I encounter quite often questions that are based on poor research, misunderstanding basic definitions, and likewise. In my opinion such questions should be closed rather than answered. Nevertheless, it is my policy to give people a hint or send them to a relevant text, so that they can improve their understanding. I would like to stress that I am not giving a full answer, but helping people to learn and/or ask a better question.

I am interested in opinions and practices of the other members of the community in such cases.

Remark: I am posting this as a new question, since my earlier question was closed, perhaps because of misunderstanding due to the example given in it.


  • Let's take this question: the OP overlooked complex/hermitian conjugation. Does it merit a full answer?
  • This one
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    $\begingroup$ Since you seem convinced this is really a new question, I won't close this again unilaterally, but "hints" are really just incomplete answers, so I don't see why all the prior discussion about answers in comments would not apply here, in particular points about how wrong comments cannot be downvoted. Prior discussion: physics.meta.stackexchange.com/q/8821/50583 and the questions linked in the comments there $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind Mod
    Sep 24 '21 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ @ACuriousMind I am trying to help people to learn without violating the community rules. If, as you say, hint is a partial answer and should not be made, because of all the rules that apply to the answers, how you still help people to progress? I am not arguing with you - I am genuinely interested in your pedagogical approach. $\endgroup$ Sep 24 '21 at 11:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Honestly, I'm usually not trying to help people who ask off-topic questions here by giving them hints (I could spend all day helping those that ask on-topic questions and still not finish!). Note that "this question is elementary" is not actually a valid close reason, so please do not construe this as me saying we shouldn't help beginners. Also, helping someone ask a better question is a valid use of comments - that's exactly what comments are for, so I'm a bit confused why you'd think anyone would be against that regardless of whether the question is closed or not $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind Mod
    Sep 24 '21 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ @ACuriousMind Indeed, one can interpret a hint as helping to ask a better question. I find this discussion helpful. I am not saying that we have to spend the whole day helping people who do not bother to open the textbook or do a basic calculation, but if I take time to read a question and vote for closing, I can also drop a little hint - if they don't take it, I do not insist - it is their problem. $\endgroup$ Sep 24 '21 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ This all depends on what you really mean by "hint". If your "hint" is just a weakened version of an answer, then everything from the discussion about answers in comments applies. If your "hint" is more like pointing out an error in the question or explaining why the question doesn't make sense as written, then that's exactly what comments are for. $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind Mod
    Sep 24 '21 at 12:12
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    $\begingroup$ Does this answer your question? Should comments be used for providing "helpful hints"? $\endgroup$ Sep 24 '21 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ Why would the question you linked to not require a full answer? Why answer in the comments when you can answer as an answer? $\endgroup$ Oct 6 '21 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist I don't think You forgot complex conjugation. is a very useful answer... neither a question based on such a trivial mistake is very useful for the community... and it is not necessarily about physics. But if I could help a person by pointing their mistake, should I not do it in the name of respecting the community rules? Seems like throwing the baby with the water. $\endgroup$ Oct 6 '21 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ The debate here isn't whether the question is useful to PSE. I agree, it is borderline as far as questions are concerned. But in terms of answers...if you have one, why not make an answer? Users have made answers to the question, which I think are way more helpful to the OP than a short hint comment. IMO even making an answer that says "you have to consider the complex conjugate" would be fine. One of the answers does this with just a little more detail. If we want to maximize being helpful, that is way more helpful. $\endgroup$ Oct 6 '21 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist The debate,a s I understand it, is about providing hints to the questions that are not useful to PSE ("weak questions", as I called them in the OP). It is more specific than simply providing hints/answers in the comments. $\endgroup$ Oct 6 '21 at 13:19

If you’d like to help someone out by improving their question, that’s an appropriate use of a comment.

If you’d like to help someone out by posting a link to a resource elsewhere, or by suggesting a search term that may help them find such resources on their own, that’s an appropriate use of a comment.

If you’d like to help someone out by completely or partially answering their question, please use an answer instead of a comment.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the issue is that many users think hints are giving improvements to the question, although I've never been able to follow the logic of that. $\endgroup$ Sep 26 '21 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ @BioPhysicist I think many users do not understand that comments are not for discussion rather than more limited in intended use. Maybe we need to make more use of the "comments transferred to chat" facility ? $\endgroup$
    – StephenG
    Sep 29 '21 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenG I agree that this is an issue. However, I have explicitly seen users say that they are still following the comment policy by using the comments to give hints. My previous comment is referring to this. $\endgroup$ Sep 29 '21 at 14:31

There are many ideas which form the basis for interesting papers written by students. But when a full professor comes up with one, it is more common that he or she will judge the idea to be insufficient for a publication by itself and instead pass it along to a colleague working on similar topics. To a lesser extent, this is sure to play out on Phys.SE.

I know the official purpose of comments is more specific. But in practice, people post comments when they have something to say which requires less effort than what they typically put into answers but is nevertheless likely to be of some use to the OP. Disabusing the OP of a misconception is a perfect example of this.

In short, the bar delineating comment material from answer material depends on the experience of the user. I think it's sensible for Phys.SE to embrace this trend. Some help is better than no help and it would be a shame for the interesting comments I've seen to disappear.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "the bar delineating comment material from answer material depends on the experience of the user." I don't think this is the case. I think this is true of how you think comments should be, but this is not true of comments/answers as intended. Comments should be used to request clarification or suggest improvements to the post. This doesn't depend on "experience". Similarly, any user with an account can post answers. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ There are three things. (1) how comments are intended to be, (2) how I think comments should be, (3) how comments actually are at the moment. My claim is that 3 is pretty close to 2. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 3:54
  • $\begingroup$ I just think it's more helpful to post an answer. I don't think the issue is the comment policy; the issue is users thinking what they have to say doesn't constitute an answer when it either does or is pretty close to being an answer. I agree, we should be helpful. I think it's more helpful to either suggest improvements or ask for clarification (comments), or to actually help answer the question. Giving "some help" in the comments is more detrimental IMO. Good content can get lost in the mix, comments cannot be improved or changed, and bad comments cannot be down voted. $\endgroup$ Oct 3 '21 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ I posted my comments (presumably in agreement!) in an "answer", too long for comments... $\endgroup$ Oct 5 '21 at 14:37

I guess the issue is that you are trying to balance "useful to the site" and "helping the OP no matter what". The site policies and site goal is not to help every single person who posts a question. The goal is to curate higher-quality questions and answers to help a wide variety of people, not just the person asking the question.

If you come across a "weak question" that you think should be closed, then you should vote to close the question. However, if you think you can help the OP improve the post, then leave a comment giving your suggestions, and if you think the question lacks some clarity, ask the OP a question to clarify. Note that these are not mutually exclusive decisions.

If you do not think the question should be closed, then just leave an answer, which is way more helpful than a comment.

In my opinion, posting hints in the comments of questions you think should be closed is just trying to circumvent the closure policy. It rewards poor questions, letting posters think "well, I know my question isn't good, but if I post it I'll still get help in the comments." I think the best way to be the most help overall is to close bad questions and use the comments for their intended purpose of helping improve the post so that it is useful to more people rather than helping a singular person and encouraging poor posts.

Actually, a really good way of handling this I saw recently was by user @Chemomechanics, who saw this question had been closed, so they went ahead and just made a better version of the question and then answered it.

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds sensible. $\endgroup$ Oct 7 '21 at 7:11

The bulk of questions I have come across don't quite know what to ask.

I have personally used comments to point out the obvious, stop the OP in their tracks and reform or withdraw the question, with an anticipated "oh!" [forehead-slap]. But I have only succeeded twice in getting such questions to be withdrawn. On the other hand, a fair number of questions are edited in response to comments. My sense is that closed questions simply alienate askers who often opt for not coming back to them, and accept the fog as a price of doing business.

However, "partial answer comments" are often misconstrued by moderators: they are part of the discussion that retargets, reframes, and clarifies the question as it should have been asked. It is quite frustrating to whack all the moles raising their head out of the question, only to have the OP come back with "no, that's not what I meant! You failed to read my mind. Try again! Tell me what I don't understand, not what I should understand!"... So, patient, reasoned "answers" that deconstruct the question waste too much time shadow-boxing with conjectural illusions.

Ideally, the OP should come back with either "I know that, I'll focus my question to what I'm really asking", or else, "Oh, can you tell me more? If, indeed, ..., then why ...?". Not sure how to second-guess the OP attitude, though...


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