I often find myself tempted to downvote a question because the asker has a fundamental misunderstanding of a pattern they are using, or an absurd approach to the problem they are trying to solve. However, I hold myself back because, as a question and answer site, this is an opportunity to correct their misconceptions. The problem is their approach, not their question; the question is the messenger and should not be shot.

I suspect that others may sometimes downvote for similar reasons.

Do fundamental misunderstandings of technical concepts warrant downvotes, polite correction, or both?

  • 5
    vote up if you like beating straw man genre; vote down otherwise
    – gnat
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 10:40
  • 1
    haha @gnat. Was not referring to anything that extreme. Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 14:29
  • 12
    I really hate when my questions are downvoted because are not so precise. Guess what, I am not professional "stackXYZer". I am asking question exactly because I am not an expert, I do not have the time to become such and then ask. If someone cares about the quality of the question, just to edit and improve it.
    – gsf
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 21:48
  • 1
    @gsf or better, elicit clarification and ask the OP to improve their own question.
    – MetaFight
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 15:25
  • 3
    @gsf "That city is too strict and authoritarian about littering. If it weren't for the fact that its streets were so clean I would never go back." (David Robinson)
    – gnat
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 7:44
  • 4
    @gnat I do not think the way the question is stated "littering" is a precise description of the targeted questions. If someone is more experienced from the one asking a question just help them. I though, find way too often this to be simply an illusion. I have seen so many people forcing their own limited understanding - and downvoting if the author does not see it that way.
    – gsf
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 17:05
  • at Stack Exchange it is assumed asker's burden to improve if their question is getting negative feedback, not answerer's one. For reasons why things work that way see eg Optimizing For Pearls, Not Sand. "We feel that the world is awash in questions, but not answers... Without a community of people willing to answer questions, it really doesn’t matter if there are questions at all, does it?"
    – gnat
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 17:13
  • 6
    @gnat I see the point, but there must a balance. It is very common when trying to solve one problem to push the pendulum so hard it to get to the other side. Frankly, I almost do not ask questions on these sites anymore. The burden to get through all StackOverflow quality "defenders" is so high it is easier to find the answers for your questions other ways.
    – gsf
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 19:28
  • 6
    @gsf yes, they can be burdensome sometimes. I do not find stackoverflow to be particularly useful, just personally. If its a very advanced question, seldom will someone with the requisite knowledge that the time to provide a good answer. When I do have a basic question (not common if you do a good amount of research) the time it takes to make it a highquality question is not worth it. Also, though the quality standards for questions are high, the quality standards for answers can be laughable: stackoverflow.com/questions/43857834/… Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 19:40

6 Answers 6


Votes should be used to indicate quality and usefulness and the lack thereof, and not to show agreement.

To be clear: it is great when askers write about their (possibly completely wrong) understanding because that makes writing a focused answer much easier. The ideal life cycle of a question is:

  • OP has a concrete problem.
  • OP tries to solve the problem on their own, e.g. by searching on the web or by asking colleagues. Nothing helps.
  • OP asks a question in which they explain the concrete problem with relevant constraints, and what they already tried. For a conceptual question, this means explaining their current understanding of a concept.
  • Community members with relevant expertise answer the question.
  • In the future, other people with similar problems find this Q&A so the same question will never be asked again.

In my experience, many downvote-worthy questions with fundamental misunderstandings or really weird ideas are not caused by writing a crappy question, but in the steps before that:

  • The question might be completely speculative and is not motivated by a concrete problem. Aliens ate my Unicode! Why do we need more than one programming language? *sigh*

  • The OP didn't bother with any research of their own first. If an online search for terms in the question or the relevant Wikipedia articles would immediately address the problem, or if they ask an overly broad “what is X” type question, the question is a waste of the community's time.

This, in my opinion, leads to the following possible reactions for us:

  • If the absurd approach or misunderstanding is the focus of the question and is sufficiently explained, this misunderstanding can be addressed with an answer.
  • If it is tangential to the question, comments can be used to notify OP about this. They might turn that into another great question!
  • If a fundamentally good question is obfuscated by unclear explanation, the question can be refined with edits or by asking for clarification in comments. For extensive discussions, a chat room about the question should be preferred.
  • If OP doesn't show their research effort, downvoting + asking for elaboration in a comment is the way to go. In stronger cases, also vote to close as too broad: a comprehensive answer would effectively have to be half a Wikipedia article, but we are not an encyclopedia.
  • If the misunderstanding or unusual approach renders the question incomprehensible, downvoting and voting to close as unclear is in order.

As with all moderation actions, you are not required to do anything. In particular, you are not required to craft a kind comment to help the OP improve the question. That is a nice thing to do, but can take too much time to be feasible. Votes and especially downvotes are also valuable moderation actions, so do not hold back: actively moderate the site to filter for the quality content you want to see more of, within the time budget you have, with any moderation tools you have available.


This depends to some degree on the individual case, but I think the problem with these questions is, uneducated readers could take the wrong assumptions for granted, especially when there is no top answer explaining the misconception, or the wrong assumptions are not obvious. A downvote is probably the easiest way of pointing out there is something wrong with the question without having to go into a long-winded discussion with the OP.

I have often stumbled upon posts, where if the asker had taken a little bit more care, he/she could have asked essentially the same question without making the wrong assumptions, or by stating clearly he knows he is making an assumption which might be wrong. For example, instead of asking something like

"I am trying to use OOP to solve problem X, and since the OOP way always must involve inheritance, I did it using this class hierarchy, which led me to problem Y. Is OOP broken?"

a better question could be

"I am trying to use OOP to solve problem X, and I was assuming inheritance might be a good idea to use, I did it using this class hierarchy, which led me to problem Y. Is there a better approach?"

So I think the appropriate action is

  • when you see such a question, and the wrong assumption is not a minor issue, downvote, leave a comment and ask the OP to edit his question
  • if you have have enough rep, and you think the question is worth it, try to fix it by editing the question by yourself
  • come back later to the question and remove the downvote after it was improved

(However, some questions are so badly written or so full of wrong assumptions they cannot be saved easily, so for this cases I recommend downvoting and probably close-voting as "unclear").

There is one issue with this, people often tend to take downvotes way too personal. So when leaving a comment after a downvote, one should be kind, make sure the OP gets to know how his/her question might be saved and encourage him to edit and improve the question.

  • 5
    Agreed with "leave a comment". I have learnt here (SE) that the right question in a comment can lead to the OP to change the way it's facing the problem, or its understanding of the problem. A good comment can be even better than a regular or mediocre answer. No need to say that it's more useful than a down-vote in these specific situations. It's a way to provide guidance
    – Laiv
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 20:28
  • 1
    Sometimes it is just that the OP doesn't have good communication skills, so you have to see the underlying question which is the one that need to be answered. Of course once you see it you might suggest the answer to edit is post to reflect that. I know that in workplace, there are frequently such in depth edit, showing the true problem of OP and removing a lot of unnecessary stuff, and they usually don't complain about it.
    – Walfrat
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 8:14

How you vote on a question should have nothing to do with what you think of the asker.

We are explicitly instructed to consider three things:

  • Research effort: because we shouldn't be used as a slow chatty substitute for Google.

  • Usefulness: because we're not a help site. Think about the thousands that come after the OP.

  • Clarity: because it's not good if only one or two answer posters are the only ones who can figure out what a question means.

The OP not understanding what they are doing is not a valid reason to down vote. It's arrogant to think they should. All we need is for the question to help point others to better understanding of an on-topic issue.


I think there is one potential issue with these questions that has not been addressed by the other answers.

...the asker has a fundamental misunderstanding of a pattern they are using, or an absurd approach to the problem they are trying to solve.

Often when someone is asking a question saying "I need to do X" but they do not understand the problem, they really need to do Y.

This is the XY problem. The correct way to address this issue is, if you feel so inclined, to use comments or a meta question to engage the asker to see what the real problem is. Maybe it is not an XY problem: maybe it is. Either way, the question likely needs to be edited, but the only way to clarify the question while still addressing the concerns of the asker is to work with him to figure out what the root issue is and how best to edit the question so it both accurately and clearly describes the problem.

If this is an XY problem, then follow the meta-guidance that I linked above. Engage the asker, figure out the problem they are really trying to solve. What will the answer to your question allow you to accomplish? Maybe we need to examine that problem instead. By discussing the question, perhaps we can improve it through editing and get the asker better answers.


They should not be downvoted at all, the question should be used to correct the OP about their misconceptions rather than fuel many new users conceptions about the arrogance of many veterans on this site.


I include this example of a question downvote for possible discussion related to the question the OP asks, although maybe this should be a question in its own right. If so, where should I ask it?

I have had one question down-voted. This is OK. I understand the reasons why. The technology that I am asking about is in its extreme infancy. Therefore there are no concrete questions yet. Research on the net finds no answers because no-one else has practical results yet. Almost no-one will understand the question because the terminology of the technology has not been standardized, taught or discussed on the web. Meeting this criterion: 'For a conceptual question, this means explaining their current understanding of a concept.' would take many pages. Few if any community members would have relevant expertise to answer the question. After a decade of searching I have found nobody else discussing the technology area in any concrete way. Wikipedia and the web only include information regarding the technology area that I have put there.

Nonetheless my question about the technology field is motivated by concrete problems. I have implemented technology in this field which has been used successfully in multiple production systems. So far the technology has only been used for cost savings although it can do more.

  1. I like the idea of comments asking for more clarification. Down-votes didn't help.

  2. I don't know if it is proper to add links to my web sites where I have posted my research. I don't know if this is proper to do so for StackExchange sites.

  3. I don't know how to ask a question in a branch of technology which does not show up under any tags or category lists.

  4. Does it even make sense to ask questions in a field that nobody else knows exists?

  5. Should I convert this answer into a question?

Here was the question: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/4070780/what-are-some-information-data-structures

  • 4
    This is not why your question was downvoted. It was downvoted because it was so broad and abstract as to be a poor fit for stackoverflow.com Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 19:52
  • consider giving a read to Why do 'some examples' and 'list of things' questions get closed?
    – gnat
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 5:55
  • The problem with a field that is in extreme infancy is that questions in this very new field will be broad and abstract. Is there a place in stack exchange where we can discuss new fields?
    – jonrgrover
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 12:53
  • I have converted my answer to a question here: softwareengineering.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8556/…
    – jonrgrover
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 13:50
  • 4
    @jonrgrover so basic data and information science is its extreme infancy? I did not see anything novel in your referenced question. Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 17:08

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