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There are a lot of questions that have totally incorrect premises, ask for "a formula" for something where no such formula exists (e.g. "given the gravitational acceleration, what is the formula for position?"), or don't even make syntactic sense.

Several times, I've responded to these questions with an answer that directly addresses what the OP might have been thinking about. Here's an example. I notice the following things.

  • Nobody else ever does the same thing: either they post a comment saying the question is bad, or occasionally they post an extremely long answer that beautifully generalizes OP's question into something that makes physical sense, and answers that question using some very high-powered math. (I don't do this because I don't think it would help the OP in any way.)
  • Nobody has ever given me any feedback, good or bad, on any such answers I've written.

Am I committing a huge faux pas by shooting out these short, two-sentence answers? Is it better for the site to write those answers in a comment instead?

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  • $\begingroup$ I upvoted your linked answer shortly after it first appeared. Having forgotten that I'd done so, I attempted to upvote it again today. It is, I think, a perfectly targeted answer. The OP asks if something is true, and you give a clear, easily understandable counterexample. (It's true that if the OP had thought for a couple of minutes before posting, he'd probably have come up with a similar counterexample on his own, and maybe some would argue on those grounds that you shouldn't have answered him. I have some sympathy for that, but I still think it's a perfect answer. $\endgroup$ – WillO Aug 24 '15 at 0:13
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  1. If you are actually answering the question as it is posed, it is completely fine to write an answer.

  2. If the question is actually so unclear that you don't know what it is asking and would be just guessing what it is that confuses the asker, you should flag (or vote, if you have more than 3k reputation) for closure as unclear what you're asking.

Strictly speaking, you should never answer in a comment.

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  • $\begingroup$ In my opinion, in that particular case the question needed fixing, not answering. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 27 '15 at 14:30
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While ACuriousMind's answer covers most cases, there is one other that I occasionally come across - where you seem to be the only one to be able to understand the OP's post (at least of people who have read it and/or commented). Perhaps this is because you're intimately familiar with the topic, giving you some extra insight, or because the OP's first language is the same as yours helping you see what may have been lost in translation.

If you're confident that you understand the question, but that it may be unclear to others, it's acceptable to edit the question (often substantially) yourself, at which point you can reasonably post an answer. When I do this I usually leave a note to the OP asking that they check that I haven't misinterpreted them, and instructions on how to roll back the edit if they don't like it. Presumably this is encouraged behaviour since you can get a few dozen yellow pixels if you do it enough.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm running into this situation right now here. Nobody else will answer because the OP uses the worst notation I've ever seen, and nobody that already knows QFT wants to slog through all of it. I would fix it, but the OP themselves said they wanted the bad notation to "be explicit". $\endgroup$ – knzhou Aug 29 '15 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ Sometimes fixing a bad question takes several times more effort than writing a good answer to a good question. And for no reward, too! I'd think of anybody that got that badge as a hero. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Aug 29 '15 at 1:13

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