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What are we supposed to do when a question we ask receives an answer that doesn't help answer the question?

There are multiple ideas on the proper response, which end up summing together to the rule that if someone doesn't understand your question, then you're straight out of luck and aren't allowed to clarify the question in any way.

Is this the intention? Or is there supposed to be some way to do this that actually lets you get your questions answered?

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  • $\begingroup$ Bet this is what you're talking about : Using winged-quadruped anatomy for many-winged fliers. For other people, please note that Ichtys King has put another question on a seemingly similar topic. I'm using A Rogue's Ant thought and vote-to-close though, don't have the time to check myself the similarities (yet) :/. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Oct 22 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena There are several other questions that I've had this problem with $\endgroup$ Oct 22 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ If your questions aren't getting the answers your are looking for, you're probably not communicating what you're looking for clearly enough. If this is a consistent problem you have you're also probably not communicating why your follow up questions are substantially different enough to not be closed as a duplicate. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Oct 22 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings So what should I do to fix a question that's being misunderstood? $\endgroup$ Oct 22 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ If this was happening on several of my question I would start asking myself if I can improve how I phrase them. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch Mod
    Oct 22 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ @IchthysKing If you happen to have troubles getting understood, remember you have the sandbox; It can help in tackling off some common issues, including mutual understanding of the subject at play. I often look at it when there are changes :) $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Oct 22 at 16:01
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What are we supposed to do when a question we ask receives an answer that doesn't help answer the question?

A good question! The very first thing you should always try is writing your questions in such a way that they are clear as to what you want and have sufficient background to encourage a knowledgeable person to work out an answer for you!

There are multiple ideas on the proper response, which end up summing together to the rule that if someone doesn't understand your question, then you're straight out of luck and aren't allowed to clarify the question in any way

This is false. You are not only allowed to clarify your question, you are encouraged to do so! You might be referring to your most recent query: that got reverted to its original state because there was already an answer that your clarifying edit would invalidate. That's not good. You'll notice, though, that the respondent altered the answer to suit your edit, so your revision got restored. All's swell that ends well.

Is this the intention? Or is there supposed to be some way to do this that actually lets you get your questions answered?

The ideal intention, really, is to encourage you to write high quality questions in the first place, so we don't have to go through all this nonsense asking for clarification, editing, reverting and rolling back. That gets old.

I can tell you this plain and simple: I love weird anatomy questions; and I get anatomy. I'd absolutely love to work on all your weird anatomy questions! But as I said in comments elsewhere, until you get your question writing skills on par with your creativity, I'm not going to bother!

The reason for that is simple: I don't want to waste time working on an assumption about what you really mean but didn't or couldn't express only to have you complain that my hard work doesn't even answer the question. Well? Ask the right question then!

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    $\begingroup$ I'd absolutely love to work on all your weird anatomy questions! me too. Please keep them coming, Mr. King. $\endgroup$ Oct 23 at 2:42
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There are 2 chief reasons for not getting the answers you want/expect:

  1. Your writing is not clear enough.
  2. Your target audience is not familiar with the topic and unable to provide an answer.

The first reason is something that you can work on. For example:

  • Take a look at thematically similar questions and see how they are asked.
  • Read the answers and see what words, reasoning, and assumptions they use (assumptions are rarely stated openly but they can be inferred).
  • Try to use vocabulary and delivery formats familiar to your audience so they can focus on your question rather than words and post's form.
  • It also might be helpful to ask people directly what causes them to misunderstand your question (please be warned that not everyone will be open to this kind of discussion and some people may even get offended at the suggestion that they misunderstood you or your intentions).

The second reason (people are not familiar with the topic) is something that you cannot control. If this is the case it might be better to ask your question elsewhere. Each community has its area of expertise and the WB.SE is no exception.

There is also another, albeit not so common, reason for misunderstandings: Failure of imagination. Sometimes people are so used to the way things are that they cannot imagine anything else. It is often the case with cultural beliefs and attitudes (e.g. something that is common in one's native culture is perceived as the only possible and natural way to do things). You may attempt to talk to people but it is never certain that you will get any positive outcome. Biases are not easy to overcome. It might be better to look for another community to ask your question.

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In overall, I agree with both Otkin and Elemtilas. You can indeed avoid most issues of this kind by ensuring you asked the question in the most understandable manner you can, then solving it if this still happens. I'll go more on the practical tips for each of the two category.

Before posting

Ensure the correct terminology is used for the theme

Reach out for your favorite dictionary (or translation dictionary) and check that the words used are the ones that should be used in English. It's especially true when you're not an English native, but it also applies as soon as you work in more specialized domains, where technical, accurate words (e.g. : imago) take over the vernacular, blurry ones (butterfly }i{ ).

There are as many good sources for that as there are bad ones. I personally like wiktionary along with wikipedia as it's open to everyone and you can get a deeper explanation of what it is (most pages on wikipedia start with "X is something"), but there are many others. If you have troubles with one word or in general are not good in English (when English is not your native tongue), check the most important words of your question on two different dictionaries/websites.

Check you wrote the same question as your title

A lot of people don't write the same question as in their title, which leads to confusion. My advice to be sure to have people understand and focused is to copy-paste the question in title at some point, and put it in bold (for example, but I use this a lot on my questions).

In that regard, I also advise to write titles in an interrogative form when possible, not just a thematic of three or four words. It's because those three or four words doesn't necessarily strike a direction the topic should take. For instance : "Anatomy of a bagleaf". Are we asking about "how the bagleaf anatomy came to be", or about "how this specific bodypart of the bagleaf will work with others"? Same theme, but different questions and different answers :)!

Read your question thrice to thrive

It's really simple, when you're done writing, read your question again first to check for spelling issues, but also a new time to check if all key parts are there. It doesn't take much time but gives a lot of results.

Sandbox!

Extending from the previous paragraph, here's a tool to confront your question without being embarrassed by the weight WB:SE edition procedures. And this one is the sandbox, here on meta.

It's rarely used (as of now), but it's quite efficient, especially for the cases people didn't get your meaning. If time is of an issue for you, just recall you are not forced to get the approval of 10 members of the "council of sandbox approbation" with 248-rules trials. It's just a way to measure how well your question will be received (number of votes and comprehension) and receive external opinions to improve the end result. Plus, people will be a lot less harsh in their feedback : It's not nice (and useless) to smash an ugly duckling question which has not even grown up publicly, after all!




After posting

Now you've written your question, all happy about it and how well it's written. But suddenly, the smile drops as one person thought "the wrong way". What to do?

Analyze the situation and give feedback

When there's a communication problem, you always need to look at the two entities -emitter and receiver- in order to check where the message distorted. To do that, clear up any confusion through a comment reexplaining shortly what you were asking. Don't repeat the same exact words as in your question, as it might be perceived the same way on the receiving side. Slightly alter it to make it "click!" inside the other's mind and see the quiproquo.

If the point that is the source of misunderstanding is not clear to you, then simply ask why they thought of answering on this topic rather than yours. Or more exactly, what part of your question made them answer this.

Choosing whether or not to edit the question

After this has been discussed, choose whether to edit the question or not. I'd advise more often to edit the question than not, since if one person misunderstood you, others might. The only case I might not change the question is when the answerer told they skipped a part of the question.

There's basically two ways to clarify your question : If it's about a misuse of one or two words or if many people are all the way off the board, you can change directly the question's content. If it's more on the middle ground of misunderstanding or you need to explain the use of a specific word, you might add either an addendum or a footnote (with the top number1).


1 : Like this one :p. For instance, I used this for this question (revision of 24th April 2021). You can write footnote numbers by using the tags <sup>N</sup>, with N being your number. Then it's all about italics and the horizontal rule button!

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent tips! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Oct 23 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure that the correct terminology is always helpful, especially if the question is related to disciplines not familiar to the majority of the WB.SE community. This is especially true for terms that are commonly used in everyday speech. For example, 'theory' is science and 'theory' in common use have very different meanings. I would instead suggest staying clear from academic jargon and terminology and using 'simple' and 'common' words as much as possible. Otherwise, one may find oneself in a situation where terminology is grossly misunderstood. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Oct 25 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin Yes, you should adapt to the overall technicity and complexity of the question, not always use the most complex term just for the sake of using it. I'll add this when I get the time. $\endgroup$
    – Tortliena
    Oct 26 at 6:38

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