In other words, they are asking a question which seems to them like the right question to ask ("How do I get to point B from point A?") when they are really at point A and are trying to get to point C.

They think they should just ask for directions to point B but if they asked how to get from point A to C, there may very well be a better answer thank first asking how to go A=>B (and eventually asking about B=>C).

I feel I read a 'fancy' name for this — a law, theorem, or fallacy of some sort and cannot find it again :(

Thanks in advance for you help!

  • 1
    Are they doing this on purpose to be cunning or they just asking the wrong question in earnest?
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 2:43
  • Your A's and B's are inconsistent I think.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 2:45
  • @Jim a bit of both, I think mostly out of ignorance (so, in your words, "the wrong question in earnest" Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 3:25
  • 2
    As intimated above, "asking the wrong question" is the usual name for the situation where you want to know something but you're not asking the right question that will get the answer you really want or need (see the many Google search results for this phrase). I don't know any fancy term for this though.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 10:39

2 Answers 2


In computing, this is often called an XY Problem.

The basic idea is that you've identified a problem ("X"), started trying to solve it, and then run up against a barrier ("Y"). Then you ask for help surmounting that barrier, sometimes without giving context of the original problem you were trying to solve. The result might still be helpful for you, but if your original problem analysis is flawed and your "Y" is the wrong approach, then everyone has wasted their time.

The first documentation I became aware of that described this was part of the Bash wiki, though it's also documented here on the StackExchange network. The Wikipedia entry for this phenomenon describes an origin from the 80s.

  • This is exactly what I'm talking about (though it's not only in CS, of course) -- thanks. I still think there was a different name for this but this helps too. Thanks Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 3:24
  • @MarkSilverberg Mark, you really do need to give a fuller context of the kind of situation you have in mind. For example, it might be that you are trying to find your way in the middle of London, where someone might know a place quite local but not to your more distant goal. Or you might think that declaring your real destination would give you away in some way. Or ... who knows?
    – Tuffy
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 7:57
  • You mean like asking "How do I do such-and-such with sed", when the answer is to use awk? Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 10:47
  • @BlokeDownThePub .. It could be, but I'd think it's more like "How do I make a regex that matches only numbers divisible by 5" when the real question should be "How do I use modulo?". Picking the right tool for the job is important, but it's the effort spent travelling down a dead end road that makes it an XY Problem.
    – ghoti
    Commented Dec 5, 2019 at 17:42

Barking up the wrong tree

is the idiomatic way of expressing the concept.

The phrase means to mistake one's object, or to pursue the wrong course to obtain it.


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