Email tip: If you ask a question that can be answered in only one way, but that’s not the answer, don’t be surprised that nobody responds at all


It's not infrequent that I see somebody ask a question that can be answered in only one way. But if that's not the answer, then nobody will respond.

Is there a module that does XYZ?

This question can be answered in only one way: "Yes, here it is." If nobody has written such a module, nobody is going to reply saying, "No, nobody has written the module you request," because that would require the responder to prove a negative.

"I have scoured the entire planet, including code sitting on a hard drive in somebody's mother's basement, and have verified that there is no module that does XYZ. Furthermore, I have altered the rules of the universe to ensure that nobody will write such a module in the time between I completed this investigation and the time you receive this message."

If you ask a question asking whether something exists, there's only one possible response, because nobody is going to say that the code you request has never been written.

So far, nothing is wrong. Perhaps the person who asked the question was about to write an XYZ module, but wanted to make sure the effort was not being duplicated.

However, there are some people who fail to realize that they just asked for proof of a negative, and send a follow-up:

Resending. Can somebody please tell me whether this module exists?

What's particularly scary are the people who ask the question in such a way that they are not only asking for proof of a negative, but in fact proof of a perpetual negative. There was one customer who was rather insistent upon receiving an answer to a question of the form "Will there ever be a tool that will...?"

And once again, the round-up of unhelpful or rude subject lines I've seen in the past five months:

  • Please help
  • Some help please?
  • some help please? [lowercase this time]
  • KB980665 - customer issue!
  • I need urgent help
  • Windows Vista SP1
  • SP1?
  • Need help -- SRS299792458
  • a problem
  • Possible Bug [capital letters make it sound Important]
  • Hi
Comments (51)
  1. Tim says:

    I prefer the progression; help, Help, HELP, PLEASE HELP, PLEASE HELP ME!!!!!!!!, IF YOU WORKED FOR ME I’D FIRE YOU

  2. Mark says:

    I take your point, but there’s an argument for saying that what they really meant to say was;

    ‘[Have you written] a module that does XYZ?’

    and

    ‘[Are you currently planning to develop] a tool that will…?’

    Not knowing the context of these requests I presume they are enquiries to some expert group/list/individual on a platform or technology and it seems perfectly reasonable to me to ask such a group those questions. One imagines there would be at least one person who knows enough about the area to say ‘We aren’t aware of such a module.’ or ‘We’re not currently planning that tool.’

    Of course, repeating the same request verbatim to a list is at best pointless and at worse rude which I take to be your main point.

    [They are typically posted to a peer-to-peer discussion group. -Raymond]
  3. Nathan_works says:

    So help the linguistically challenged here, Raymond.. How would you ask the question ? (I’m parsing it as “I want to know how to do XYZ,” so they’re asking is there an API/function/module that currently does it, or something close enough that they can use it..)

    (And RTFM is probably not an appropriate response from you, though the ‘net at large might say so..)

    [“Does anyone know of a…?” And if you don’t get an answer, then the answer is “no”. -Raymond]
  4. Will says:

    Ah, the Halting Problem of Email Questions. Turing is rolling over in his grave.

  5. Maurits says:

    There is no module that does XYZ and I claim my five pounds.

  6. Joe Dietz says:

    highlights from my inbox this morning:

    "Strange issue in PRODUCTX"

    "Free Thai food in cafeteria, main bldg" (sent to entire campus)

    "Seizing the Opportunity"

    "3-526034039"

    "Pizza in XX building" (sent to entire campus)

    "PRODUCTX issue"

  7. This might be somewhat unrelated, but incase someone asks for a module that does YXZ – just point ’em to me; i’ve got that particular module implemented over here. Not the XYZ one, though. :-)

    WM_CHEERS

    -thomas

  8. Neil says:

    Can somebody please tell me whether this module exists?

    Actually this question is answerable, and this article answers it.

  9. Mark (The other Mark) says:

    "Is there a module that does XYZ?" parses, to me, as being the same as "Do you know of a module that does XYZ?” I believe the compiler optimizes them the same way.

    Should such a question be asked in one of the discussion groups I participate in, depending on my level of participation in such a group, my response would be "I am unaware of any, but if you find one, I’d appreciate it if you let us know!" or no response at all. If I am in such a group because I feel myself to be a contributor, it will likely be the first, if I am there to "lurk" and absorb information from others, I will likely not post at all. Since discussion groups rarely come with a SLA, I feel that "Not that I know of" is an appropriate response to a question that, if an answer existed, I would probably know it.

    One sub-phenomena in the area might be the likelihood that I (Or you, as the case may be), might read the question and spend some time researching an answer, should you not know it off the top of your head. Bonus points if, at any point during the process, you realize the questioner has all the resources available to do this themselves.

    Partly insulating me from these questions is the probability that this question was coupled with one of your bad subject lines "Does anyone know of…" or similar, in which case I will likely never read it. Unless I note later that it has a large number of responses, or a response from a person I have come to respect.

  10. Narr says:

    "Free Thai food in cafeteria, main bldg" (sent to entire campus)

    "Pizza in XX building" (sent to entire campus)

    Those would make MY day.

  11. andypennell says:

    Lets not forget the entirely-blank subject line. Which when replyed to, gets turned into the ever-so-useful "RE:" subject.

  12. William C Bonner says:

    Does anyone have a module that does XYZ?

    If there is no existing module that does XYZ is there any one else that would use a module that does XYZ if it were created?

  13. Ulric says:

    personally, I don’t see the problem with the original question, and why it should be re-phrased..  however re-sending does work.  The fact is, often time 1) people expect someone else to answer, and that person doesn’t or 2) missed the question in the inbox flood.

    Again, I feel the whole "human" part of the equation is being missed.

  14. djeidot says:

    A good answer would be "Not that I know of."

  15. eff Five says:

    Email tip: If you post a message a to a peer-to-peer group that displays contemptible behavior, including failing to ask a question, poorly stating a question, rude use of punctuation in subject lines, inadequate subject lines, desperate attempts to reengage the group, ambiguous pronouns in subject lines, elaborate signatures, and a failure to understand that OLE works in outlook too, don’t be surprised if a person writes a blog entry about it.

  16. Jonathan says:

    I agree that a reasonable answer would be “Not that I’m aware of”. The reader is then able to conclude that “and if there were one, <knowledgeable buy on the group> would’ve likely known about it, so I’ll act on the assumption that none exists.”

    Remember, the question is not asking for a 100%-positive answer, but a reasonably-accurate one.

    [So everybody on the list should respond, “Not that I’m aware of”? Should there be a voting page where we can see who hasn’t responded yet? -Raymond]
  17. Humans suck at asking questions says:

    As computer scientists we should be aware of what humans suck at. examples include: Writing Requirements, asking questions, and identifying when and where to optimize.

    Not answering some poor posters question on the basis that you can tear apart the poor phrasing rendering the question unanswerable in then negative seems like excessive nitpicking to me.

    A few possible answers:

    “not that i know of.”

    “what are you trying to do.”

    “could you re-phrase that.”

    “did you really mean …” then answer that question.

    Something that would elicit the REAL question.

    A link to Raymond’s (above) post.

    Presumably you are reading the peer-to-peer mailing list to get and/or provide help. Ignoring someones question, causing them to repeat it is far from helpful.

    Inferring the real question from a badly phrased question is a difficult skill, and in my experience it is related to eliciting requirements. Almost invariably when i get questions, the first response is always an attempt to elicit the real question, some people learn and start asking better questions, some don’t. At least in a peer-to-peer discussion group you can choose to ignore those that don’t learn, but you should see if they can first.

    Actually responding with “I have scoured the entire planet, including code sitting on a hard drive in somebody’s mother’s basement, and have verified that there is no module that does XYZ. Furthermore, I have altered the rules of the universe to ensure that nobody will write such a module in the time between I completed this investigation and the time you receive this message.” would be more helpful than not responding at all.

    [I ask the clarifying question. (Even though it also means that the person will assume I am now their personal answer slave.) And then I post a blog entry about bad questions I’ve had to deal with. (Though I normally do not respond, “Not that I’m aware of.” Perhaps I should. And then the other 300 people on the mailing list could do that too.) -Raymond]
  18. John says:

    Maybe they are rhetorical questions.

  19. J says:

    If you’re on a forum that lets people filter by questions that haven’t been answered, PLEASE don’t answer "not that I know of" or something equally wasteful.  There’s a particular answers site like this that sprung up recently where everyone races to be the first to answer a question, regardless whether they have any clue about the answer.  Once someone responds who doesn’t have a clue, you’ll never get a real answer because no experts will ever see your question.

    But even on peer-to-peer lists, you shouldn’t answer with "not that I know of".  What a worthless answer.  Good for you that you don’t know.  It makes you look like you speak just to be heard instead of speaking because you have something to contribute.

    If the person re-posts after getting no replies, then it’s OK to respond with "not that I know of", if you have sufficient knowledge in the area.

    Of course if you’re a subject-matter expert, you can respond to the original question with something like "I’m quite involved in this area, and I haven’t heard of such a thing."  But you had better be an expert in the area and not just full of hot air that needs to escape.

  20. Matt says:

    I have the same problem in restaurants, when the waiter/waitress asks if anybody needs anything else. I don’t, but I can’t speak for everyone.

    Does someone need to say ‘no’, or is uncomfortable silence for a few seconds acceptable?

  21. John says:

    A pet peeve of mine actually is when somebody does give a "not as far as I know" answer to an existence question in a forum where not appearing to have an answer is critical to getting an answer later (such as stackoverflow).  

  22. Aaron G says:

    This is a tough one.  I don’t think there’s any way to rephrase the question so as to have more than one possible answer, and on the internet, you can never be completely sure if people read your question and chose not to respond or if it got buried before anyone saw it.

    I’ve been guilty of asking these questions a couple of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever bumped one.  Having said that, I don’t think it would bother me if somebody bumped their question once "just in case", but twice or more is getting annoying.

  23. Maurits says:

    top-post

    Don’t get me started.

  24. I can think of a few other possible answers, depending of course on the nature of XYZ: "XYZ isn’t actually possible, because…", "this module does WXY, which might be close enough to be useful for you"…

    The wording may be a bit restrictive, but ultimately, if I need a piece of code to get XYZ done, this is the question I’m actually trying to get answered: either I get someone pointing me in the right direction, or I know it’s enough of a niche requirement that I’ll have to write my own.

  25. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    “(4) Yet another twist: Filenames of download files, e.g. not “Company-Product-DataSheet.pdf” but “meaningful” titles like “AN123456G.pdf”.”

    A company that makes overly specific description deleted is almost famous for that.

  26. Ulric says:

    It’s happened that I’ve answered things like "not that I’m aware of" to such a question on a mail alias.  And it’s happened that I’ve being wrong, and quickly corrected, when previously no one was answering the question.

    I’m a team leader, so what seems to happen is that people expect me to answer the questions.

    again, the problem being resolved here is that everyone waits for someone else to answer and questions with answers often to do not get any replies because of that inertia.

  27. JM says:

    @Ulric: resending does work… in the short term. In the long term, people are going to get annoyed and remember that you’re the guy who likes to waste everyone’s time by pretending their posts require more careful attention than everyone else’s. *Especially* if you *mention* the assumption that nobody’s responded because they must have missed it (as in, "I can’t imagine why anyone would voluntarily forego the privilege of helping me, so here’s another chance").

    Luckily, it works out because most people who resend *are* short-termers who just need the answer to this one question their livelihood depends on and who’ll disappear never to be heard of again after that.

  28. Jimz says:

    "Possible Bug [capital letters make it sound Important]"

    I always thought of Subject headers as having the capitalization rules as book titles, so I wouldn’t read as much into that.

  29. Karellen says:

    andypennell – tell me about it. I’m currently corresponding with someone who is incapable of using subject lines.  I have an inbox full of "(no subject)", "", "Re:", "Fw:" "Re: Fw:" and similar email.

    When I reply, I try to leave hints by supplying a new on-topic subject in the form ‘Updating foo to support feature bar (Was: Fw:)’. Sometimes I need to refer another email of theirs in a different thread which I’ll do in the manner ‘as mentioned in your 2008-10-01 14:30 email (Subject: "Re:") …’ but they still don’t get the hint. I get the idea that simply telling them to use subject lines would be regarded as tactless or rude.

    Almost as bad, this person cannot figure out how to get their email client to quote the preceding message when writing an interleaved reply. So they write a top-posted message with something like "See comments below preceded by ####" in the top-posted section, followed by the rest of the message (which they *never* trim) and I end up with

    > > We should really support bar in foo

    > Won’t that mess with xyzzy?

    Not if we frob it properly first.

    #### In fact, if we frob and then add bar support

    then it makes the whole product better and then

    because this whole line is really long and

    spans multiple lines in your client but only

    has one marker you can’t tell where it ends

    but that’s not too much of a problem as we’ve been

    meaning to frob it properly for the last 5

    releases.

    It’s like there are people who not only have no clue at all about how to use email, but they’re incapable of picking clues up from anyone else that they interact with.

  30. HagenP says:

    "Same league" examples of "twitty" behaviour:

    (1) John: like this?

    Question from speaker to room full of attendees: "Has everybody got this?"

    — Bzzzzzzt. —

    (Suggested phrase: "Who has not got XYZ?")

    (2) Another twist is: resend of exact same question after 60 minutes of no reply (plus added line "anyone?"). Some people don’t distinguish e-mail and IM. Or sleep.

    (3) Karellen:  "Nice" are also long strings of "Re: Fw: Re: Re: Fw: My Question". Very meaningful indeed.

    (4) Yet another twist: Filenames of download files, e.g. not "Company-Product-DataSheet.pdf" but "meaningful" titles like "AN123456G.pdf".

    Of course there are NO other PDFs on my HD. Ever.

    (5) Some newsgroups had people *request* full quotes of the preceding question(s), instead just a meaningful excerpt plus response.

  31. Chris Nahr says:

    "There’s a particular answers site like this that sprung up recently where everyone races to be the first to answer a question, regardless whether they have any clue about the answer.  Once someone responds who doesn’t have a clue, you’ll never get a real answer because no experts will ever see your question."

    That’s a problem with the website, not with the answerers.  Even if the reply was not just "I don’t know" it might still be wrong/insufficient, and you’d still want the experts to have a look.  The MSDN Forums have a simple "mark as answer" feature for this reason that lets people indicate whether their question has been answered, regardless of how many replies have been made.

  32. Karellen says:

    Eh, I’m not as bothered about other people top-posting as I used to be. I think maybe they just wore me down and I can’t be bothered complaining anymore. And if they stuck to just top-posting, I could leave them to it without complaining.

    But trying to do a proper interleaved reply while using a top-posting style which doesn’t add markers (e.g. ">") to the original message? And then instead adding your own made-up markers, which are not recognised by any email client that I’ve ever come across, to indent the *new* text? Srsly? WTFF? I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such an action.

  33. Neil says:

    Has Raymond rewritten the laws of the universe such that KB article 980665 will never exist?

  34. Stephen Jones says:

    —-"Possible Bug [capital letters make it sound Important]"—–

    Not necessarily. Could be he’d been taught you wrote titles in capital letters.

  35. manicmarc says:

    Is there a module that does XYZ?

    Answer:

    No, not to my knowledge.

    What am I missing?

    [Try it on Usenet, see what happens. -Raymond]
  36. SuperKoko says:

    I noticed that power posters tend to be careful in what they write. They avoid "No, not to my knowledge" answers unless they feel their knowledge on the subject is very complete. e.g. they did search that module and eventually found that it didn’t exist or was too hard to find, and they may answer:

    "I’m currently developing a module that does it".

    On the other hand, n00bs that feel they’ve to answer every possible question post non-sense, sometimes showing that they didn’t even understand the original question.

    Things like:

    "Is mandatory locking implemented in OpenBSD? If not, will it ever be implemented?"

    n00b answer:

    "To lock files against other people’s usage, use chmod 600".

  37. SuperKoko says:

    @Yosi: Read Raymond’s post AGAIN.

    So far, nothing is wrong. […]

    However, there are some people who fail to realize that they just asked for proof of a negative, and send a follow-up:

    The question isn’t wrong. However, people should realize, that, if nobody answered for 1 week, than, no regular poster on this forum/newsgroup knows such a module.

    But, people keep sending follow-up again & again.

    The problem is with people who expect posters to have ultimate knowledge of everything, and will not be satisfied until somebody write:

    "No, it doesn’t exist and won’t ever exist. I’m really sure."

    Please, carefully read Raymond’s post. I feel you missed the point.

  38. .. says:

    @SuperKoko:

    The phenomenon you describe is even more accentuated in forums where there is a reputation system. Noobs would say anything in the hope of getting some point, experts will be much more prudent to avoid losing rep for a bad answer.

    Also, as a topic on stackoverflow of the last days told, the one asking the question has usually a chance to give the most important vote (correct answer) and he is usually the one knowing less about the problem! (so more points to the noob answering first).

  39. Yosi says:

    Trying to play smartass on work never works out. The question mean “If you know module that do XYZ please tell me”.

    Generally I don’t spend more than 2 sec on thinking about subject line. You’re smart person, Raymond, I’m sure you can figure out what that person needs. So, what’s your f**ng problem again?

    [And then two weeks later, they post, “Still waiting for an answer.” So they really want somebody to prove a negative. -Raymond]
  40. Mark says:

    > Is there a module that does XYZ?

    How about "No. Wasn’t it your job to create that module? Don’t tell me you didn’t finish it yet. This isn’t going to look good on your next performance review!!"

    Then there are the answers from the Magic 8-Ball which provides some good responses:

       *  As I see it, yes

       *  Ask again later

       *  Better not tell you now

       *  Cannot predict now

       *  Concentrate and ask again

       *  Don’t count on it

       *  It is certain

       *  It is decidedly so

       *  Most likely

       *  My reply is no

       *  My sources say no

       *  Outlook good

       *  Outlook not so good

       *  Reply hazy, try again

       *  Signs point to yes

       *  Very doubtful

       *  Without a doubt

       *  Yes

       *  Yes – definitely

       *  You may rely on it

    The one I agree with the most is "Outlook not so good".

  41. Drak says:

    —-"Possible Bug [capital letters make it sound Important]"—–

    Could also be a German poster. The are used to writing nouns with capital letters, and I’ve seen them accidentally carry in over into English :)

  42. Andrew says:

    What about when people send every email as ! Important priority. A lot of the emails I get at work are marked important, despite the fact they’re almost definitely not. I’ve considered having Outlook filter and mark them back down to normal priority (or low priority) just because my inbox gets filled with red exclamation points.

  43. @thomas woelfer

    "This might be somewhat unrelated, but incase someone asks for a module that does YXZ – just point ’em to me; i’ve got that particular module implemented over here. Not the XYZ one, though. :-)"

    Let me know if you get the one that does ZZYZX, but you can just keep XYZZY over there.  :)

  44. benjamin says:

    @ Andrew

    At a previous job I’d held one of my bosses sent every email as ‘for followup,’ prompting a mention in the Reminders dialog that I’d then have to dismiss. I’d thought about either making a filter or disabling reminders until I took a more "low tech" approach: treating the mail just as requested.

    Company Luncheon? "I’ll make a note of it, thanks!"

    Boss going to the doctor’s? "Hope things are okay!"

    Turkey in the break-room? "Yum!"

    Oh, I followed up all right.

  45. J says:

    Andrew:  My organization uses the urgent flag correctly, luckily.  Although I encountered an anomaly just last week when I sent some questions out, and got a reply back marked urgent.  That one really confused me.

  46. john says:

    You are right Raymond, the answer is wrongly formulated. For a Robot. Which you are.

  47. Ulric says:

    Somebody at my company flagged all of his mails as "High Priority", the outlook equivalent of screaming.

    I eventually contacted him and asked why.  It turns out the guy – who, yes, worked at a high tech company – though that high priority mails arrived faster than other mails.

    he got this impression a few years before, where a mail he sent only showed up a list a day later, while a high priority one showed up immediately.

  48. Igor Levicki says:

    Seriously what is so wrong with top posting?

  49. Tim Lesher says:

    A: Because it breaks the logical sequence of the discussion.

    Q: Why is top-posting such a bad thing?

    A: Top-posting.

    Q: What is the most annoying thing on usenet and in e-mail?

    (seen elsewhere, and treasured since)

  50. Triangle says:

    What if there is a legal precedent that forbids the creation/usage of a module that does XYZ unless you are part of a certain organization/system?

    "Such a module exists, but unless you get permission from organization Q it is illegal for you to use it" ??

    Stranger things have happened.

Comments are closed.