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I think all programmers among us will be familiar with this scenario. You spend several days writing some code and submit it to be tested by someone else. The points that they return, though valid, are not really the reason you wanted it tested. For instance, spotting a missing comma in an error message that you wrote.

I often find myself searching for an appropriate phrase to describe this kind of comment. Perhaps an idiom exists for this particular occurrence.

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I call irrelevant and pointless-but-true information like that factoids : MW3UDE: a briefly stated and usually trivial fact. – user21497 Oct 15 '12 at 14:27
the jargon expression joking about that is "Content-free" (manuals, documents etc), similarly to "focus-free cameras". – SF. Oct 16 '12 at 7:57
I'd say that feedback about bad grammar versus actual functionality are more 'red herrings' than anything else – Hmobius Oct 16 '12 at 12:21

10 Answers 10

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Consider using tangential or peripheral.

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I like "peripheral". But I don't know I've ever heard it used that way. ("That is quite a peripheral point you raised there.") – Urbycoz Oct 15 '12 at 14:26
Peripheral is not necessarily irrelevant, at the same time, not quite important either. Doesn't fit. – Kris Oct 16 '12 at 5:23
I've heard people say, "Well, these comments are really peripheral to the main subject ..." and that sort of thing. Meaning, "yes, okay, they're related, but not the main point". – Jay Oct 16 '12 at 13:49
From "periphery", the outer part or edge - essentially, "out on the edge", so a very good choice here. – Joe McMahon Oct 16 '12 at 23:33

If you're thinking specifically of getting replies that are about grammar or formatting when you're looking for something about actual content or algorithms, I'd say "pedantic".

pe·dan·tic (p-dntk) adj. Characterized by a narrow, often ostentatious concern for book learning and formal rules

If that was just an example and you're thinking in broader terms, JasperLoy's suggestion of "tangential" might be better.

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"Pedantic" implies that you're going too far in the right direction. I want something that implies you're going in an unhelpful direction. – Urbycoz Oct 15 '12 at 14:12
Wellll... "Pedantic" refers to excessive concern about formalities, often with the connotation of ignoring what is really important. Like worrying more about correct punctuation then whether the statements made are, in fact, accurate. – Jay Oct 15 '12 at 15:28

While it is neutral as to the correctness of the answer, inane focuses on its lack of usefulness

extremely silly or lacking real meaning or importance: There are so many inane programs on television!

And on computers!

Similarly, irrelevant and immaterial.

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Note that, unlike most of the answers here, "inane" has strong negative connotations. If the OPs point is to emphasize how worthless these comments are, that could be a good choice. But if the idea is that he wants to go back to the commenters and ask for different sorts of comments, he wouldn't want to start off, "You know, the comments you gave me before were really inane ..." That would be insulting. He'd want a milder word. – Jay Oct 16 '12 at 13:48
@Jay I agree that all three of my suggestions are negative, ordered from the most negative to the least. If he wants neutral, tangential or peripheral are better. He also could say, off point. – bib Oct 16 '12 at 13:53
I don't like inane in this context, but I very much do like immaterial. Some irony here: I'd recommend your suggestions in reverse order. (I regard inane as being more synonymous with childish.) – J.R. Oct 22 '12 at 7:33
@J.R.So many of my answers are inane, I just couldn't resist giving it prominence. – bib Oct 22 '12 at 11:13

There are many possibilities that you might want to look at here.

Some of the best options: frivolous, irrelevant, useless (very strong) or inconsequential feedback. Or you could say the comments were wide of the mark or trifling.

Maybe trifling is the best option because it seems to imply correctness where a word like useless does not. For example, there are reams of scholarly papers that make trifling observations -- observations that are not necessarily wrong, but not particularly useful either.

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+1 for trifling! – Joel Brown Oct 16 '12 at 14:35

I'd call it a Microsoftian response, because it reminds me of this old joke:

A pilot is flying a small, single-engine, charter plane with a couple of really important executives on board into Seattle airport. There is fog so thick that visibility is 40 feet, and his instruments are out. He circles looking for a landmark and after an hour, he is low on fuel and his passengers are very nervous.

At last, through a small opening in the fog he sees a tall building with one guy working alone on the fifth floor. Circling, the pilot banks and shouts through his open window: "Hey, where am I?". The solitary office worker replies: "You're in an airplane."

The pilot immediately executes a swift 275 degree turn and executes a perfect blind landing on the airport's runway five miles away. Just as the plane stops, the engines cough and die from lack of fuel. The stunned passengers ask the pilot how he did it. "Elementary," replies the pilot, "I asked the guy in that building a simple question. The answer he gave me was 100% correct but absolutely useless; therefore, I knew that must be Microsoft's support office and from there the airport is three minutes away on a course of 87 degrees."

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+1 for pure value :) The mention of M$ also reminds me of Microsoft Bob, Clippy, and other "assistants". – coleopterist Oct 16 '12 at 6:38
You missed the point that it was helpful after all, if in an unintended way. Lol. – Kris Oct 16 '12 at 6:58

What you mean is that the pointers are unhelpful.

Editorial: An Unhelpful Debate October 4, 2012 [NY Times]
The first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, so long anticipated, quickly sunk into an unenlightening recitation of tired talking points and mendacity.

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The OP is aware of this word as he's used it in the title :) – coleopterist Oct 16 '12 at 6:34
He has not precluded the word, though. – Kris Oct 16 '12 at 6:55
I think that it then follows that this answer is technically correct but unhelpful :P – coleopterist Oct 16 '12 at 7:55

I suggest that behavior is called nitpicking:

Minute, trivial, unnecessary, and unjustified criticism or faultfinding.

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They may not be minute, trivial, unnecessary, or unjustified; yet, not what was expected or relevant. – Kris Oct 16 '12 at 7:00

I use vexing to describe those kind of comments that feel as if the tester is being payed by the amount of problems they find. Although, with all fairness, those comments are usually really are important as well, I just hate to admit it.

I also used Out of Focus to describe them.

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I would suggest, particularly in the original poster's context of "I wanted you to look at the algorithm but you instead corrected spelling in the variable names", that the suggestions are irrelevant, since they have nothing to do with what you actually asked for.

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A few candidates that haven't already been suggested:

  • Ivory tower: a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world:

    the ivory tower of academia

  • Impractical
  • Infeasible

While the above words all essentially imply unrealism/unhelpfulness, they also connote a degree of correctness.

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