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Should questions with vague or ambiguous titles be edited to more specifically indicate their contents? If so, with how heavy a hand (i.e. how much deferrence should be paid to the poster's right to expression at the expense of intelligibility)?

Examples: here, here, here, and here

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In my opinion, yes. To make it easy for people to see, from the front page, which questions they may be interested in reading the details of, the title of each question should do a good job of conveying what the question is about.

People with editing power should enforce this, using as much of the original title as possible while still making for a useful title. I think that the author's expression should be a distant second in priority here, since the main point of a title is as I've described above. The question body provides more room for free expression.

I don't know if we ought to go back and fix up what may be hundreds of existing unclear question titles, but if you come to them, particularly if they sit atop particularly useful content, I'd encourage you to go ahead and make them clear.

I've edited the titles of the second and third examples you linked.

  • +1. I think that the edits you made, 1 and 2, are good ones. – msh210 Jun 12 '11 at 5:42
  • Shall we distinguish between where the question title was vague and the asker just needed some more clarification, vs. when the asker chose to make the question title something funny/interesting that (in others' view) is just wasting people's time? – Shalom Jun 15 '11 at 18:20
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    @Shalom Why would we treat those two cases differently? At most, perhaps in the latter case, if you're unilaterally editing the title, move the funny/interesting old title down into the question body, to preserve the turn of phrase where there's more room for it. – Isaac Moses Jun 15 '11 at 18:21
  • Such as this one: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/3359/… . Feel free to put the wordplay into the detailed question, but this would be a lot clearer if the question title was: "What should lefties do when Jewish law specifies using the right hand?" – Shalom Jun 15 '11 at 18:22
  • @Shalom Feel free to make that edit, particularly if you feel that the content within is worth the effort and renewed attention. (In this case, MHO is that it is.) – Isaac Moses Jun 15 '11 at 18:24
  • @Isaac if the questioner was vague I'm not disrespecting him/her by clarifying a bit. If the questioner thought s/he was brilliant with this makes-you-think-a-lot-harder question title, then by making it something prosaic (but easier for the rest of us, and more Google-able), I may be disrespecting that by editing with reckless abandon. – Shalom Jun 15 '11 at 18:28
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    @Shalom I submit that, as I said in this answer "the author's expression should be a distant second in priority [in the title]." Sorry for the dis, but the readers come first. Like I said, we can mitigate the dis by preserving the cleverness in the body. – Isaac Moses Jun 15 '11 at 18:37
  • OTOH, @Shalom suggested elsewhere that the title should be the question (in brief). I disagree. A title need not summarize the content of the thing it's the title of. Does "A Separate Peace" summarize the story of Finny and Gene? I agree titles should be clear, but I don't think they need to be questions. – msh210 Jun 16 '11 at 2:56
  • @msh210 This is a more utilitarian environment than the fiction aisle in a bookstore. – Isaac Moses Jun 16 '11 at 3:23
  • @IsaacMoses, even utile texts don't have titles that summarize the texts. "The Not So Short Introduction to LATEX2ε" is the title of the (or a) not-so-short introduction to LATEX2ε, but doesn't summarize said introduction. – msh210 Jun 16 '11 at 4:03
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    @msh210 OK, I agree that titles need not always be summarizes questions, but they should somehow clearly express what the body is going to get at. – Isaac Moses Jun 16 '11 at 4:07

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