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There is endless Q&A here and on SE Meta on comments vs. answers. Some things are clearly comments (e.g., requests for clarification, critique of a post). We have guidance on what constitutes a good answer vs. a low quality answer. There is a lot of discussion on the desirability of answers being in answer posts. We have mechanisms for handling "answers" posted as comments. There is discussion on whether a VLQ answer is still an answer (that goes to issues surrounding something originally posted as an answer).

However, the standard SE help topic has a big gray area. There is no "thou shalt not post answer information in a comment". Going back almost to the dawn of SE, comments have routinely been used for situations such as:

  • posting a helpful hint that the author didn't feel met the requirements of an answer or as direction and encouragement for the OP to pursue their own answer
  • posting speculative information or information the author isn't sure about, often as a placeholder until they have time to research it
  • posting a piece of a complex or multi-part answer when the entire answer will take time and the piece, alone, doesn't really answer the question
  • posting the kernel of an answer with the expectation of potentially expanding it later into an answer or providing fodder for someone else to develop into an answer
  • a choice at the time between posting nothing or something potentially helpful because the author was not yet in a position to post what they consider an answer
  • trying to be helpful on a question that should be closed, without encouraging more off-topic questions or risking making it difficult to delete the question if an answer gets upvoted
  • the question is extremely basic, likely has been asked before, and can be answered briefly and with less time and effort than searching out duplicates

On some SE sites, like Super User, high quality answers are a very high priority. Posters are actively advised to post as a comment in some of these situations rather than as a low quality answer. A useful comment can be expanded into a good answer, but a VLQ answer ruins it. What might have had potential tends to be lost once an answer gets heavily downvoted. Going in the other direction, there are plenty of established ways for people to deal with comments that they think should not be comments, including:

  • encouraging the author to repost a worthy comment as an answer
  • expanding on the comment themselves in an answer
  • flagging a comment for deletion or movement to chat

I've posted some comments on ELL based on reasons such as listed above. On several, someone posted a suggestion to turn it into an answer and on several, another user ran with it and expanded it into an answer (both being standard solutions for answer information posted in a comment).

However, a number of ELL users view comments in the "thou shalt not" category. I've received feedback that comments are only to be used for critiques or seeking clarification, and that a VLQ answer is preferable to answer information in a comment. I'm wondering whether the culture may be different on ELL than my experience on some other SE sites.

I post answers when I think what I have to post qualifies as an answer. People's standards vary in terms of what they find acceptable. I won't knowingly post a VLQ answer. In situations such as listed above, my choice is to leave something that I think is helpful in a comment or leave nothing at all.

So my question: on ELL, given a situation such as this, what is the preference?

  • post nothing at all
  • post a comment
  • post what would have gone in a comment in an answer that would be VLQ
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    I have seen questions that do not ask a clear question (or possibly a question at all). I would prefer seeing a comment that proposes an answer (essentially trying to nail down what is being asked) rather than an answer that guesses at what the OP wants to know. – user3169 May 24 '17 at 2:01
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If someone understands the SE guidelines and why they're a good idea, the answer to "what is the preference?" is (in my opinion) to simply act in good faith and do what you think is best for the site in the given the situation. You (the reader, not you fixer1234) know the advantages and drawbacks, so use your judgement.

There is always going to be disagreement about this and the "never post information in a comment" or "comment-answers are never a problem" positions are rarely the correct answer. It's fine to respectfully remind each other to write full answers instead of comments, but we should not feel like we need to enforce some rule. Always take a long hard look at how much harm is actually being done, and what you could do yourself to fix it before admonishing another community member.

If you need to post more than one comment to answer the question, there's your sign that it's time to think about whether the question needs a real, considered and proof-read answer with examples, illustrations, citations, etc. In addition to the standard advice to encourage someone to write an answer, turn the comment into an answer, or flagging it, you could offer a bounty. That worked out pretty well for the In which cases do we use "collect" and in which "gather"? question. The ideal is to get at least a couple of positively scored answers to every question on the site.

As an aside, I do have to say that it is not good for the site to post a comment-answer because the question is simple and searching out a duplicate is time consuming. Duplicates need to be linked together, not answered over and over. If it takes someone who knows the answer a lot of time to find the duplicate question, imagine how difficult it would be if you didn't know the answer!

  • I was completely on board with this up until the last sentence. Surely if someone posts "the answer" in a [hasty] comment this can only make life easier for another user who has the time and inclination to search for / find any earlier duplicate. I don't see anything wrong with kicking things around a bit in comments - which may include "the answer", even if the relevant commenter didn't necessarily know this for sure at time of writing. – FumbleFingers May 24 '17 at 17:53
  • ...apropos which I think maybe this question re the difference between no sooner / hardly could use a bounty to spur things on a bit. – FumbleFingers May 24 '17 at 17:54
  • @FumbleFingers Yes, I do believe that it would be better to not do something than to do it half-assed, but I don't impose my personal standards on other people (mostly because I don't always live up to them myself so I live in a big ol' glass house). What if the comment leads someone astray instead of helping? What if no-one bothers to search out a duplicate because there's an answer in the comments already? It's not the end of the world, but it would be better for the site if the duplicate were found and linked, and you can't assume someone else will do it. – ColleenV May 24 '17 at 20:19
  • @ColleenV, I agreed with your last paragraph, and then FumbleFingers's comment had merit. It can be much easier to identify duplicates, or select one if there are several, if you also have access to an answer. It would be better if the commenter searched for dupes instead. But if they don't, the presence of answer information makes it easier for someone else to do it, maybe even more likely that they will tackle it, perhaps helping to recollect other posts. – fixer1234 May 25 '17 at 7:43
  • @fixer1234 anyone who is able to effectively search for a duplicate is going to know whatever it is you're writing in your comment, because the question is extremely basic, so I don't really see that it adds much value. Regardless, you should just use your best judgement. If the question isn't really worth finding the duplicates and linking them, that's OK. My objection was to knowing that there was probably a duplicate out there and leaving a comment instead of taking the time to go find it. I don't think that helps more than it hurts most of the time. – ColleenV May 25 '17 at 11:11
  • I see @snailplane has already put a bounty on the “hardly” / “no sooner” question I flagged up earlier. I fully accept that relatively active users like me (who are not mods) should accept more responsibility than others for 1) locating duplicates, and 2) ensuring valid questions do get proper answers. I reckon I do quite a bit of dup-searching (using Google's site-specific search facility; the SO one often doesn't work well on ELL / ELU), though I know I could do better. But I would have posted that bounty if I hadn't been beaten to it. – FumbleFingers May 25 '17 at 12:31
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    @FumbleFingers Sometimes just bringing attention to something is enough :) We have a really good community here I think and many hands make light work. I think if we could improve the tagging situation, dupes would be a whole lot easier to find. – ColleenV May 25 '17 at 14:28
  • I'm afraid I lack faith in the benefits of tags as regards dup-locating. Perhaps that's because I invariably start from a google site-specific search, where the concept doesn't really apply. But after all this time I guess it's likely I often write the tagname in my search string, without even consciously realising, so perhaps I'm "using tags by proxy". But I also search for "(to me,) most obvious example" in many cases, because I find it very satisfying to discover that whatever I thought of as a "typical example" turns out to appear in a previous question title. Transparent titles are good. – FumbleFingers May 25 '17 at 14:54
  • @FumbleFingers I agree that good titles are important - probably more important that tags. The tagging situation is a chicken and egg problem. Tags aren't particularly useful because too many questions aren't tagged well, so there doesn't seem to be much value in finding the right tags for a question. – ColleenV May 25 '17 at 17:06
  • I'll try to remember to make a bit more effort as regards useful rephrasing of titles. I'm inclined to think that's the easiest/quickest way to make searches a bit easier. Maybe it's worth trawling through "highest upvoted" questions (in descending order until the law of diminishing returns kicks in) to make sure they have meaningful/memorable titles (and valid tags, I guess). – FumbleFingers May 25 '17 at 17:13
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Comments have a purpose, to comment on questions.

  • Not to answer them.
  • Not for a quick answer because you don't have time.
  • Not for a half answer because you can't be bothered to do the research.

If the response to a comment from the OP could be "Thanks" then you're commenting wrong.

Answers in comments are a problem. Let's consider a few sub-cases.

  1. The question requires a very simple answer

Many questions on ELL can be answered in a short form. Even if the answer could fit in a comment, don't do it. People don't like to appear to steal a comment answer so if your answer is correct, you discourage people from writing their own answers. If your answer is wrong then we can't downvote it.

If the question requires a very short answer, write a very short answer in the answer box. If it is correct and complete, it should be upvoted.

  1. The question needs a longer answer.

If a good answer doesn't fit in the comment box, then don't write an answer there. Either write a proper answer in the answer box, or move onto the next question. Don't write bad answers in the comment area where they can't be voted on. If you have to write a short answer to a complex question, please write it in the answer area, and accept downvotes if your answer is incomplete.

  1. The question is in some way unclear.

It is absolutely right to ask for clarification in the comments. You might include some information to help the OP understand why their question is unclear. For example, the OP might have asked if a sentence is correct grammar, but you think that they are actually asking about good style. You might comment that the sentence is grammatically correct, and ask whether the OP wants to know if it is appropriate for formal writing.

In all cases the comment should either be a question or a suggestion.

If a comment answer has been written, then do take the time to ask for the commenter to convert their comment to an answer, If an upvoted answer also exists then flag for clean-up.

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    Our purpose here is to help people learning English, not to perfectly implement the SE guidelines. If someone doesn't have time to write a complete answer, I would rather see a partial answer in a comment that might be a starting point for someone else to write an answer than nothing at all. ELL is not a competition. You can't "steal" an answer from a comment. If you take the time to turn a comment into a proper answer, you should feel free to flag the comment as "no longer needed". – ColleenV Feb 14 '18 at 20:11
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    How do you feel about incorrect answers in comments? There is no way to vote down a comment. I would rather see all answers in answers and not in comments. Too many people use the comment as an excuse to write bad answers. We should not be encouraging this. Answers go in answer box, comments in the comment box. Even partial answers are better put in the answer box so they can be voted on. I don't expect everyone to perfectly implement SE guidelines, but would hope that mods would not encourage users to ignore them. Please be part of the solution! – James K Feb 14 '18 at 20:47
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    @JamesK - In addition to posting your meta answer here, you've been leaving a lot of brusque comments admonishing regular contributors to delete their comments. I'll be interested to see if there is a groundswell of support for your position on this, but, from what I've seen, the community at large appears to be learning more toward erring on the side of helpfulness, not rigidity. Personally, I think it's time for you to end your crusade and make it a short-lived one. – J.R. Feb 14 '18 at 22:17
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    It's true that SE was designed with guidelines like these in mind, and I tend to agree with a lot of what you've written, but ultimately each community decides for itself how the site should be run. If the community as a whole doesn't want to use the software exactly the way it was designed, then we're free to do things a little differently. I think that generally we do get rid of comment-answers fairly often, but as J.R. said the community is used to a little flexibility here, and that's okay. It might be best if you don't continue to leave the same sort of comment you've been leaving. – snailcar Feb 15 '18 at 5:05
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    @ColleenV: Opposing "helping learners" to "following the site guidelines (that are intended to help users)" makes me very sad. The purpose of the guidelines is to help learners on any site. It's just that SE believes, for good reason, that most learners are not going to be the ones asking questions, and that therefore optimizing for asker efficiency is undesirable if it comes at the expense of Google/Bing/site searchers. Of course, if you want to make the argument that ELL has far less reusable questions (and that therefore helping future readers is pointless), feel free. – Nathan Tuggy Feb 18 '18 at 21:55
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    @NathanTuggy I stand by my answer (although my comment could have been worded better). Slavishly following guidelines is never the right answer. I don't dispute that a real answer is better than a psuedo comment-answer. I will argue that in some situations, a comment-answer is better than nothing, or at least until the question receives a real answer (which some questions never get). If someone wants to add an ephemeral comment to a question that might be helpful to a learner, I'm not going to berate them for it. If it's incorrect or controversial, it should be flagged and it will be deleted. – ColleenV Feb 18 '18 at 23:07
  • @ColleenV: I don't think berating is appropriate, but I am absolutely down with deleting comments regardless of whether they are correct, if they aren't suited for comments. (In the same vein, answers that are not answers should be deleted, however otherwise worthy they may be.) And I feel encouraging a site culture of sloppiness, half-hearted "answers" that cannot be checked except via diamond mod flagging or noisy comment replies, and so on is far worse than some individual askers not getting an answer quite as soon as they might prefer. – Nathan Tuggy Feb 18 '18 at 23:30
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    @NathanTuggy I delete comment-answers regularly. I just don't delete them if they are helpful, few, and there is no answer to the question. I agree with much of what was written here : ell.meta.stackexchange.com/q/709 It's all a matter of how much real harm is actually being done. Admonishing users for every comment that resembles an answer isn't good. Allowing comment-answers a privileged place above real answers is also not good. Deleting the only instance of helpful information because ignoring a comment for a while equates to encouraging comment-answers makes no sense to me. – ColleenV Feb 20 '18 at 0:12

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