance between enforcement of rules and, at same time, to show a friendly and open attitude of the community. I believe this is the best way to convey the message "if you follow the rules, this community can be a good resource". Don't forget that, at the and of the day, if the original question was a homework-like question, it will be closed, independently on any comment. From this point of view comments are harmless.

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  • $\begingroup$ In certainly not advocating being rude to anyone. Following site policy isn't a rude thing, even for new users. I also don't understand the sentiment that if a user doesn't get the help they are looking for that we are being rude. If someone came here asking a question about where they should go to dinner tonight, should we answer the question as to not be rude? Would it be rude to politely tell the person that this is not the right site for that question? $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Oct 3 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ In terms of homework like questions, giving hints knowing the question will be closed sends the message of "even if questions like these aren't allowed, you can still ask them and hope that users will still give you enough hints in the comments to help you out." So I would argue there is still some harm: comment clutter and somewhat allowing questions not for this site. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Oct 3 at 11:12
  • $\begingroup$ And finally, I never meant to give the impression that I want to follow policy just because I want to be " scrutinizing which comma of a set of rules is exactly allowing a given behavior.". The site policies are in place for a reason of promoting the quality of the site. The goal of my question is, as you correctly say, following the goals of the community. Not just to follow policies for policy sake. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Oct 3 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist It is not that users who do not get help are treated in a rude manner. It is just the other way around: it is the message of a community which enforces rules but has also some interest in the questions asked by newcomers which will motivate the best of them to come bck with a better question. The worst part will not like a simple suggestion and will leave. $\endgroup$ – GiorgioP Oct 3 at 11:54
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    $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist About the danger that helpful hints could motivate people to ask homework-like questions, I have carefully considered it, but I do not think a "helpful hint" would be a strong motivation. On the other side, I do not think the border between homework-like questions and acceptable question is so sharp as it may seem. $\endgroup$ – GiorgioP Oct 3 at 11:58
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, I get that. Thanks for the input. $\endgroup$ – BioPhysicist Oct 3 at 12:00

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