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In 2011 and 2012 there were discussions on Meta about ensuring that titles were grammatically correct questions.

I seem to remember there was a campaign to edit new questions to ensure that:

A good title is formulated as a question, is grammatically correct, uses consistent capitalization, occupies one line or less, and clearly indicates the main point.

Recently I have noticed a lot of titles being edited from a clear question to be a noun phrase, gerund or statement. For (a made up) example, "How do I add a layer to QGIS?" becomes "Adding a layer to QGIS". There seem to be many edits like this recently.

This can lead to ambiguity. Is the question now about how to add a layer, is there a problem with adding layers, or is someone proudly describing how they added a layer? In particular there are cases where "how do I ..." is needed to distinguish it from "Why can I not ..." - the former a normal usage query, the second often dealing with a bug or misunderstood feature.

In some cases it is perfectly clear what the question is about and the edits lead to brief, keyword-style titles that are more readable (or at least shorter). However, it contradicts what the community discussed some years ago and put effort into. Is my concern about 'proper questions' now old-fashioned, or out of fashion, or somehow not correct anymore?

Some examples (not trying to call out any particular edits, there are a lot of these and I grabbed some easy-to-find ones):

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    Do you have some examples of edited question titles? – Midavalo Sep 17 at 1:15
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    There is a lengthy discussion on this subject, although you will have to review the deleted answer: gis.meta.stackexchange.com/q/4818/8104 – Aaron Sep 17 at 2:21
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    Also, there is a great answer on meta SE which applies at GIS SE: meta.stackexchange.com/a/10648 – Aaron Sep 17 at 2:25
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    Aaron good links, had missed the gis.meta discussion on this; I see @underdark used the exact same quote from whuber! – Simbamangu Sep 17 at 5:39
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    There is no ambiguity. The goal is to add a layer. If there is a problem adding a layer, then the title should say it “Adding a layer in QGIS returns the error message ...”. – Andre Silva Sep 18 at 14:10
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    I meant, I don’t believe there is ambiguity (opinion). – Andre Silva Sep 18 at 14:27
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    There certainly is some ambiguity in some cases, as I think I illustrate in my question. However - this discussion wasn't meant to be about an absolute rule of 'how to write your title', but why titles are being edited from sentences to phrases when there is no substantial change needed or a benefit to clarity. I reverted one of my questions' edited titles, had the editor undo my revert, and thought at that point I'd better check what's going on ... – Simbamangu Sep 19 at 9:33
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    @Simbamangu For what it's worth, your first example, Duplicating layer in QGIS?, IMO your original title was much clearer than the shorten that you reference. I'd rather my brain spend 0.2 milliseconds reading the longer how do I title and understanding, than having to read a shortened one 6x and guess does it mean "are they having a problem doing this" or "do they want to do this". – KHibma Sep 19 at 17:42
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I am with you on any desire you have to see grammatically correct English used in the bodies of questions here because we want these to be clearly written and to portray a professional appearance.

Titles are intended to be a summary of what is in the question and some suggest using only grammatically correct sentences for these too.

When I think about a title I may start with something along the lines of "How do I add a layer to QGIS?", "When should I add a layer to QGIS?", "Does anyone know how to add a layer to QGIS?, etc. However, I never write a title as long as these because I think doing so results in long lists of titles that all start with the same few words. Anyone reviewing them needs to skip over the first 2-5 (sometimes more) words in order to get to the crux of the question being summarized.

An excellent substitute for all the "How do I do", "How to", "When should I", "Does anyone know how to", etc sentence beginnings is a gerund (a term you introduced me to in your question). Instead of using the longer constructs we just take the verb that follows them and end it in "ing". Using similarly constructed titles without repetitive beginning phrases makes them quicker to read and duplicate candidates far easier to spot.

The case for dropping "How do I do", etc was well made in https://meta.stackexchange.com/revisions/10648/21 where section 3. Lead with the most important words mentioned the F-Shaped Pattern of Reading on the Web: Misunderstood, But Still Relevant (Even on Mobile). The current revision of that question has grossly distorted the original author's intent so that it now omits this evidence, and offers the opposite advice instead.

I think @JeffAtwood's answer to the same question provides better examples of good titles.


I have moved away from my earlier insistence that every title should end in a question mark after @DanGetz commented:

I agree that shorter titles are a benefit, but for most questions, I think the gerund form makes sense if and only if there is no question mark on the end.

I then sought advice from the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange as Can a gerund be used to start a question title? and received similar advice.

Consequently, I now favour titles that:

  • often begin with a gerund, like "Adding layer to QGIS"
  • do not have to end in a question mark (some may; most will not, including those that begin with a gerund)
  • IMHO the potential ambiguity is more often a downside - and a shorter title doesn't help with determining if something's a duplicate, just the opposite! (duplicate detection typically taking a lot of rereading of the new question then searching both online and through my fragile memory ...) – Simbamangu Sep 18 at 13:56
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    Additionally, non-native English speakers may have more difficulties reading questions that are not grammatically correct. – Aaron Sep 18 at 23:58
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    @Aaron I think the opposite. I think many of those whose first language is not English will find less words, while retaining full meaning, will be quicker for them to read by not having to "translate" or skip over 2-5 words before getting to the essence of the question being summarized. – PolyGeo Sep 19 at 0:23
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    @PolyGeo Using improper grammar and punctuation is counter to all of the information I have read regarding title writing on Stack Exchange. – Aaron Sep 19 at 2:02
  • @Aaron I see our wiki-like Q&A as a form of technical writing and in technical writing I think the use of gerunds in titles is commonplace: writing.stackexchange.com/a/1550/41263 – PolyGeo Sep 19 at 2:54
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    I agree that shorter titles are a benefit, but for most questions, I think the gerund form makes sense if and only if there is no question mark on the end. Otherwise it reads as an introduction to advice, not a question. Maybe that's what makes it jarring to me? Without the question mark I'm fine with gerunds. – Dan Getz Sep 19 at 10:18
  • @DanGetz you're the first I've seen raise the gerund and question mark combination issue. As much as I like seeing a question mark in the title that summarizes a question, and dislike seeing thousands of "How do I …?", I'd rather lose the question mark than see the latter proliferating. – PolyGeo Sep 19 at 10:54
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    If I were you, I’d emphasize also this revision (meta.stackexchange.com/revisions/10648/21), where there used to be a topic called “Lead with the most important words” which makes a direct case for using gerund. In the revision description user complained about that answer being high jacked. That post should never have been edited like that (it completely changed its meaning when there were many votes accumulated over it). – Andre Silva Sep 20 at 21:00
  • It would be interesting to quantify how many votes were received during which portions of edits. @PolyGeo, I noticed you joined the rollback war on "How do I write a good title?", which prompted another rollback by the moderator and a post lock action. I applaud your vigor on the topic. – Aaron Sep 21 at 16:49
  • @Aaron I think the case for not beginning a large proportion of titles with the same few phrases was very well made by MarkHarrison in his 3. Lead with the most important words and 4. Don't start with "How do I..." sections, and that this was "settled law" for about 10 years prior to Feb this year. – PolyGeo Sep 23 at 0:59
  • @AndreSilva I agree with you about how egregiously that FAQ was edited and have now incorporated that into my answer. – PolyGeo Sep 23 at 1:27
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    @DanGetz I've gone away from my insistence on every question title ending in a question mark. – PolyGeo Sep 23 at 1:29
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There is precedent on this subject at Stack Exchange. The first source is from the Stack Overflow Help Center:

The section on title writing in "How do I ask a good question?" states the following:

Write a title that summarizes the specific problem The title is the first thing potential answerers will see, and if your title isn't interesting, they won't read the rest. So make it count:

Pretend you're talking to a busy colleague and have to sum up your entire question in one sentence: what details can you include that will help someone identify and solve your problem? Include any error messages, key APIs, or unusual circumstances that make your question different from similar questions already on the site.

Spelling, grammar and punctuation are important! Remember, this is the first part of your question others will see - you want to make a good impression. If you're not comfortable writing in English, ask a friend to proof-read it for you.

If you're having trouble summarizing the problem, write the title last - sometimes writing the rest of the question first can make it easier to describe the problem.

Examples:

  • Bad: C# Math Confusion
  • Good: Why does using float instead of int give me different results when all of my inputs are integers?
  • Bad: [php] session doubt
  • Good: How can I redirect users to different pages based on session data in PHP?
  • Bad: android if else problems
  • Good: Why does str == "value" evaluate to false when str is set to "value"?

GIS SE also has a related discussion on the subject:

Why is there excessive question editing?

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