I'm new to unix.SE, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about how SE sites should work. I was a moderator on MathOverflow for several years, so I understand that it's important to keep the site clean, and I understand how this sometimes upsets users (especially new users). That said, I was surprised by the response to my question How can I loop over possible completions? I'm certainly not looking to get into fights on the internet, but I thought that it would be more useful to invite analysis of what went wrong here, rather than just deciding to never post on this site again. Hence, this post.

While I'm clearly biased, this seems like a particularly bad reception for a new user.

  • I think I asked a pretty clear question, even illustrating the sort of input/output I expect from the function I'm trying to produce.
  • I put considerable work into on possible solution before posting my question, and summarized this work in an answer. Since this possible solution could well be a blind alley, I posted it as an answer to keep the question itself clearer: I'm looking for an answer to the question, not comments on my possibly-bad approach.
  • A high-rep user posted an answer, apparently without reading the body of the question. I pointed out that his answer doesn't answer the question. He says my question wasn't clear. I ask how I could have made it clearer. He is silent.
  • This high-rep user, and another fairly high-rep user comment that my answer should be part of the question, saying that it will likely get deleted (!). I explain why I kept it separate, citing the FAQ. The high-rep user expresses amusement that I would refer him to the FAQ, and says "I wrote that after I saw your answer in the review queue where it is currently at 4:1 for deletion." Note: at this point the question had a mere 27 views.

I think, "Wow! What a waste of time." Aside from my initial question and answer, nobody has contributed anything on-topic, two high-rep users have added off-topic noise (which I realize is sometimes necessary when the original questioner is unclear), and apparently 5 people have engaged in the bureaucracy of voting to delete the on-topic answer. WTF?

[Edit] Thank you for the responses. I appreciate the effort. Let me comment on some common bits in the answers.
A. "The answer should have been part of the question." I think this is a respectable point of view. I don't think it would be terrible to merge them. If the answer were more partial (e.g. shorter than the question proper), I would agree that it should be part of the question, but as it is, I think it's clearer for them to be separate. If/when the question is conclusively answered, having included the partial answer in the question would cause one of a number of problems: either I'd edit the question to contain what is now a complete answer, or future readers looking to answer the same question would be distracted by a partial answer before getting to the real answer, or I'd edit the partial answer out of the question, rendering any answers which referred to it very difficult to understand.
B. "An answer should be a complete answer." I hope you don't believe this. An incomplete answer that somebody has put a lot of effort into can be very valuable. Would the answer have been deleted if it were posted by anybody other than me?
C. "It was correct to vote to delete." I've always used a vote to delete to mean "the site would be better without this". Did anybody vote to delete thinking this? If you strongly believe that the answer should have been part of the question, as seems to be the norm in this community, it takes less rep to edit than to vote to delete. See "what are the criteria for deletion" at https://meta.stackexchange.com/a/5222, which your FAQ points to. The answer does answer the question (albeit as a sketch, missing tedious details), and it is not of no value.

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    I do feel bad that you got a bad reception but using words like WTF from a moderator doesn't seem good at least to me.
    – Ramesh
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 1:54
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    @Ramesh: it's an acronym and I find it rather amusing how you try to put this up as a straw man argument. I think Anton was very clear in his intentions and I can fully understand and acknowledge the use of the acronym. It doesn't exactly help his point, but it conveys the level of frustration quite clearly. Maybe, all parties should engage in a chat ... assuming no one refuses that approach. Still: some high rep users are very rude and different SE sites are more or less welcoming. However, I never found Unix.SE unwelcoming. But then I joined it earlier than Anton. Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 20:26
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    Thanks for giving this feedback, as it's very hard to collect this kind of information. Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 9:38
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    Hi Anton. FWIW, I think in general that a partial answer is fine, but if you are asking for further feedback as part of that partial answer, it is likely better as part of the question. Don't let one bad experience put you off. There are all sorts of people here, and everyone has their own take on how things should work. If you want to talk to us, hop on chat. There are usually a few people there, mostly high rep users. And the occasional moderator. And for the record, this site is generally friendly and helpful. Maybe you caught us on a bad day - it happens. Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 16:09
  • The phrase "I've spent a lot of time thinking about how SE sites should work" implies something which I think is untrue. I don't believe all SE sites should have a strictly uniform approach. The subject matter of different sites leads to different approaches on how to solve respective problems. On U&L it's not so easy for us to separate an OP's specific situation from the abstract question they wish to ask. So on the topic of of OP's posting partial answers to their own question, I believe different SE sites should have different approaches. Commented Apr 10, 2023 at 11:29

8 Answers 8


I understand your disappointment, but:

  • I kinda agree with what Hauke did. He saw a post that was likely to get deleted and decided to comment on what's possibly wrong before it did. Throwing the FAQ at him (when, IMHO, you're wrong) isn't going to change how the others vote.

  • That answer, while a partial answer, is a whole question. It should be part of the question. Do not answer unless you have a concrete answer. You're the OP, you have the luxury of modifying the original question. Other users don't, so there's some justification if they post work-in-progress answers.

If you add that as edit to the question, there are two good scenarios:

  1. Somebody else fills in the missing part. Great, question as it stands is now answered.
  2. You discover how to do the missing part. Now you can edit out the current answer part from the question, fill it and post an answer. Again, question answered.
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    Thank you for your answer. How are those two good scenarios prohibited by keeping the answer separate? I think they're actually improved by keeping the answer separate (see A of my edit above)? See also B and C of my edit above. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 6:47
  • @AntonGeraschenko I don't recall what you answer actually looked like now, but you should be able to see it as a recently deleted post. Can you either update your original question, or add a screenshot to this meta question?
    – muru
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 7:30
  • @AntonGeraschenko They're prohibited by diverting attention from the question you originally asked to the question your answer asks.
    – muru
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 7:32
  • I've added it to the original question with slight modification. The modification is to emphasize that I'm more interested in answering the question than filling in the details of this particular approach. Supposing these modifications were in the original answer, do you still think its better to include it in the question? Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 7:35
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    @AntonGeraschenko I still think it is better. If I see question that says: "I want to do X. Here's how I think it can be done, but it has some drawbacks/I haven't figured it out yet. I am open to other approaches.", I see nothing wrong with that. It allows one to pursue your approach or look for another way. It is definitely better than your original question, since it shows effort, and provides as much information to others as you can.
    – muru
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 7:45
  • Also, even if somebody answers just the specific bit, you can edit and improve that post to a complete solution, or post your complete solution as answer. I have had that happen to me and I don't have any problems with it.
    – muru
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 7:47

First of all, thank you for taking the time to post here and discuss this. That takes a certain amount of time and effort and it is very much appreciated. That said, I too will agree that everything worked as it should here.

You linked to the Help pages; well those very clearly state that (how to ask):

Tell us what you found and why it didn’t meet your needs. This demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to try to help yourself.

And that (how to answer):

Read the question carefully. What, specifically, is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that – or a viable alternative.

And, finally (self-answer):

If you have a question that you already know the answer to, and you would like to document that knowledge in public so that others (including yourself) can find it later, it's perfectly okay to ask and answer your own question on a Stack Exchange site.

In other words, what you've done so far belongs in the question and answers should always be answering the question asked. Your answer was not answering the question. It was providing extra information needed for us to understand the question better and showing what you've tried so we don't reinvent the wheel. That's great stuff! We want to see it. Just not in an answer. It should be in the question where it belongs.

This, by the way, is the case on all SE sites since it is part of the generic FAQ and not specific to U&L. I am very surprised that someone with the SE experience you have is not aware of that. Answers are answers, this is pretty much the one golden rule that holds true across the whole network. It is certainly true for the 6 sites I contribute to regularly.

Reading your question, I thought someone had been rude to you. Given that this is a site for *nix geeks, a breed that is not famous for their social skills, patience or excessive care not to offend, I was ready to come in and wave my mod hammer around chastising rude users. This is not a problem we have often but it does happen. However, looking at the comments you received, I see only polite explanations of how you can improve your post so it doesn't get deleted:

Please use the edit link on your question to add additional information. The Post Answer button should be used only for complete answers to the question.


This should be part of the question, not an answer (it may get deleted).

Both comments are perfectly civil (at worst, the last one can be called terse, but not rude as such), and are trying to explain to a new user how the site works and what we expect from our users. Good! That's precisely what we want new users to find here: helpful people who push them in the right direction and aid them in improving their posts. I really don't understand what you found to take offense at.

You answered the last comment with:

This is not part of the question. This is a partial answer which happens to be produced by the same person who asked the question. I considered making this part of the question, but decided that would detract from the clarity of the question. I refer you to the site FAQ: unix.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-ask, unix.stackexchange.com/help/how-to-answer, and unix.stackexchange.com/help/self-answer

You are directing the user who tried to help you to the very same Help pages which, apparently, you yourself have failed to read (since, as I showed above, they explain that all information relevant to the question should be in the question and that answers should provide an answer). Next time, at least refer to the specific section of the Help pages which you feel supports your choice. As it stands, your comment was a little patronizing and did not explain why you feel the Help pages suggest you were doing the right thing.

In conclusion, what I see here is the community trying to help a new user in the best traditions of SE. Why not just edit your question, include the information from your answer and leave it at that? It's only been a day!

  • Thank you for your answer. The objection in the first half of this answer hinges on the firm belief that a partial answer should not be posted as an answer (see B of my edit above). Regarding the second half, while I admit that my comment was patronizing (which I regret) and my FAQ references were imprecise, the FAQ does support me here (see C of my edit above). Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 6:49
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    @AntonGeraschenko yes, a partial answer should not be posted as an answer. At best, it is a comment. That goes double when it is the OP posting who can simply add it to the question body. The FAQ you linked to states that For answers, any post that is not an answer (should be a comment, doesn't answer the question, etc.) should be deleted. Since your answer wasn't actually answering but only showed what you'd tried, it falls under that category. Also, you ended your answer with a question making it seem like even less of an answer than it actually was. You have made it much, much better now.
    – terdon Mod
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 15:26
  • I think you're interpreting "does not answer" in a strange way. I read it as something like "aims at something other than answering the question", not " is not a perfect answer". If somebody else had made that progress, should they have posted it as a comment? Regarding going double for the OP, see A of my edit above. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 15:35
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    @AntonGeraschenko no, "not an answer" applies to anything that's not answering the question. Including work in progress. Unless your snippet actually did what you wanted it to do in which case it is indeed an answer. Also, since you ended your answer with a question, that made it look even less of an answer than it actually was. As for your A edit, I'm afraid most of them don't stand. Users look for answers in the answer, why would they be distracted by info in the question? Ideally, the answer you receive will include all information or, you can post a full answer yourself once you have it.
    – terdon Mod
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 16:27
Aside from my initial question and answer, nobody has contributed anything on-topic...

This is a very odd claim to make.

Someone did attempt to assist you, by providing an answer which would qualify it as on topic in my view (the fact that it is not the answer you were looking for is due as much to the phrasing of the question as it is to Hauke's misreading of it. Note, neither of those statements is intended to be pejorative). In fact, it is very much par for the course here, where people will attempt to clarify requirements through the comments and refine their answers in response.

With respect to the second issue, the votes to delete your answer (I was one of those who voted in favour of deletion), I think you did yourself a disservice with the "what I have learned so far" heading. However, after reading this question and looking back at your question and answer, I would vote the same way again: it is not a complete answer (by your own criteria) and, if added to the question, would make it far easier for someone else to provide a comprehensive answer; in its current state, it has the opposite effect...

Your final summation here, "Wow! What a waste of time" is similarly odd; the question has been up for less than half a day, has attracted one answer and, if the question were further refined, undoubtedly would attract more. Petulantly dismissing the effort people have put in to help you because it doesn't meet your expectations says a lot more about you than it does about the community here.

  • Thank you for your answer. "if added to the question, would make it far easier for someone else to provide a comprehensive answer; in its current state, it has the opposite effect..." Why does it have the opposite effect? See also B and C of my edit above. I'll grant you my petulance; I regret that I reacted this way. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 6:48
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    @AntonGeraschenko In its current state, it discourages further participation, for two reasons. One, it suggests that you are about to answer it yourself anyway, and two, (less significantly, but shouldn't be disregarded) your interactions with others around it are not exactly welcoming...
    – jasonwryan
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 6:52
  • One, the point of the answer is that it is a tedious and unsatisfying solution. Even if all the awful details were fleshed out, it's a mess to go through to get functionality similar to what one could get by simply hitting <TAB><TAB>. It would have been better to say so explicitly. Two, the interactions did not exist when the answer was posted (is this why you say "current state"?). I hope C of my edit above explains my interactions around it. I was reacting to what I felt was unreasonable hostility; delete votes just didn't make sense. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 7:08
  • @AntonGeraschenko I understand your reaction now. As to the first part, I was referring to your (partial) answer, not Hauke's.
    – jasonwryan
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 7:15
  • I was referring to my (partial) answer as well. If the details of that answer are filled in, it's still a "bad" answer in the sense that it feels unnecessarily complicated relative to the simplicity of <TAB><TAB>, which gives the same functionality in a non-programmatic way. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 7:18

I'll resist saying much about MathOverflow other than that it's not a particularly good example of how things will go on the average Stack Exchange site -- what happened in this post seems pretty standard. Content that explains what you've tried so far that hasn't totally solved the problem yet almost always goes in the question. At the risk of just repeating what comments already said, an answer shouldn't end in a follow-up question, it should be a complete answer. The comments aren't "noise", they're trying to explain what went wrong. The other answer is wrong, but the poster just misunderstood the question.

  • Thank you for your answer. See B of my edit above. Having seen the community standards reflected in these answers, I grant that the comments aren't noise. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 6:48

I think I asked a pretty clear question, even illustrating the sort of input/output I expect from the function I'm trying to produce.

I agree. I had no trouble understanding what you wanted.

I put considerable work into on possible solution before posting my question, and summarized this work in an answer. Since this possible solution could well be a blind alley, I posted it as an answer to keep the question itself clearer: I'm looking for an answer to the question, not comments on my possibly-bad approach.

Since this possible solution could be a blind alley, it is not a partial answer, but a potential answer. What you posted as an answer does not solve the problem. If someone knows nothing about the subject, they can't use your answer for anything. Thus the right thing was to post this in a question, stating that you'd tried this but weren't sure whether it would be fruitful. Your edit to the question was great. Posting it as an answer wasn't right.

In contrast, muru's answer is a partial answer: it only works in the case of a completion defined by complete -F, not in the general case, but it does cover the example you gave as well as many others. If someone knows nothing about the subject, but is only interested in this fairly common case, this answer will suit them fine.


As one of the users that flagged your posted answer for deletion, allow me to offer a little more of an explanation. It is common-place for OPs to edit their posts to include updated information if they should discover more or clarify something for prospective answerers.

I did not intend for you to be discouraged, but rather for you to add the clarification to the OP so that people who can answer your question know which parts you still need answered.

Additionally, as @muru mentioned, if you manage to discover the full answer then it would certainly be beneficial to edit your question and answer to be of the Q&A style.

Regardless, again, my vote was not intended to discourage you, but rather shift how you approach your question.

  • Thank you for your answer. See A and C of my edit above. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 6:48

B. "An answer should be a complete answer." I hope you don't believe this. An incomplete answer that somebody has put a lot of effort into can be very valuable. Would the answer have been deleted if it were posted by anybody other than me?

Perhaps not, but I still think what you had belonged in your question. The difference between that and someone else doing the same thing is not a matter of content but of context.

I think a partial answer is okay if there are actually multiple questions in the "question", and the "partial" answer deals with at least one of them (questions which are subject to this, however, probably aren't very good questions to begin with and should have been broken up).

I think an answer which sketches a possible approach to a solution, which is what you did, is also okay unless, as in this case, it is really an addendum to the question. What's the difference?

  • In the first case, someone has come along, grokked what you are trying to do, and suggested, via an outline of some kind, how you might approach it. This is fairly reasonable, particularly if a complete solution would be too long.

  • In the second case, the person who asked the question is elaborating on what it is they want to accomplish. That is not any kind of answer. It's a modification of the question.

Your reasoning seems to be that it is a "partial answer" because if someone else wrote exactly the same answer, it might be acceptable. I agree, it might be (although in this case, I'd say it was of low quality and likely to be downvoted). However, the context, as just described, is not at all the same. By analogy: someone else who comes along with the same idea could take it upon themselves to, instead of providing the partial sketch answer, edit the partial sketch into your question with the suggestion that "here's a potential approach I'd like to see elaborated", resulting in exactly the same content in the question. However, again, context would almost certainly make this inappropriate.


As a low ranking user, not having access to the review queue, I can understand your pain. As a user who does have access to the review queue on another site in the SE network, I can understand the poor schmucks who had to review your question too! ;-)

So trying to give a balanced (?) answer:

If the review queue contains more then 1000 items, the poor schmucks mentioned above, have to review 40 items per day or 20 if lower... (Again: I'm a low ranking user here, so I have no clue how big the review queue was when you asked your question, but yours was 1 out of 20 or 40 questions to review).

I've visited math.stackexchange.com once and knew I was out of my league straight away: I can solve integrals because of my scientific background, but what is going on @Math is in stark contrast to @Unix...

@Math I browsed around and never saw anything which even remotely looks like the ... erm, pile of bovine excrement??? that occasionally comes in as a "question" here @Unix and has to be triaged to be able to help as many users as possible...

Your question unfortunately got mixed up in the triage queue, a few people saw a duplicate so tried to get you to an answer ASAHP and flagged it as such... :(

So think of your mum asking a question here, and all of your friend's mums and then think about your own question in-between those... (If your mother is a maths teacher, think of your crazy uncle Bob and all his friends!)

Shrug, re-open your question and get an answer!!! >:)

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    No, it is a duplicate. The problem arose when OP originally posted what they tried as a partial answer, and ended that answer with a question as well. Somebody flagged that answer, it got a canned comment, the FAQ came into play, and so on. The answer got deleted in due time, and later OP merged it in to the question. OP is satisfied with the duplicate, as they indicated in a comment on my answer.
    – muru
    Commented Feb 21, 2015 at 23:49
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    The U&L review queues tend to be rather small. Right now, they are practically empty. (Which makes it difficult to earn the reviewer badges around these parts.)
    – user
    Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 15:27

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