# Are “what did <person> mean” questions on topic?

I've noticed several questions along the lines of What did <Person> mean when he said X. The questions are asking for some explanation of the quote. They seem a bit trivial (and in the case of Python seem more like an English question).

Can these questions truly be answered? Unless there is an interview or blog post where the speaker explains himself, wouldn't any answer be merely speculation? Are questions of this nature appropriate for the site?

• Thanks for asking this: it could use a formal evaluation. Note that there are a bunch of questions of this ilk after one recent one got closed (and reopened based on community feedback). I went through and tried to clean up the existing questions we had after that question was reopened – user8 Dec 5 '11 at 20:17
• In my jwz question, I was certainly hoping someone could source a blog or interview where he explained it. That would make a good guideline if these questions remain allowed on the site. – Paul Biggar Dec 5 '11 at 22:22
• @PaulBiggar I don't want you to think I'm targeting you or anyone else in particular. I just saw several of this style spring up all of a sudden and so I wanted to find out what the status of their validity is given that this type of question has potential for a lot of (ab)use. – user7007 Dec 5 '11 at 22:29
• @Glenn: Oh, I'm not complaining. Looking back, my question could have been asked a lot better. Certainly, the answers I got did not "make the internet a better place". Mark Trapp's answer below would have led to a better question. – Paul Biggar Dec 5 '11 at 23:00
• @Glenn, the reason so many showed up all at once is because Mark went through and edited them one after another, so they all moved to the top of the list together. – tcrosley Dec 5 '11 at 23:57
• possible duplicate of Discuss this \${blog} – gnat Feb 20 '14 at 13:04

## 4 Answers

Can these questions truly be answered?

Yes. Many of our users are not native-English speakers. Many of our users are new to programming and have heard the sayings but not where they came from.

• Any question can be answered, in some fashion. That doesn't necessarily make it a good question. – Robert Harvey Dec 5 '11 at 20:34
• Even for native English speakers, it may be difficult to grasp a quote without broader (literary, cultural, &c.) context. As long as the quote is directly relevant to programming, I think this kind of question definitely has a place here. – Jon Purdy Dec 5 '11 at 20:39
• I completely agree, as long as the quote is relevant to programming, it's valid. – ApprenticeHacker Dec 6 '11 at 4:53
• If it's a question of English, then EL&U would be home. But none of these questions seem to be coming from someone struggling with English - they're people trying to grok the culture that surrounds these quotes. – sq33G Dec 26 '11 at 11:07

They are on-topic, provided they meet the six guidelines.

Example of a marginal "What does this mean" question, demonstrating no research effort:

What does "Premature optimization is the root of all evil" mean?

Examples of good alternative questions, meeting the six guidelines:

When is optimization not premature and therefore not evil?

Is premature optimization always bad?

Is premature optimization really the root of all evil?

What optimizations are premature?

I think these questions are just barely on-topic, and are definitely at the bottom end of the quality spectrum. My particular issue with them is that they don't explain what's wrong or what the problem is.

Consider on Stack Overflow when someone pastes a wall of code and says, "This isn't working. Can someone tell me what's wrong?" Everyone's first comment, provided the question isn't immediately closed as "not a real question", is "What have you tried? What specifically is giving you trouble?"

Pasting a quotation and saying "What does this mean?" is the same thing. What, specifically, about the quotation is indecipherable? What have you found so far about the subject? What are you looking to get out of knowing the answer to the question? Give us something to work with.

There is some value in knowing what popular quotations about software development mean: programmers like to invoke them as shibboleths in documentation and discussions. But without some context, these questions leave the door wide open to arm-chair philosophizing about what the author could've meant.

• I agree with this. I asked a question about jwz's regex quote, but didn't explain what specifically I didnt understand. I ended up with a ton of answers explaining that regexes were hard, which neither answered the question, nor provided useful information to a future reader. I should have said something like "what specifically is the 2nd problem that jwz talks about?" – Paul Biggar Dec 5 '11 at 22:19

I think that if the question is essentially about the meaning of the words themselves, i.e. the use of the English language, then the question should be on English Language & Usage.

If the question is more about the meaning of a quotation as a whole and the concepts underlying that quotation then (in the case of programming related question) Programmers would be a better place for it.

To my mind, What does Tim Peters mean by “complex is better than complicated”? seems to tend towards being an English language question, whereas What did Bill Gosper mean by saying a data structure is just a stupid programming language? seems to be a deeper question about the meaning in a programming context.

Thinking of it another way, if the question can be answered by just explaining the meaning of the words (it is not subjective) then it it is a good option for EL&U, otherwise it is probably better off handled as a subjective question in the most appropriate stack exchange site.

• The question could be not suited for EL&U, if the explanation relies on some programming concepts. If the explanation can be given from who knows English, but doesn't know programming, then it is fine on EL&U. – kiamlaluno Dec 6 '11 at 0:14
• @kiamlaluno - Given that EL&U seems happy with questions like Word for application that is both sender and receiver, and even quite technical answers like Servent, I think EL&U is perfect for questions which can be answered by explaining the meaning of the words themselves. – Mark Booth Dec 8 '11 at 18:02
• The question on complex vs complicated specifically asks " in the context of Python and programming". I don't think EL&U would be prepared to answer that. The question of what makes C++ dangerous definitely is a programming question; see the accepted answer. And the question about JWZ's famous line on regex is asking for an explanation of what the two problems might be - again, not a question of English language but of programming knowledge. – sq33G Dec 26 '11 at 11:05