I've seen a lot of questions crop up recently, where individuals are giving a very brief snippet of English, and asking questions like these:
- Is this correct?
- What does this mean?
- What is the difference between X & Y?
- Is there a better way to say this?
Such questions are fine, of course (except in the case of asking for a word meaning that can be obtained from a dictionary), but questions like these could be improved immensely if the O.P. would simply follow a few basic guidelines:
(1) Provide as much context as possible. Tell us, where did you find this snippet? In a journal? On a blog? On an English test? In a commercial? In a new book? In a very old book? Don't make the people answering your question scour the internet, scrambling to find the context of the phrase or expression. Instead, paste it into your question, along with the surrounding text. If possible, include a link, so others can easily find and read the entire text.
Best example ever of needing some additional context!
An O.P. asked about the meaning of this sentence:
Annie wanted to have Helen all to herself so that she could do anything with her.
People thought this sounded a bit sinister, until the O.P. came back and provided the context:
Note: Annie (full name, Annie Sullivan) is the teacher of Helen (full name, Helen Keller).
(2) Explain why you are confused. Questions like "Is this correct?" are hard to answer when it's not abundantly clear why you think there might be an error. Do you suspect the wrong preposition is being used? Do you think the word order is wrong? Do you think a word is being used improperly, or outside its scope of dictionary definitions? When an O.P. doesn't adequately explain their question, the conversation can start in the wrong direction. Incidentally, if this happens to your question, edit your question, don't merely leave the key information buried in a comment somewhere.
(3) Show your research. Wondering if something is common? Tell us what you found when you did a Google search. Confused about a word? Paste the dictionary definition, so everyone knows you've already looked the word up. Some people might wonder, "Isn't it obvious, what the word means?" My answer is, "Apparently not – otherwise, you wouldn't be asking this question." Including a definition serves a couple different purposes: (a) it shows you've put forth a good-faith effort to answer your own question, and (b) it saves time for people answering your question, because they don't have to spend time writing things that you already know while they are composing their answers.
It is rare to find a question that provides too much contextual information. It's also a joy to read a question where an O.P. takes time to provide context, explains clearly where the confusion rests, and includes some preliminary research.
No one has to follow my advice, of course. I realize that it might take more than one or two minutes to write a question if you follow these guidelines. However, the more effort you put into your question, the more likely people will put serious effort into crafting their answers, so your investment may ultimately pay handsome dividends. More importantly, though, you'll make the site more interesting as a whole, which will attract more users who will be willing to invest more time here. (Oh, you would probably get more upvotes, too, if that helps.)
If you've read this far, you might be wondering, "What's the question?" Well, this is tagged with a discussion tag, which is used "to solicit opinions or best practices on a particular topic, with the goal of reaching community consensus." Chime in as you see fit.
EDIT: Insofar as "best practices" go, I've answered my own question here three times. Scroll down for more tips on how to write a question that is more likely to garner upvotes than downvotes. Remember, the top two reasons for downvoted questions are supposed to be the following: (a) the question does not show any research effort, and (b) the question is unclear. Hover over any downvote button and you'll see that it's true!