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.

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    There's a similar problem, that software folks call yak shaving ;-) Commented Oct 15, 2011 at 0:46
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    I thoroughly agree that “The wrong question” is better than the answers; indeed I got here by trying to formulate a request for a better expression than “XY-question” or “-problem”, which I find lamentably inexpressive. Surely in all the centuries English has existed somebody has felt the need to name this situation — or there is something we could borrow from another language.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:27
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    @mcw0933: I fear your link has rotted.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:32
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    Thanks @PJTraill - the Internet Archive to the rescue!
    – mcw
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 17:26
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    @mcw0933: Thank you! (Surprisingly bad spelling in that article.) Maybe the expression we need is something like “a balsa (wood) nail question” or “are you looking for balsa (wood) nails?”.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 8:40

8 Answers 8


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.

A fairly idiomatic way to express this is 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 still have pneumonia; you've only treated a symptom.

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    Perhaps this combined with jwpat7's.. "You are treating the symptom of a design problem." Comes close.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 17:21
  • This only works for me if considered as a looseish metaphor; after all a symptom suggests what the underlying problem is, while X all too often fails to do so. Indeed that failure is why asking about the wrong problem can cause so much timewasting.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:44
  • I would also usually prefer “a symptom” to “the symptom”.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 23:06

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.

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    A poor decision is not necessarily false, though.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 17:19
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    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
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 17:24
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    +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.
    – user13141
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 18:09
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    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
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 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.
    – user13141
    Commented Oct 15, 2011 at 7:43

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."

  • Combined with Hellion's answer: "You are treating the symptom of a design problem." That is rather close.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 17:22

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.

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    Do you have any further reading on this "mu"? I found en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MU_puzzle
    – TehShrike
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 17:23
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    @TehShrike: I found this. Not much, but an interesting read nonetheless. Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 22:02
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    This sense is currently given at en.wiktionary.org/wiki/mu#Etymology_2 , which you may find worth linking in your answer. I do however think that mu does not suggest strongly enough that you need to take a step (or more) back and refocus your attention. “When did you stop beating your wife?” is not so much the wrong question, as just a dirty trick.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:57

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


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

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    That is concise only when the problem is easily described, though.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 15:30
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    How about "You're solving the wrong problem." Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 16:18
  • That is not a big leap from "You're treating the symptom" or "You're asking The Wrong Question", though.
    – TLP
    Commented Oct 14, 2011 at 16:20
  • @AndrewNeely: ▲, but I think “tackling” (or perhaps “attacking”, for the more aggressive of us) fits better than “solving”.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Aug 24, 2016 at 22:49

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

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