Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

On StackOverflow.com I often find that people ask questions about problems that arise due to poor design choices (typically due to a lack of knowledge about the particular programming language).

For example, the OP will make a choice at point A that is wrong, then in order to correct follow-up errors goes on to B, C, D ... and at point X (s)he gets stuck, and thus asks a question about X, when the solution to the problem is actually to fix A.

Note that this is not limited to programming, but can be any project. Earlier, I came up with The Underwater House problem to describe a similar situation:

Q: "I have this underwater house. I am having big problems with leaks and water damage. What is the best way to stop a leak?"

To which the answer of course is: "The best way is to not build a house under water."

When faced with such a question, I often feel the urge to name it, or create some classification, to let the OP know right away what the mistake is. The best way to state this that I have come up with is: "You are asking The Wrong Question." However, I feel that this is inadequate, and requires further explanation.

Is there a more self-explanatory way to state this? Some simile, saying or phrase?

Update: I felt that no answer really fits the bill better than "The Wrong Question", though "treating the symptom" was arguably the best answer. The amalgam "you're treating the symptom of a design problem", while dead on the money, is not as clear, concise and pithy as one would like. And sometimes not correct.

share|improve this question
There's a similar problem, that software folks call yak shaving ;-) –  Otavio Macedo Oct 15 '11 at 0:46
Anecdotally, if you ask for directions in Ireland, you might get the response "If I wanted to get to [intended destination] I wouldn't start from here" –  FumbleFingers Oct 15 '11 at 23:31
This reminded me of an anecdote that several folks on my team use as a cultural reference. The questioner is asking you: "should I use brads?" blogs.msdn.com/b/rflaming/archive/2005/10/01/476154.aspx I'd love to see this idiom take off, because it's such a common problem. –  mcw0933 Oct 20 '11 at 19:54
add comment

8 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

A fairly idiomatic way to express this is to say that "you're treating the symptom." You need to stop treating the symptoms, and resolve the root causes, or you're just going to keep getting more symptoms popping up endlessly.

It's like taking cough medicine because your pneumonia has given you a nasty cough; you may stop coughing, but you'll still have pneumonia. You've only treated a symptom.

share|improve this answer
Perhaps this combined with jwpat7's.. "You are treating the symptom of a design problem." Comes close. –  TLP Oct 14 '11 at 17:21
add comment

Say "Your question is based on a false premise."

From Wikipedia:

A false premise is an incorrect proposition that forms the basis of a logical syllogism. Since the premise (proposition, or assumption) is not correct, the conclusion drawn may be in error. However, the logical validity of an argument is a function of its internal consistency, not the truth value of its premises.

In other words, if (to use your example) the premise A was false, it doesn't matter how sound the chain of reasoning was that lead from B to C to question X; the question was based on a false premise.

share|improve this answer
A poor decision is not necessarily false, though. –  TLP Oct 14 '11 at 17:19
Yes, but you're asking for the case where the initial premise ("It's a good idea to build a house under water") leads to a question that would not have been asked if the OP realized that the premise was false. –  Gnawme Oct 14 '11 at 17:24
+1. "False premise" is applicable in many more situations than "treating the symptom". Also, treating the symptom is sometimes the best (and only) thing to be done, as in the case of the common cold. –  onomatomaniak Oct 14 '11 at 18:09
Yes, the opposite of a good decision is a bad one. However, I would prefer a solution that is not as black and white. Your premise lacks a "because...", since it is not - from every conceivable aspect - necessarily a poor idea to build an underwater house. –  TLP Oct 14 '11 at 18:10
@TLP Think of the falseness of the premise lying in the person's belief that it's the only option, not in that it's always inherently wrong. –  onomatomaniak Oct 15 '11 at 7:43
show 1 more comment

A concise and sometimes-used term (see below) is "problem by design". It will apply to a fraction of the cases you mention; for some, making fun of the question (e.g., "In that approach, the bicycle's too big for your fish") is appropriate; but for most, the phrase "not even wrong" is most suitable.

Some titles that appear in web searches for "problem by design" include "The Dioxins problem: by design or by accident?", "Remote Desktop problem, by design? - Windows XP", and "HUGE install problem by design". The general idea behind this phrase is that problems are occurring because of the design chosen, i.e., are like designed-in problems. However, this concept will be too subtle for most bad-question-writers to grasp.

The "not even wrong" concept is not at all subtle, but perhaps applies more to answers than to questions. For example, http://notevenwrong.blogspot.com/ writes:

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli was once asked to comment on the work in a paper by physicist X. Pauli's comment was that the work was so bad that it was "not even wrong."

A related but different issue has the interesting name of "wicked problem". Among many characterizations mentioned in the wikipedia article are "The problem is never solved definitively", "The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution", "Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong" and "Wicked problems cannot be tackled by the traditional approach in which problems are defined, analysed and solved in sequential steps. The main reason for this is that there is no clear problem definition of wicked problems."

share|improve this answer
Combined with Hellion's answer: "You are treating the symptom of a design problem." That is rather close. –  TLP Oct 14 '11 at 17:22
add comment

Hofstadter's mu could work here. Mu is the answer to the question "When did you stop beating your wife?" It's a way of negating or invalidating a question that cannot be answered because the presuppositions are invalid.

share|improve this answer
Do you have any further reading on this "mu"? I found en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MU_puzzle –  TehShrike Oct 14 '11 at 17:23
@TehShrike: I found this. Not much, but an interesting read nonetheless. –  Allon Guralnek Oct 14 '11 at 22:02
add comment

X Y problem. http://mywiki.wooledge.org/XyProblem

From the site:

  • User wants to do X.
  • User doesn't know how to do X, but thinks they can fumble their way to a solution if they can just manage to do Y.
  • User doesn't know how to do Y either. User asks for help with Y.
  • Others try to help user with Y, but are confused because Y seems like a strange problem to want to solve.
  • After much interaction and wasted time, it finally becomes clear that the user really wants help with X, and that Y wasn't even a suitable substitute for X.
share|improve this answer
Yep, that's it in a nutshell. However, "XyProblem" is not very self-explanatory. +1 for the funny link though. ;) –  TLP Oct 15 '11 at 14:48
add comment

I would say "Your root issue is x, not y."

share|improve this answer
That is concise only when the problem is easily described, though. –  TLP Oct 14 '11 at 15:30
How about "You're solving the wrong problem." –  Andrew Neely Oct 14 '11 at 16:18
That is not a big leap from "You're treating the symptom" or "You're asking The Wrong Question", though. –  TLP Oct 14 '11 at 16:20
add comment

I don't know a concise way to say this. In the general case I would say "The question makes a presupposition which is invalid/wrong/inappropriate", but to challenge a particular example, I would say something like:

Your question assumes that ...

You might find something useful under Complex Questions

share|improve this answer
Interesting. It makes me think of the missing dollar riddle –  TLP Oct 14 '11 at 15:14
add comment

Starting with This is not the right question may convey your point better than "You are asking The Wrong Question."

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.