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I'm new to StackExchange, and trying to get a good feel for the difference between commenting and answering, but there are a few points still confusing me and I'd appreciate feedback from the community.

[Also, I apologize if this has been discussed previously. I could not find a normal search feature, but none of the suggested questions appearing after I titled this were pertinent. I'm assuming that means it's fresh.]

The general rule appears to be this: When providing an actual answer, answer. When adding small pieces of information, comment.

Seems simple enough. However, I've come across several comments which do actually seem to answer the question, they just don't make any/many expansions. For example, this question: Grammaticality of “if you have time”. JLG's comment seems to say just about everything there is to say on the subject. What do we do with a question like that which is technically answered but will remain "unanswered" forever? Should/could JLG's comment have been an answer instead?

The other question I have (which I would be surprised to not see discussed anywhere on meta previously, but -- again -- I can not work out searching for the life of me) is why I'm allowed to answer a question but not comment on it. As another example, look at this question here: 'People can be trapped in their cars' means…?. The definition of being trapped is discussed and clarified perfectly well by the existing answer, but part of the question references being caught in a trap. The existing answer does not explain that being caught in a trap is not always the same as simply being trapped. Such a small point certainly doesn't warrant an answer in and of itself, so what are my options? Either I abuse the answer feature as a fancy-comment-feature (I won't, don't worry), or I just sit around and watch the question to see if the point gets clarified before I manage to build up enough reputation to comment on it. Why has the dynamic been set up in this way?

ps. How do I search existing questions? :c

Edit: I'm an idiot -- the search box is up in the navbar, I see it now. Still couldn't find this discussed elsewhere, though, so the rest of the body still holds.

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Dealing with comment-answers

If you see an answer posted as a comment, you can turn it into an answer. This is a constructive activity, and it's explicitly allowed as long as you give credit because comments are licensed under Creative Commons. Why is this a good thing? Because answers can be voted up and down, and because questions with answers rated 1 or higher are removed from the unanswered questions list.

Of course, you can nudge the commenter in the direction of posting it as an answer themselves, but they don't have to do so; that's their choice. If you decide to do it for them, you can quote their comment as-is, if you think it's sufficient. Or, you can elaborate on the answer, creating a collaborative work. Either way, you may wish to mark your answer as Community Wiki, for two reasons:

  1. It seems less like you're taking credit for someone else's work; and
  2. it seems less like you're getting reputation points for someone else's work.

However, this is just a piece of community etiquette. It's not required, and posting as non-CW may be particularly appropriate if you end up contributing most of the answer yourself. Please use your own judgment!

As an aside, we discussed this briefly in a comment thread back in April.


Why you're allowed to answer a question but not comment on it

There are a number of questions that cover this topic on Meta Stack Exchange, the site-wide meta that applies to the entire network:

  • 5
    +1. My general rule of thumb is that if there's a comment that ought to be an answer, I'll invite the original author to add their comment as an answer. If they don't reply after a reasonable length of time, and if there isn't a better answer available, I would then do it myself, but community-wiki the answer, so as to make it clear I was not benefiting from any kind of plagiarism of other people's comments. – Matt Jun 27 '13 at 18:33
  • For the sake of completeness, here is the 2011 link from Meta.SE on the subject: What should be done with questions that have been self-resolved as a comment instead of an answer? – JBH Feb 17 at 10:09
9

I often "answer as a comment" when any of these are true:

  • (a) the question is pretty basic and can be answered very easily, but I'd rather not leave something so brief as a full-fledged answer (I did that here, e.g.).

  • (b) I'd like to do more research to substantiate my answer, but I don't have the time (I did that here and here; had I wanted to leave full-fledged answers, I probably would have included some findings from a dictionary or style guide).

  • (c) I feel like my answer is a valid answer, but not the valid answer (for example, a regionalized answer, such as, "In the U.S., we might say...". I think this might be an example).

Most of the time, it seems pretty clear about whether one of my posts should be a comment or an answer. Occasionally, though, I find myself in a gray area where it's not so easy to decide. It's not always cut-and-dried; it depends on the nature of the question, and how completely I think my contribution might answer it.

Every once in a while, I start with a comment, but decide to change it to an answer (or vice-versa), usually for the reasons I've already listed.

  • @JR +1 I noticed that you do this, and that's what brought me to this posting – Peter Jan 2 '16 at 10:28
  • It it really disappointing to see this from a diamond moderator; one would expect a diamond moderator to be familiar with SE norms and guidance, and familiar with the myriad problems that stem from answers-in-comments and why they are generally heavily discouraged, if not outright forbidden. I find this Stack far less useful and approachable (as someone who spends more time on other Stacks) as a result of the extreme prevalence of answers-in-comments, and I would have hoped moderation here would make efforts to reduce the problem, rather than contribute to it. – KRyan Jun 27 '18 at 16:55
  • 2
    @KRyan - Funny you should mention that. As a matter of fact, the moderation team has been deleting several answers-as-comments of late, agreeing with your take that it has become somewhat problematic on ELL. That said, I still believe we should strive for enough flexibility within the community that we don't get too worried about clamping down on so-called "outright forbidden" practices. Moreover, I'll point out that I wrote this particular answer five years ago, back when ELL was still in beta, and before there was a diamond next to my name. But I stand by my notion that gray areas exist. – J.R. Jun 27 '18 at 21:34
5

What is an acceptable answer? explain when something should be written as answer, and when as a comment. On this question, you can find this handy table.

screenshot

Sometimes you will find answers written as comments; most of the times, that is because the user who wrote it is not sure; doesn't have the time to write a complete answer; thinks the question should be closed, but doesn't want to leave the OP without an answer; wants to leave a hint for somebody else to write an answer. In some cases, you will find a user who has gotten his answers down-voted writing a comment instead of writing an answer. Other times, users write a comment because they think that what they are saying is subjective, or they cannot back up what they are saying.

What can be done with questions that are answered in comments is writing an answer with the content of that comment, possibly making the answer a Community Wiki, giving attribute to the user who wrote the comment (for example, saying "As JLG said in a comment […]."), and providing a link to the comment. (The last step is helpful if the comment is not visible because there are too much comments, or the user wrote more than one comment.)

The reason low reputation users cannot write comments is avoiding they use comments for asking a new question or writing an answer; commenting on questions asked by other users is enabled when the users have used the site enough to understand when comments should be used. The measure of how much users used the site is the reputation.
There is then a reason why users with a reputation of 1 cannot leave comments is avoiding comments are used to spam: Since questions are not bumped when comments are added, the only user noticing the comment would be the user who wrote the post.

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Here's a thought.

Maybe folks could resist the urge to write comments that are basically answers. I mean try it for a week and see how it goes. Trust that other people can write genuine answers if you don't have time to do so.

One reason is exemplified in the comment thread resulting from someone answering via comment instead of writing an answer or waiting till someone else wrote an answer:

The length of rope/the length of a house

When someone writes an answer-in-a-comment, very often the learner engages with that user in a lengthy back-and-forth discussion. This discourages me from writing an answer because I think the user has been serviced by the discussion. Second, such discussions are messy and should be relegated to chat. That takes time to do, if it gets done. If it does get done, then we have a blank question with no response.

  • 3
    What harm do comment answers do exactly? They don't prevent other folks from writing genuine answers, and they give the OP some information in case no-one does write an answer. They can't be down-voted, but they can be rebutted with another comment, or with an answer. Comments can't be "accepted" or award the poster reputation, so by writing some information as a comment instead an answer, a high rep user is leaving the door open for a newer user to use the information in that comment to write an answer and get some reputation. – ColleenV Apr 21 '16 at 21:12
  • @ColleenV added one reason – Alan Carmack Nov 8 '16 at 1:16
  • 3
    I think that's a good example and some food for thought. Thanks for pinging me. – ColleenV Nov 8 '16 at 1:20
  • This discourages me from writing an answer because I think the user has been serviced by the discussion. Fair enough. But the corollary is this: the mod team is less likely to delete the comment if there are no answers to the question. So you could always summarize that conversation into an answer, and then flag the comment as obsolete. You’d be doing everyone a favor then. – J.R. Mar 12 at 11:22

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