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I've been in an inconvenient situation where I ask a question and there's a comment suggestion that it's unclear, vague, off-topic, pointless, etc.

Usually, I try to apprehend that by a disclaimer but on occasion, I trust in people's capability too much. Also, it's hard to make up for when people don't read or disregard a disclaimer.

Disclaimer here. For treatability of the issue, please assume that the question asked is clear, polite, of sufficient quality and that the research and such have been carried out according to the standards. This particular issue I'm stating here is strictly about the about the recipient being at fault.

Example

- Why is X doing Y?
...
- X can't be doing Y.
- We've never seen that.
- Question is wrong and off-topic.
- Did you try googling it?

Now, here I realize that the replier isn't aware of the complexity of the issue. Or, perhaps, they don't know a good answer and assume that there isn't one. Etc...

I've tried to explain to such users that they're ignorant of the issue (pointing out that so am I) and that we should hope that someone else with more knowledge on the subject may share it with us.

For some reason, it sometimes leads to the person being insulted and/or aggrieved. Twice I got a user banned for the reaction to such reply. Not rarely it's taken as confrontative and even hostile.

Let's assume that the person isn't an ass and isn't having a bad day. Let's assume that it is what I say and/or how I say it that is perceived to be a trigger for that.

How could one point out that someone is:

  • replying outside the context of the original question
  • not contributing to a constructive exchange of ideas
  • using the pronoun we to gain undeserved legitimacy for the whining
  • not competent to understand the complexity and not modest enough to realize it
  • assuming stuff from their own, irrelevant experience
  • projecting their ignorance and misconceptions onto the matter
  • changing the sophisticated and correct contents into grammatically flawed

In a formal and polite way, so that I won't cause any negative reaction (or at least not stimulating such). Preferably - if possible - in a brief way because the comments' length is limited and I prefer not to waste time on lengthy explanations due to social conventions.

migrated from ell.meta.stackexchange.com Dec 20 '15 at 22:55

This question came from our discussion, support, and feature requests site for speakers of other languages learning English.

  • Sometimes the most fundamental questions seem very simple on their face. If Richard Feynman under an anonymous handle had asked on an egalitarian physics website "What is light?" the question would probably have gotten down-voted and closed-voted. So, pose your questions defensively, making clear that the subject may appear deceptively simple. If you find yourself in a situation where what you know to be a good question has been dismissed as sub-par, just politely make clear that it's not as simple as it seems and trust that other site members will rally in support of your question. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Dec 20 '15 at 16:33
  • 3
    Is this about questions here on ELL? If so, it belongs on Meta. – StoneyB Dec 20 '15 at 16:38
  • You probably want unclarity, not unclearity. See What's the right word for “unclearity”? – GoDucks Dec 20 '15 at 17:07
  • @stoneyb It's not a meta question, because it's not about how to handle it here. It's about how to generally respond do that people won't get offended and agitated. The example from usage here is a great study case, though, so I understand your suspicion. I'm looking for English way to briefly but friendly point out duck a flaw in the response. I'll use it at the office too. – Konrad Viltersten Dec 20 '15 at 17:48
  • @tromano The scope of this question is how to phrase such sentences when users miss the disclaimer (or if it's not disclaimy enough). A bit like just happened here as I asked how to point out that the replier missed my aim despite the precautions taken. The comment you made is basically to take precautions (which I essentially agree with and try to do). How to put the above briefer? – Konrad Viltersten Dec 20 '15 at 17:55
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Civil discourse rests on the cooperative principle, and any response should rest on the assumption that your interlocutor is following that principle. Whatever your private opinion, your public posture should be that an inappropriate or irrelevant Comment derives from a misunderstanding of your Question.

And for that no one can be held responsible but you, the writer. I have written elsewhere on this site about what I call The Adamantine Law of written English: “Anything which can be misunderstood will be.” As a writer you control the discourse you launch, and it is your task to forestall any misunderstanding.

Consequently, the most accurate, effective and courteous response is one which begins with something along the lines of “I see I have not made myself clear.” You may then clarify your meaning or scope or context in whatever way the situation calls for.

And it would be a graceful and responsive conclusion (not to mention a courtesy to all your readers) if you could say at the end of your response that “I have modified my question to reflect this.”


A comment whose diction or tone clearly forbids that assumption may be ignored or flagged, or both—but that is another matter.

  • Of course, there's always I see I have not made myself clear. Let me see if I can rephrase, whilst restricting myself to words of one syllable or less. – FumbleFingers Dec 20 '15 at 18:46
  • I see I haven't made myself clear. And I realize that the disclaimer was great but not waterproof. Failing to realize that it might be taken as a meta-what-to-do kind of question, I haven't stressed enough that it's merely an example of a situation. The actual use will be carried out at other places as well - in my office, for instance. How does one politely explain to a person that their help is damaging the work and that they can't see it because of their ignorance (which they're unaware of and unwilling to accept)? This is what I meant to illuminate with the examples. – Konrad Viltersten Dec 20 '15 at 20:04
  • I've been told that I might be perceived as sarcastic (because I very often am). This time I am not. I'm following the suggestion as a sign of agreement with it. And I fully mean it in a serious way. Really. (And yes, I do hear that this also sounds sarcastic. But it really isn't mean this way.) – Konrad Viltersten Dec 20 '15 at 20:07
5

I up-voted StoneyB's answer, as it is well written and I agree with him completely, but I would like to add a couple of observations to it, if you don't mind.

First, my own position is that every sincere question is worthy of a polite, supportive and sincere answer, even those questions that may appear to be off-topic. Whenever I fail to do this myself, I inevitably regret it and usually delete my own answer and up-vote another answer instead.

Second, if I'm understanding you correctly, you regularly take issue with other people's answers and comments, and you want to write something that will correct them without offending anyone. You state above:

"How could one point out that someone is:

  • replying outside the context of the original question

  • not contributing to a constructive exchange of ideas

  • using the pronoun we to gain undeserved legitimacy for the whining

  • not competent to understand the complexity and not modest enough to realize it

  • assuming stuff from their own, irrelevant experience

  • projecting their ignorance and misconceptions onto the matter

  • changing the sophisticated and correct contents into grammatically flawed"

This is the root of your problem. It is not your place (or mine) to "point out" the shortcomings of others! It is a simple enough matter to let it go and move on to another question, where your insight and knowledge can be helpful to the original poster. That way, you never have to deal with negative or frustrating responses to what you have posted. This is a place to help people learn English, which is a difficult task for anyone, including native English speakers. If it weren't, those of us who edit (even for clients with Ph.D.s) would be out of work.

Please consider following these two simple suggestions, and your experience here will be much more enjoyable for you and for others as well. Thank you for asking this question, as it raises important issues we all need to think about.

Edited to include the following after receiving relevant comments:

In real life, we often don't get to "move on to the next question." Try saying, "Do I understand correctly that you are saying [whatever ridiculous statement or question belongs here - being sure to use their words whenever possible]?" If they agree, then say, "I hear what you're saying. Are you willing to consider some other options in this case? I have concerns about doing it that way, and I have some alternatives that I would like you to consider. May I share them with you?" It takes tremendous tact to be a good project manager. I admire you for trying to improve your communication skills.

  • 1
    First of all, I do agree with your statement. Entirely. My question was asked for broad usage, e.g. in my office. The StackExchange was merely a (great) example for that. The method you mention is definitely a low-friction approach but has two flaws. Mainly, I can't do that when faced with the issue IRL with people who'll damage my project's delivery unless corrected. (This question was moved to meta and that's very misleading to any reader. I failed tremendously foreseeing that, hence lacking the disclaimer for it.) The other flaw is that people have corrected e.g. my dog and its toy – Konrad Viltersten Dec 20 '15 at 19:55
  • ...to my dog and it's toy (and then - again - to my dog's a toy). If we just pass and let it be, that kind of issues (please note it was only an example) tends to enforce themselves. And in the end, I often don't get the answer to my actual question (like this one) - I still haven't got a brief but polite way to express that (if there is any). Now, with that pointed out - I do agree that letting it go and moving on is a most mature approach. – Konrad Viltersten Dec 20 '15 at 19:58
  • Oh, that was vocal gold, mate. Totally off when it comes to the matter of brevity but I'm simply going to assume that adding that requirement renders the answer to be ain't gonna happen, hehe. I'm going to steal your formulations - just so you know. – Konrad Viltersten Dec 20 '15 at 20:23
  • @J.R. Thank you for fixing my formatting! I don't know how to do that yet. – Mark Hubbard Dec 20 '15 at 20:24
  • @MarkH - You can find some good starter tips here. – J.R. Dec 20 '15 at 20:30

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