For some time now I've been noticing a pattern: when a question about a relatively broad subject gives a specific example of the subject, nearly all its answers will be about the example rather than about the subject it is an example of.

I've seen it on the main site and in meta. It applies to questions asked by a variety of different people, and there doesn't seem to be any tendency for it to occur in any particular tag group more than in others. The habit of answering the example rather than the subject is, likewise, not confined to any small number of particular individuals. It's just a pattern of citizen behavior on the site.

It's gotten to the point where I'm loathe to provide examples of any sort--or even to say what it is that prompted me to ask the question--even though I think this reduces the quality of my questions, because I know it's likely to reduce the number of useful answers.

What can we do about this, as both askers and answerers of questions?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You'll forgive me, I hope, if I don't provide any particular examples of this pattern. [grin] \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Oct 13, 2013 at 6:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ All the answers focusing on an example can be a symptom of the "general" part of the question being unclear, impossible to answer, or some kind of category error. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Oct 13, 2013 at 7:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AlexP I don't think that makes example-focused answers any more justified, though. If the question is unclear, impossible to answer, or a category error, then it should be fixed or closed, not answered poorly. So again: what can we do about this, as both askers and answerers of questions? \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Oct 13, 2013 at 7:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ So in general you should be asking a question because you have a specific problem... And that problem is important. How much of this is a problem related to more general 'academic' questions in the first place? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Oct 13, 2013 at 7:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk I'm sure it happens that way sometimes, but a question being poor doesn't justify people giving poor answers. I'm not saying the problem is only in the answerers, but I don't think "poor questions deserve poor answers" is going to cut it either. If poor questions are the root of the problem then we need to talk about a behavior patten of giving poor answers instead of improving the questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Oct 13, 2013 at 7:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ What I'm saying is that people fixate on the example because they assume that must be the problem you're facing because you should be asking about a problem. In which case it's not "poor answers" per se IMO. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Oct 13, 2013 at 7:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ We've got a ton of general questions (about rules, policies, etc) which are totally fine and dandy. But when an example is given, suddenly it becomes about that one instance instead of the rule that's actually been asked about. I've seen it in meta too, where policy clarification is requested because of an incident and instead of talking policy everyone just argues about the incident. This is somewhat tied to a lesser trend of assuming that someone who doesn't say they have a problem is just asking idly, instead of assuming good-faith use of the site. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Oct 13, 2013 at 7:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good general questions start as general questions. A specific problem can't be turned into a general problem by just eliding the details of the problem. That's an example of an XY Problem: the asker is assuming they know what is relevant and pre-filtering the possible solutions, which is self-defeating on a Q&A site. A question either starts out as a general problem, or it starts out a specific problem, and it can only degrade the question's quality and answerability by trying to transform one into the other. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 14, 2013 at 6:50

1 Answer 1


This is a case where the burden falls squarely on the asker (and people helping them edit the question). People asking questions need to be aware of two things:

  1. Some questions are extremely difficult to communicate in the abstract sense.

  2. Given an example, people will assume that it's a good, comprehensive example.

If you include an example that is not comprehensive, the first thing to do is stop and realize that it's a warning sign of a bad question. Often the details of a specific case will provide much better solutions than a "comprehensive" one-size-fits-all answer. Either the systems in question have rules to address the problem, or tonal differences are important to the answer.

It is much, much, better to ask a specific question and get a general answer than the other way around.

I have also seen good questions ruined because the asker said to themselves "well, I ran into this problem in D&D, but I'm sure this applies to other games as well, so I'm going to ask for the generic case."

If you still feel confident about your question, then the next step is to include multiple examples whose overlap is the solution you want.

If you can't come up with multiple overlapping examples (or if it takes many examples to get to your point), then you're looking at one of three cases:

  1. You are asking a bad question.

  2. You do not yet understand your own question well enough to ask effectively. More research is required.

  3. You are asking as one question something which should have been many.

Once you've come up with your set of answers, be communicative and specific via comments on answers that fall short. "Yes, this makes sense for the first example, but what about the second? This doesn't seem like it fixes (whatever)." Be an active participant in your questions.


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