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What to do when there are two different questions but they can be solved with the same answer (such as "What is 3 + 1" and "What is 2 + 2")?

Look at this question:

Icons from my Home Directory in 23.10

Now observe this one:

All folders visible in desktop linux

I have answered the first question and was about to answer the second but caught myself on the thought that I was basically saying the same thing as in the first answer.

What do we do in this case? The questions are not duplicates but can be solved in the same way. Would we still flag one of the posts as duplicate of the other (because the solutions are are the same)?

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  • 1
    What a great question. I do know that (on many SE sites) some folks are too quick to close a duplicate based on the (illogical, as you point out), rule that "two questions having the same answer means they are duplicates". This will be a great canonical question to point to in these cases, at least here on AU. Apr 1 at 16:29

5 Answers 5

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When deciding whether to flag or vote to close a question as duplicate, I ask this question:

Could a useful answer to this question exist that would not make sense if posted to the proposed target?

If the answer is yes, then don't close, because closing shuts down the potential for useful answers.

I also agree with people who say this another way: that it's not enough for the target to have an answer that could work for the proposed dupe question; the question itself must be the same.

After all, our goal is not to close as many questions as possible or to have as few questions as possible!

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    +1, you should send that memo to SO mods, who instead delete such answers (example of an answer deleted by SO mods. Needs +10k rep to see, but I copied it on meta.stackexchange.com/a/267319/178179). Mar 25 at 21:21
  • @FranckDernoncourt This is about what to do with the questions, not the answers. Even here on Ask Ubuntu, you will likely receive a warning and one of the answers will be removed if you post identical answers on two or more questions. If the questions are different, then useful answers will be tailored to each question. In the case of those SO questions - Neither was ever closed for being a duplicate of the other, but your answer was deleted on one because it was a copy/paste. Apr 1 at 16:22
  • One of our goals is to have as few duplicate questions as possible though. So if the answers of the dupe adequately answer this one, then we should close instead of repeating effort and fragmenting information. I upvoted for the text in bold, but I disagree with your 4th paragraph about the questions being the same.
    – terdon
    Apr 1 at 16:42
  • @NotTheDr01ds "If the questions are different, then useful answers will be tailored to each question" No, eg stackoverflow.com/a/32918798/395857 is still useful even though it's not tailored. Apr 2 at 7:00
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"YES and NO"

Are valid answers to many questions in life.

So are "TRUE" and "FALSE".

"Check to make sure the computer is plugged in" may be a valid answer to many Ubuntu questions.

If the answer suits the question and is valid, it is the right answer.

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The objective of dupes is to help people find the right answer. If the right answer can be found under another question, then that is where we should go and we should indeed close one of the two as dupes of the other. Now, the special case where one question includes some specific detail that is not included in the other answer, as Zanna describes in her answer here, is indeed different. If the question isn't fully answered by the dupes of the answer, then only close if the questions themselves are identical.

Generally speaking, my rule of thumb is "Do the answers of the proposed duplicate answer the question?" and if the answer to that is yes, vote to close. For me, whether the questions themselves are the same is almost irrelevant. The point is whether the answers are the same.

So I would strongly disagree with Zanna's second point there:

I also agree with people who say this another way: that it's not enough for the target to have an answer that could work for the proposed dupe question; the question itself must be the same.

For me, the question absolutely doesn't need to be the same, it just needs to be answered by the same answer. If both questions have the same answer, having two separate almost identical answers just because the two questions were approaching the subject from different angles is a waste and makes it harder to actually find the answer.

So I would go with Zanna's first litmus test of "can an answer be posted here that could not be posted on the dupe?" but, if the answer to that question is "no", then we don't need the questions to be the same. For example, consider these trivial example:

How can I delete a file named -foo? I tried rm -foo but it gave an error!

and

How can I move a file named -bar? I tried mv -bar baz but got an error!

The questions are ostensibly different, but the answer in both cases will be to either use command -- filename or command ./filename and a good answer could explain what -- does and how to handle file names safely. Even though the questions are different, they should be closed as duplicates as long as we have a good answer.

Or, to take a real example, consider How to add a directory to the PATH?. That has been used as a dupe target for very many questions, some of which appear different. For example:

Each of the dupes is slightly different, some asking about specific directories, others more general, but none are identical. And yet all have been correctly closed as duplicates since the answers of the dupe target also answer the closed questions.

Bottom line, when wondering whether to close, just ask yourself "do the answers of the duplicate adequately answer the current question?" and, if the answer is yes, vote to close.

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Adding as a separate answer since it's a bit orthogonal to the points in my other answer.

@terdon mentions:

Do the answers of the proposed duplicate answer the question?

And I'd take that a step further and phrase it as:

Do I believe that answers of the proposed duplicate are likely to answer the question?

If so, then the user should attempt the answers there first before the community attempts to provide new answers on a new question. If the user has tried those answers and is still not successful, then they should update the question with the results. This goes to the core "Search, and Research" guidance from How do I ask a good question?.

With that in place, the question can and likely should be reopened.

Further, make sure that this is clear to the user in comments. As @terdon also said:

The objective of dupes is to help people find the right answer.

If the duplicate doesn't help, then we should entertain additional answers/possibilities based on the results of their attempts.

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tl;dr: Tailor your answer to each question.


I have answered the first question and was about to answer the second but caught myself on the thought that I was basically saying the same thing as in the first answer.

What do we do in this case?

When questions are different

As @Zanna pointed out, when two questions are truly different, and yet can have the same answer, "Leave Open" and don't close either as a duplicate.1

In this case

Looking at the two questions you provided as examples in this post, though, I'm not convinced that they aren't duplicates of each other.

How to answer

To the second part of the question -- If you truly believe the questions are different, feel free to answer both, but tailor your answer to each question.

If the questions are truly different, then explain why your answer works for that question, along with any benefits and drawbacks of the answer in that use-case. For this one, for instance, it might have been sufficient to say that you don't know why the icons are resetting on each reboot, but that you were proposing a workaround rather than an answer to the root issue.


Footnote:

1 In reality, I don't follow this rule all the time myself.

The real answer is "it depends".

In practice, I probably come closer to what @terdon proposes in this answer. When I've been exercising my gold-badge dupe hammer, I do tend to close if I believe the root issue is the same and can probably be answered by the answers on another question. However, I also try to address any "side-questions" in comments, and if it's apparent the side-questions are more substantial, then an edit to the question to place the focus there might warrant reopening.

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