In another life I posted a comment calling someone's answer a "red herring" because I felt that it was distracting from the true problem:

D3 is a red herring here. Your solution works because you removed [some html tags]. If we [add those back in to your D3 solution], the bug reappears.

But something didn't sit right after I wrote that... Indeed, Google says the definition of "red herring" is:

something, especially a clue, that is or is intended to be misleading or distracting.

(emphasis on "intended" is mine).

So basically I think that using "red herring" here is accusing the solution's author of malice. And so what was bothering me was that my comment was possibly (TBD) rude, but I was not trying to be rude.

OK, so what is my question then... I guess 2 questions:

  1. Is Google's definition (shown above) for red herring correct?
  2. Is there a more polite version of red herring, or an expression that might convey mere unintentional harm, and not malice nor even intention? Like a word or phrase meaning unintentional distraction?

Looking at existing research on this popular topic, I found unintentionally led up the garden path. OK, that's good -- he wasn't trying to be harmful, just needs some help with navigational aids. Is there something like that, but maybe fewer syllables?

  • "Fallacious" means "based on a mistaken belief". I'm not sure that it is entirely polite.
    – epsilon
    May 31, 2019 at 19:13
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    'irrelevant' is the exact central concept that 'red herring' is a euphemism for, but that is also a bit abrupt.
    – Mitch
    May 31, 2019 at 19:19
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    I'm going to contend that your premise is mistaken. If we change the emphasis in the definition a little, we get "... that is (or is intended to be) misleading or distracting." If their answer focused on D3 when it was the HTML tags that caused the issue, calling D3 a "red herring" is appropriate.
    – Hellion
    May 31, 2019 at 19:19
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    I just realized that we're looking for a misleading term for 'misleading'.
    – Mitch
    May 31, 2019 at 21:46
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because, as Hellion has pointed out, it is based on a false premise: the dictionary definition is not in line with 'accusing the author's solution of malice'. Incompetence, perhaps. Jun 1, 2019 at 14:20

5 Answers 5


Other answers have tackled your explicit questions, but your sample sentence suggests to me that you want to capture a different aspect than deceit or relevance.

The answer you disagreed with wasn’t irrelevant or wrong on its face — you admit that it solves the issue — I understand your problem with it is that it obscures or masks what you identify as the true root cause

Dictionary.com defines both as conceals

I wouldn’t expect malice to be implied or understood by this word choice, rather simple oversight or misunderstanding

  • Yes; thank you for reading my question carefully. Indeed, I had appreciated the answer (involving D3), and the intent was good, and it was interesting to learn about. But I was very much concerned about it concealing the true root cause (those html tags). I think obscure/mask are great choices here, and they don't sound like I'm accusing anyone. (As opposed to "distracts from" or "conceals" or "red herring", which convey more intentional malice, albeit very slightly as others have pointed out). Thank you. Jun 16, 2019 at 2:54

distraction is defined by Google’s dictionary as:

a thing that prevents someone from giving full attention to something else. "the company found passenger travel a distraction from the main business of moving freight"

synonyms: diversion, interruption, disturbance, intrusion, interference, obstruction, hindrance "he called these stories a distraction from the real issues"

Becoming distracted by a side issue is sometimes referred to as going down the garden path—or even going down the rabbit hole. It has no implication of intent, of course.

A preliminary announcement of securities to be offered is called a red herring prospectus and is printed with a red stripe, as if to say “watch out, this may be misleading.”


I would use a "non-issue" . This Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

A topic of little or no importance.

‘I believe the topic is a non-issue’

  • How does this 'convey mere unintentional harm'? A red herring almost certainly presents more of a distraction than a non-issue. Jun 1, 2019 at 14:31
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    @EdwinAshworth This is the question: "Is there a more polite version of red herring, or one that might convey mere unintentional harm, and not malice nor even intention?" So I think "one that might convey mere unintentional harm" is not a requirement.
    – JK2
    Jun 5, 2019 at 4:27
  • That was one question; I've edited the 'question' so that the title doesn't miss this. OP still needs to re-edit the question to rectify the mis-handling of the definition(/s) quoted. // I've edited-and-back your answer so that I can nullify the down-vote I gave. But I believe the correct thing to do here is to close-vote unless OP corrects the question. Jun 5, 2019 at 15:11

The Google definition is not the whole story. The Oxford online dictionary is quite careful.

A dried smoked herring, which is turned red by the smoke.

2A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading or distracting.

‘the book is fast-paced, exciting, and full of red herrings’ ‘the food-supply issue is largely a red herring in this discussion’

It originally meant just a "false lead" with no connotations of intent.

You see the "is or is not intended to be misleading. Calling a particular argument or alleged piece of evidence a red herring need not be understood to constitute an insulting accusation of an intention to deceive. Red herrings can be used to deceive just as other types of fallacious reasoning can be used to deceived. But they can equally be mistakes of argument or reasoning.

Although the expression is not insulting in the sense you are concerned about, its use is quite blunt. You could, as has been suggested, used some alternative word, like irrelevant. But that may not help. People can accept be told they are wrong, or have their facts questioned. But many people resent the idea that there is something wrong with their reasoning. But perhaps that is their problem, not yours!

  • Can you then suggest a term that means something like 'misleading' or 'irrelevant' but isn't so insulting? For example 'fat' is factual but blunt and no one like to be called that, but 'curvy' or 'hefty' aren't so direct.
    – Mitch
    May 31, 2019 at 21:46
  • I like the analysis here, about how there is some inherent rudeness in telling someone they're wrong. And so the way to fix that is to deal with that directly, which involves a different set of communication techniques. "I like the way you've done X which has the benefits Y, but also be aware that the real problem is Z and X doesn't do that, and going to chase X is a problem on its own". Now if only there were just a different herring color that summarizes all that in 2 words... Or maybe we just accept a little bit of rudeness for efficiency. May 31, 2019 at 21:50
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    I agree with this answer. A "red herring" carries no connotation in practice of being deceitful. It is usually used in cases where a person has introduced an argument that seems superficially plausible (to everybody concerned) but turns out on reflection to be irrelevant. For example, "the customer says they heard a very loud bang before the lights went out, but I think that is a red herring - the date shows it was bonfire night, and the bang was probably coincidental".
    – Steve
    Jun 1, 2019 at 10:48
  • @Steve This explains the point much better than I did.
    – Tuffy
    Jun 1, 2019 at 12:50
  • (1) What OP and you refer to as 'Google' actually is the ODO you quote in order to (I assume) 'give the whole story'. Note that OP has given exactly the same quote, but has misunderstood it. (2) The fact that the 'or is intended to be misleading or distracting' sense is equally available will almost certainly connote this 'malicious' sense with some ... many readers (eg OP), but it's a judgement call as to whether or not it's wise to use the term. I have no trouble with it here. Jun 1, 2019 at 14:29

red herring OED list 2 senses:

figurative and in figurative contexts. A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, OR [ the polite ] is a distraction from the real question.

As in:

2001 J. Le Fanu They don't know what's Wrong The truth is then overlooked, as the doctor gets sidetracked by the red herring of a misleading diagnosis.

If you desire to shy away from the use of red herring, said word could be: a diversion aka a digression into irrelevant details. My sense of red herring in AmE has been the distraction variety, a coincidental event.

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