My question is about a sentence that I found in another SE site's help center, and I'm genuinely befuddled because I am having a hard time understanding how many ways the word "actual" can function in this sentence, and if that can lead to different interpretations.

While I'm a native English speaker and haven't successfully learned any other language, I regularly find sentences that leave me puzzled because I simply fail to understand how words work in certain situations.

This Space SE meta question (for background only) begins:

The help center's What types of questions should I avoid asking? says near the top that:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.

I'm trying to understand how as written this sentence applies to problems that I am actually facing. In other words, if I ask the following:

  1. Is my question based on an actual problem
  2. Is my question based on something that I am actually facing (as apposed to just thinking about hypothetically)
  3. both: Is my question based on an actual problem that I am actually facing

Which of those questions have to have "yes" as their answer before a literal reading of the sentence in the help center is satisfied?

  • 2
    It's just saying the "problems" should be ones that you are experiencing, and not hypothetical problems, or problems that you have greatly altered in your description of them so that they no longer represent what you've experienced.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 2:01
  • @HotLicks thanks. As an aside, if that turns out to be the case then that may deviate substantially from it's intended meaning. If Einstein can do it then we should be able to as well :-)
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 2:10
  • @HotLicks I think I partially (rather implicitly, actually) addressed this on my answer. I'd ask a hypothetical question on SE if it was answerable and it happened to be puzzling me. In other words. I think an actual problem can be hypothetical itself.
    – Otter
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 2:28
  • @HotLicks in that case, I think it is valuable to interpret actual problems - in the context of asking Stack Exchange questions - as problems that can have a practical answer and and generate productive discussion, meaning that valid knowledge will be produced.
    – Otter
    Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 2:33
  • 'You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face' means that no one can ask how to build a TARDIS, few can ask 'How do I lose enough weight to make my necessary target that will allow me to pilot the next Artemis spacecraft?' and all can ask (if it's not a duplicate) 'Which is the best reflector telescope for under $500?' // Of course, if you need to write an essay on 'requirements faced by the modern astronaut', you could argue that this constitutes an 'actual problem that you are actually facing'. // Oh, and your answer (3) is correct. Commented Jan 22, 2021 at 15:31

1 Answer 1


Very good question. As a non-native speaker, I'm often caught thinking stuff like this about English and languages in general.

In that specific case, I think it can mean any of the three options provided.

The reason why, is that despite the fact we humans think we can be very objective in the ways we think and express ourselves, we actually are not.

I often think the meaning conveyed by sentences - both spoken and written - may sometimes be at most an approximation to the message the speaker/writer first had in their minds.

That is because we generate language through a range of cultural, psychological and contextual filters that are may or may not change (or even be unavailable) to the listener.

Sometimes, once you read or listen to the content of a sentence, your mind will represent another thing entirely, based on your own filters. That's a common source of misunderstandings in language that's hypothetically clear and objective, a reason why different people can interpret a single "objective" piece of information - not just spoken sentences - in wildly different ways. The reason we can still understand one another is that we use language consistently. So when you see a tree, you call the color of their leaves "green", and so do the other people around you. But how each person thinks, understands and generate sentences using the concept of "green" is completely personal.

So, as a final answer to you question, I think the best way to think about it is to consider the SE mentality as a whole. SE is supposed to produce valuable knowledge that can be later accessed by those interested. It's a knowledge repository. That's the reason you can't delete a question that got at least one answer. With that in mind, SE has to be pragmatical, meaning, questions that will lead nowhere, or that are too abstract and hypothetical to be answered are outside its scope.

Summing it up, you can safely interpret that phrase to include and exceed the 3 possibilities you pointed out. Don't take it too much in a literal, restricting way. But the gist of it absolutely is: don't ask questions that are too hypothetical, abstract, vague and overall only intended to waste everyone's times, as if you spent an afternoon thinking a highly hypothetical question that might need a whole decade of reasearch to answer - if it is even answerable at all - and then ask it on SE.

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