In this discussion under the primary question: Hypothetical maximum number of embryos from one woman?

I have been making my suggestions in the comments and not as an answer because I am under the impression that an answer should actually answer the question. This question asks for numbers, which I simply can't provide. But my ideas proved helpful to the original poster.

Where is the dividing line between something best said in (multiple) comments vs something best said (and collected) as an answer? And, if I've crossed that line, what's the best way to fix it (or is it too late?)?

Note: The question linked to as a duplicate is helpful and related but is more about the acceptability (or not) of putting answers into comments. My question is more about figuring out which types of responses belong where.

up vote 2 down vote accepted

First off, it's almost never too late to fix something. It's certainly never too late to learn a better way of doing things.

The canonical reference on what should be a comment and what should not be is probably the comment everywhere privilege description page in the help center. Towards the bottom, that page has two relevant headings: "When should I comment?" and "When shouldn't I comment?". (Emphasis original.) I really do encourage you to look that over, if you haven't already.

There's also the comment field placeholder text providing some brief guidance. On a question:

Use comments to ask for clarification or add more information. Avoid answering questions in comments.

and on an answer:

Use comments to ask for clarification or add more information. Avoid comments like “+1” or “thanks”.

To me, that is the basic litmus test: does the comment primarily serve to make the post better in some way, or does it primarily serve to provide an (alternative) answer?

If the primary intent is to suggest a way in which the post can be improved, and the suggestion to do so will be invalidated by the post owner following that advice, then it's very likely a comment. (This typically, but not always, takes the form of questions, or question-esque phrasings: "Did you consider X?" or "What happens if someone does Y in your world?" or "Tell us a bit more about Z.")

If the primary intent is to provide an answer, which will provide some kind of lasting value and on which there is no clear action for the post owner to take, then it's very likely an answer. This is the case even if the answer is short, or of low quality, or even wrong.

Sometimes answers will be written in a way that naturally involves questions, but they are still legitimately answers to the original question. For example, one could just as well write "What spectral class is your star? If it's a G2V, then you can..." as one could write "If your star is spectral class G2V, then you can...". In such a situation, the choice to pose a question is a stylistic choice that doesn't significantly change the meaning of the text, and therefore doesn't change the text's answer-ness.

Similarly, a comment suggesting that something could be improved can be posted as a statement. "This answer would be better if you elaborated on X." or "It would be easier to answer this question authoritatively if you tell us how Y and Z interact." are both perfectly legitimate comments. Once the post owner edits to elaborate on X, or describe how Y and Z interact, the comment has no lasting value (and thus can be deleted).

In most cases, it's pretty clear which is the case. In some cases, it's really a matter of judgement. My experience here is that some moderators are more lenient, and others are more strict. What we typically don't do, however, is go hunting for comments to delete; but if they are brought to our attention (via flags, or via ordinary browsing), then they can be fair game. Sometimes comments will be migrated to chat, and at other times they will be outright deleted; which button to press is very much a judgement call on the part of the moderator handling the situation.

To me, broadly speaking, comments shouldn't be used to bypass the normal quality control mechanisms of the site. Low-quality content is still low-quality content even when posted as a comment. If you don't have the time to post an answer at that moment, but you have an idea for an answer, consider instead bookmarking the question (either in your browser, or via the star near the voting buttons and the "favorites" tab in your profile) until you have the time to provide an actual answer. You certainly won't earn less reputation that way...

Also, comments are ephemeral. I like to think of comments as post-it notes attached to a post. They are great for quickly jotting down something that you'll need to remember the next day, but they are lousy as archival records.

Comments can be deleted at almost any time for almost any reason (and not just by diamond moderators), and when deleted, will be invisible to, and cannot be recovered by, ordinary users. Questions and answers cannot; any deleted question or answer can be seen by any user with 10,000 or more reputation (2,000 on beta sites), and can easily be undeleted if necessary.

  • Thanks. My comment stream started off with a simple aside to others making an unwarranted medical assumption. Then I added a bit more. And a bit more. And realized it really was an answer all along. – Cyn Nov 8 at 20:12
  • @Cyn I have had times when I started writing a comment, and then realized that it was actually an answer. There's no reason why you can't then combine and expand the comments into an actual answer. – a CVn Nov 9 at 10:32
  • Yeah, I've done that many times while writing a comment. This was the first time I didn't realize it should be an answer until I'd already posted 3 comments :-) – Cyn Nov 9 at 19:42

Ideally, the purpose of comments (for questions) are only to request clarification of the question.

Regrettably, they're used for a bazzillion other purposes as well — not the least of which is to carry on a conversation that would be better hosted in Chat. The problem is that, in many ways, comments are more visible/powerful than the questions and answers themselves. People can upvote comments, but not downvote. Commentary on comments becomes quickly intertwined with other discussions. The length of the total comment chain can become so long that moderators will push the entire chain into Chat just to restore the visibility of the question (which means whatever value those comments had is fundamentally lost. Few people push into those chat-comments).

What's really regrettable is that there isn't a hard-and-fast rule for when-you-should vs. when-you-shouldn't. But, here are some of my opinions (I make no representation that this is true across the community).

  • If I'm making a quick one-off comment about, "you could consider this...," I'll do that in a comment with no expectation of a discussion.

  • If the discussion gets very long (2-3 comments, though I'm guilty of letting it run longer), I invite the OP/participant to chat.

  • If I have more than two sentences to say about a subject, that goes in an answer, even if it doesn't answer the question 100%. Not only does this keep the comment chains clean, it gives other participants the change to build on what I had to say in a focused and meaningful way.

Disclaimer. I'm absolutely sure that if you review my comment history you'll find that I've not been diligent about the above stated rules/obeservations. Shame on me, but thanks for providing this opportunity to answer so that I could look into my own mirror and improve my participation on this site.

  • Thanks. I have seen people tell others with short answers that they should have just written a comment... But I decided to go ahead and use the comments in this case to write up an answer (with some expansion). – Cyn Nov 8 at 3:44

My rules are close to JBH.

It is a comment if

  • It says "no" to question asking for "how". example
  • It provides answer OP probably does not want, but still allowed by the question. example
  • It provides an incomplete way of finding answer. example

It is an answer if

  • It simply answers the question in a way that's probably useful to OP.
  • It is a "no" to or questions in "can it be?" format. example
  • It provides a complete way of finding an answer, even if not being an answer on the silver tray. example

Reason is

that the first three kinds will probably make OP edit his question in a way that will invalidate them if they were answers (tell why such solution wasn't considered, change something to make impossible possible etc), or maybe help someone to write an answer.

  • The examples here are very illustrative, thank you for putting those together! – Dubukay Nov 9 at 20:38

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