I've come across a number of questions in the past week or so, often in the review queues, that require an answer that's exposition of this or that rudimentary aspect of chemistry (example). In many of these cases, I get the sense that the questioner has a very slight understanding of chemistry; often, the question itself is clearly composed on top of other, more fundamental misconceptions or errors. While such questions are related to chemistry, they're the sort of thing that is almost certainly being covered in whatever chemistry class the questioner is taking, or in the resource(s) they're using to try to learn chemistry. I have mixed feelings about the best approach to these.

On one hand, the questions are such that the information clearly is available in just about any chemistry resource out there. In the case where a questioner is enrolled in a class, these questions are probably best asked of the teacher/instructor of that class, or of the classmates of the questioner, and the question should probably be closed as off-topic for insufficient demonstrated research.

On the other hand, if someone is attempting to learn chemistry by independent study, they may not have such local resources, nor have enough understanding of chemistry to make sense of what's written in their textbook, or what's available to find online. In that case, perhaps there's an argument to be made that there is value in assisting them here, as they might genuinely not have anywhere else (good) to go.

In either case, there's almost certainly value in having very basic questions and answers on the site. However, due to the lack of knowledge of the questioner, often such answers turn into a prolonged back-and-forth that's poorly suited for the Q&A style of the site.

So... what to do? Attempt an answer? Vote to close? Depends? Invite the questioner to chat, to allow for more free-form explanation & discussion?

If vote to close, what reason should be used? Especially in the "question rests on faulty premises" situations, nothing seems to fit. ("Vote to close because the question is nonsense" would be pretty insulting....)

Looking back at my question, I see from the 'Related' links that it is not a new one; back in 2012, two different questions were asked along these lines. The conclusion I draw from answers to these two questions is that, at that time, the above sorts of questions would have been closed as off-topic. I hereby propose re-visiting the matter, now that the site has graduated and the size/character of the community has grown/changed.

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    $\begingroup$ Indeed there was some very rudimentary questions, thanks for posting this. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Jan 13, 2016 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ See this post: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8724/… $\endgroup$
    – Ben Norris
    Jan 14, 2016 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ @BenNorris That link doesn't address exactly what I mean, though. For example, the original linked question (prior to the community edit) misunderstands basic elements (ha) of writing chemical formulas, writing aluminum nitride as $\ce{AIN}$ (aie-eye-enn), and sodium carbonate as $\ce{NA2CO3}$. The question itself is moot, because the OP has composed it atop other, more fundamental errors. $\endgroup$
    – hBy2Py
    Jan 14, 2016 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ I think inviting the user to chat is always helpful, since it can clear out a lot of doubts. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2017 at 11:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The example from above is only visible to 10k rep users, therefore here is the complete and unabridged text of Explain to write formula of following: Why formula of aluminium nitride is $\ce{AlN}$ and not $\ce{NAl}$ and why is formula of sodium carbonate not $\ce{Na2CO3}$ $\endgroup$ May 9, 2018 at 13:26

1 Answer 1


Re-write the question to be more general (or at the least answer as if it was).

In your example question, it's somewhat clear the general realm where the underlying sticking point is - the questioner doesn't know how to write chemical formulas. You can probably salvage the question by bringing that fundamental question (e.g. "What are the principles of writing formula nomenclature?") to the fore as the main question, and then using the current question as an example of particular issues where the confusion lies (e.g. "For example, why is aluminium nitride written $\ce{AlN}$ and not $\ce{NAl}$ and why can't sodium carbonate be written $\ce{NA2CO3}$?").

You then can write a general answer which covers the general topic, and by extension the specific point the questioner originally asked - if you write a good answer about how to properly write chemical formulas, most questions of "why this and not that" should ideally be covered by that answer.

Ideally, the generalization of the question and answer are comprehensive enough and it can serve as a canonical answer. So future basic questions in the same vein can easily be flagged as duplicates.

Self answer to a new question.

Sometimes, though, there are multiple, unrelated confusions going on in a post, or the key confusion is something completely unrelated. If this question is too muddled to serve as a place to write a good answer to the basic question hiding within it, you can always post a new, clear question and then give your answer there. Then you can post a link to the new question in the comments/answer of the original, muddled question. Ideally the original poster will come back with an indication that one of the new questions was what they were really asking, and the question can be tagged as a duplicate.

You probably wouldn't want to make a habit out of such answer-via-self-answering-to-other-questions, due to the "reputation stealing" effects. Though being able to extract a core point of confusion from a truly muddled question is a talent, and I personally won't begrudge you any reputation you gain because of it.


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