My concept of 'too broad a scope' up until recently pretty much amounted to "How do I setup Ubuntu server and then, and then, and then...." My understanding is that such a question should actually be two or three questions as there are separate topics involved. I also previously understood the line in the FAQ that says:

If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you're asking too much.

However recently I have noticed some users take a more radical approach to this. Questions such as the ones below have been questioned as being too broad.

What is apt and what are its uses?
What is apparmor?

I feel that neither question (even the borderline apt one) is too broad. Neither is asking for a book to be written in response. Both are focused on specific technologies shipped with Ubuntu. All 10 apt-* commands available are pulled by the installation of ONE software package, for example.

  • 3
    It's funny everyone votes on the answers and totally forgets the question!
    – Seth
    Apr 3, 2013 at 1:56

6 Answers 6


I talk about scopes most when I'm talking about people setting a very defined and finite scope to avoid an "infinite-list-of-x" question. Compare:

  • What image editors are available?
  • Which image editor can add borders and export as a paginated tiff?

There are some questions where a generic lick of pain is appreciated but most times, if you want a specific answer, you should be asking a specific question.

As for those two examples...

I like the AppArmor one... Probably because it's a rather large system that I personally don't understand and would like to know more about it.

But I fervently dislike the "What do all the apt-* commands do?" question. My dislike is probably partly because it's something I'm more familiar with but more because it's desperately lazy.

There's a comment from the OP that reads:

I know it is time consuming, But Can you show me some practical examples for each one of them ? For the 1st two commands I already know what they do. I was hoping that someone explains the commands with an example.

It's really late here and I'm getting a bit cranky but I almost deleted the whole thread on seeing this.

TFM has examples for most commands and if somebody does not understand something about a specific command, I'll be the first to welcome them onto the site to ask a question about it... And if that means we have one question per apt-... command, so be it. That's what people will be searching for.

Because I'm tired, I'm going to leave this until morning (and coffee) before I consider doing anything but please feel free to comment on this.

Morning hath broken...

And I've just had my coffee. I asked the other mods for feedback overnight and we're currently 4-0 for binning this question.

What still grinds my gears is the amount of work required to answer this question versus its utility. Nobody is going to search for "What do all the apt commands do?" and it's even less likely that if somebody does do that once in a blue moon are they going to expect a full on documented example of each command.

Edit: In discussion with Eliah on his answer, I've pointed out the scale of the apt-* problem. It's not just that there are 10 apt-... commands, but each command has numerous subcommands. In order to explain what command does, you need to explain what every subcommand does... There are 48 subcommands!

I'm not bending the rules to make an example here. The FAQ (that I clearly never read - thanks vasa1) states:

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

This is one of those times. It asks too much for no good reason, with no benefit for anybody. I'm going to refund the bounty and blow it up (close/lock it).

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

  • 1
    I'm starting to think this is a little too much... It was easy to answer the Apparmor one since it was just one thing, but there are at least 10 different apt- commands and that's a lot.. Instead of just burning it though maybe we could edit it into a good question? We would have to talk to the OP..
    – Seth
    Apr 3, 2013 at 1:59
  • 1
    I think they're seeking a better understanding than man apt-mark and ensemble imbue. I added a bounty because I want someone to answer that question like Seth did the apparmor one and hopefully convey to me a similarly awesome level of understanding with regards to apt. I would also ask that we first try to improve the question before nuking it. Apr 3, 2013 at 3:18
  • If you give me another couple of days I should be able to come up with an okay answer.. I'm kinda busy right now..
    – Seth
    Apr 3, 2013 at 4:52

A good scope for a question would be "I'm trying to solve $problem. I have tried $solutions but they don't work for me cause $other_problem"

"What does apt-cache search banana?" do is not a good question, since you can look it up easily.

"I'm trying to see if yododynemegamix 2.03 is available in the repositories, I've tried using apt-get search but it only shows the major version number. How do I check the exact version number of a package?" (note, I have no idea if this is doable, or necessary. Its just an example!)

You have 1 - a clear problem 2- what you have tried 3- what the exact solution would be for this. The scope is reasonable, and it'll likely work well as a question.

Good questions are also hard enough to be fun, but thats harder to qualify. Any question that can be answered through a direct search engine query or a manpage isn't hard.

Personal opinion here but the Q&A format works best where the manual fails - where you're stuck with a specific point of implementation or the proper use of a tool, not as a replacement for the documentation.


This is a question and answer site, not "please read 10 manpages for me and post them in order." or "I can't read wikipedia."

That's just busywork that people don't want to do and the FAQ is pretty clear about that. I can't explain why the apparmor question has 40 upvotes though.


We have plenty of "what is X for?" questions.

So you're right that construing questions like What is apt and what are its uses? and What is apparmor? as automatically too broad is a radical approach.

What is apt and what are its uses? is misleadingly named. It's actually asking "What are the uses for all the apt- commands?" That's not all that broad. I don't think this is one of the most valuable questions on the site, but it's not too broad.

To respond to the idea that this question is lazy: We have plenty of questions that are lazy in the sense that they ask for information that is extensively provided elsewhere, such that no answer is likely to describe anything that was not previously presented elsewhere on the Internet or in documentation. Like How do I reset a lost administrative password? and How can I repair grub? (How to get Ubuntu back after installing Windows?).

To respond to the idea that this is somehow like a list question: A list question is bad because it can have an unlimited number of answers, with no way to objectively evaluate one compared to another. In contrast, this is asking for the discrete list of utilities that comprise APT and what they do. This question is also not requesting "one utility per answer," and it wouldn't make sense if it did, since a good answer will synthesize information about the different utilities, explaining how they relate to one another.

While poorly named, What is apt and what are its uses? is valuable because a good answer would teach novices about all the utilities that comprise APT, dispel the myth that APT consists only of apt-get, and explain how the utilities perform different functions, showing how they can be used separately or together.

As for What is apparmor?: I believe most users of Ubuntu are poorly familiar with AppArmor. A question with an excellent answer that summarizes its purpose accessibly is a very good thing. Besides that we have many other questions asking what particular parts of Ubuntu are, we know this question has answers that aren't "a whole book" or anything close. So this is not too broad under the FAQ either. That this question and answer are highly upvoted should be considered evidence that they are, in fact, valuable to Ubuntu users and the Ask Ubuntu sub-community more specifically.

Some of the answers that are mostly verbatim quotations from other documentation don't speak well for themselves or the questions they're answering. So Jorge Castro is right that What is apt and what are its uses? looks bad right now. But that question can be answered well, by giving shorter descriptions of each apt- command than are present in their manual pages (while still more accessible descriptions than whatis would give).

What is apt and what are its uses? was posted just a week ago. If a long while passes and nobody posts a good answer (as I've defined it), then it might be reasonable to close it as too broad... though it would be better to simply leave it alone (it has an upvoted answer, after all, and it's not really off-topic). But I doubt that; I would strongly consider posting what I consider a good answer there, if it weren't for my concern that the question is just going to be closed (and then possibly deleted).

The FAQ says "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face"!

Right, and both these questions fit well within that.

Stack Exchange started as just Stack Overflow. Among the general population, the word "problem" has strong connotations of "a bad thing that needs to be fixed or more bad things will happen." Among programmers (and other problem solvers within a technical, quantitative tradition--mathematicians, engineers, etc.), a problem is a situation that admits to a solution.

This more general sense of "problem" is well-known and commonly-used by the general population, too. If someone says, "I'm so glad to be able to work on this interesting problem," most people are not confused.

That is how we should interpret "problems" in the FAQ. Historically, it only makes sense that this is the intended meaning. But also, we'd have to close a significant percentage of all open questions (probably on most or all Stack Exchange sites) if we insisted on the narrower interpretation.

Needing help understanding how a significant part of a system on which one relies is a problem in both senses of the term (i.e., this might even fit within the more restrictive sense of "problem"), and that describes the impetus behind both of the questions brought up here.

We don't interpret "actual, practical problems" to refer only to specific, imminent bad events. We never have, SO doesn't, and as far as I know, no SE site does. What is the philosophy behind Unity's name is considered a fine question.

The APT question--which is apparently more controversial, perhaps because the AppArmor question has one of the best answers ever posted on Ask Ubuntu--comes down to the practical need to know how a central piece of Ubuntu works and what its parts do.

No one opposes comparable questions about Unity, like What's the right terminology for Unity's UI elements? and What are Unity's keyboard and mouse shortcuts?. If we should really only ask for help with a specific task, those would be considered bad, too.

Most of the questions in the list that begins my answer only represent "problems" in this wider sense, too. That's why I listed them. This addendum to my answer serves to clarify and explicate my claim that "practical problems" really means a real situation, where a question can be answered or solved, and you can check if the answer is right.

Related: http://meta.askubuntu.com/questions/3487/questions-just-for-curiosity

  • I was going to try to post a good answer, but by the time I can get it finished Oli will probably have killed it. What do you think about working with OP and editing it into a more precise question?
    – Seth
    Apr 3, 2013 at 2:03
  • @Seth That sounds like a good thing to do. Are you asking me to do it? I might have time for that a little later... Apr 3, 2013 at 2:04
  • No, I wasn't asking you to do it. You can if you want. I was just asking if you thought that was better than closing/deleting it.
    – Seth
    Apr 3, 2013 at 4:50
  • The clear difference between this apt question and the list of question you lead with is the answer demanded in the question. The others are content (and probably best served) with explanations and summaries of discrete systems. This one requires somebody to document all of apt. It might not be lazy but I don't see the benefit from somebody pouring hours and hours into answering something that nobody is ever going to search for. If somebody wants to know what apt is, they're looking for the summary. If somebody wants to know about apt-mark, they'll search for "What is apt-mark?".
    – Oli Mod
    Apr 3, 2013 at 13:36
  • ... It's not just about bredth of scope, it's the amount of detail required at the same time. Let's bump this to the extreme. Consider the questions: "What do all the GNU utilities do? (with examples)" or "What are the BASH builtin functions and what do they all do?". They're asking too much from a single answer.
    – Oli Mod
    Apr 3, 2013 at 13:44
  • 1
    @Oli But you are bumping this to the extreme. There's only 10 apt- utilities.. Type apt- and press tab, and you'll see them. (I see no reason why an answer would need to document utilities whose names start with apt- but which are not part of APT in the sense of being provided by the apt package.) Explaining 10 commands, even with one example per command, would not take hours, and a reference explaining them briefly would carry the benefit that if someone needs to perform a package management task, they can easily see which utility to use (then get more info on it if needed). Apr 3, 2013 at 15:17
  • @Oli Also, while I think it may have been reasonable for you to lock the question while the present dispute works itself out, I think it was wrong for you to have closed it unilaterally. I don't know if there were close flags from community members, but even if there were, given that there is no clear community consensus as of yet about that question, a moderator should not use a binding close-vote in this situation. Apr 3, 2013 at 15:20
  • If somebody needs to do something they [should] search for "How do I do something", not "What are all the related functions of <<this function that I'm trying to use>>".
    – Oli Mod
    Apr 3, 2013 at 15:20
  • On the second point, I think you're completely wrong. This question is a bad question by the existing rules of the site. There are flags and there is consensus between moderators that this is a bad question. And I gave it time and re-read everything having slept on it. In terms of process, I've given this more than the required caution before acting.
    – Oli Mod
    Apr 3, 2013 at 15:21
  • 3
    @Oli I'm not saying you did not act cautiously. I'm saying you (or perhaps the moderators as a whole, depending on how I am to read what you have said) have performed an action best left to the community, eroding the community-run nature of the site. When a question under dispute, with no established consensus, with not even a single 3k close vote, is closed by a single moderator close vote, something is wrong. Apr 3, 2013 at 15:28
  • And these "10 commands" are not that. Just between apt-get and apt-cache, there are 30 commands. apt-* is huge (48 commands if I count correctly).
    – Oli Mod
    Apr 3, 2013 at 15:29
  • @Oli As I said, there are other apt- commands that are not provided by the apt package, which I think don't need to be considered part of APT. Furthermore, like on my system (without these extra packages installed), the OP of that question typed apt-, pressed tab, only got 10 commands, and showed us in the question. It's pretty clear the OP is asking about those 10 commands. Apr 3, 2013 at 15:32
  • Yeah I'm talking about what comes after apt-get (etc) like: upgrade update, install, remove, autoremove, purge, source, build-dep, dist-upgrade, dselect-upgrade... All but two apt-* commands have multiple subcommands. How do you expect to give useful answers without talking about every subcommand?
    – Oli Mod
    Apr 3, 2013 at 15:35
  • 1
    @Oli Not all (or even the vast majority of) subcommands would have to be covered in an answer. An answer could explain the purpose of each apt- utility provided by the apt package, and give a single example, making clear that there are other subcommands with other uses. I do think this clarifies the nature of our disagreement on this issue, though--I think such an answer to this question would illustrate how APT is organized and educate people about the breadth of its utilities. I don't think we have to interpret that question as asking for an exhaustive use guide for every command. Apr 3, 2013 at 15:40
  • 2
    @Oli That gives full manpages, not short, meaningful explanations of purpose that explain how the commands tie in with each other. That's also not just commands that start with apt-, but includes all commands with the text apt- in their names (e.g., add-apt-repository). I'm not sure why, but if it's like the way "wildcards" work in apt commands themselves (e.g., apt-cache policy ... where ... has a *), then it's because it's interpreted as a regular expression and not a shell-style wildcard. If an adequate summary exists (or is added) elsewhere, this question should be duped. Apr 3, 2013 at 16:29

I notice that the question quotes the FAQ selectively. Here's the full paragraph:

What kind of questions should I not ask here?

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here. However, if your motivation is “I would like others to explain ______ to me”, then you are probably OK. (Discussions are of course welcome in our real time web chat.)

As soon as too is interpolated as has been done by OP, one is obviously extending something beyond what was intended.

Then, there's OP's choice of radical. I'd prefer conservative :)

OP writes:

Both are focused on specific technologies shipped with Ubuntu. All 10 apt commands available are pulled by the installation of ONE software package, for example.

That's neither here or there.

Even taking the view that all that is being requested is an explanation of only 10 apt commands, what about the various switches that accompany each command?

As for the reference to an entire book in the FAQ, let's not rely on the literal length of a typical book. That won't get anyone anywhere. War and Peace versus The Little Prince?

Let's now turn to the tooltip that appears when the mouse cursor hovers over the upvote area:

This question shows research effort; it is useful and clear

One answer has this

What is apt and what are its uses? is misleadingly named. It's actually asking "What are the uses for all the apt- commands?"

and this

We have plenty of questions that are lazy in the sense that they ask for information that is extensively provided elsewhere, such that no answer is likely to describe anything that was not previously presented elsewhere on the Internet or in documentation.

If the existence of misleadingly phrased questions and lazy questions is justified by precedence, the tooltip should be rewritten to just "This question is useful"; drop the research effort and clear criteria. The quoted part of the FAQ may benefit as well from a rewrite.

One more point: while the number of up and downvotes is absolutely material, let's not attribute too much to numbers. (I too used too.)

  • You're right, conservative is a more descriptive word. No, the purpose was not to color the argument. I was thinking of radical as in fundamentally different from my own way of thinking and I'm sorry if I offended you by my choice of wording. Apr 3, 2013 at 7:00
  • 1
    No problem. We're all here to make the site better :) I'll remove that bit.
    – user25656
    Apr 3, 2013 at 7:04
  • +1 for R'ing TFM.
    – Oli Mod
    Apr 3, 2013 at 11:44
  • (1) Let's not attribute too little to numbers. There's no fallacy in my answer. At its basis Ask Ubuntu is governed democratically; the "will of the people" should be given weight. The more upvotes a post has, the more useful people probably found it. To think how useful users of the site found a post is not a measure of how useful it really is is to fall to a profound form of elitism. If a post has a high score, we have reason to think it's useful. Of course it might not be, but the votes constitute evidence. (2) You're confusing voting criteria with closure criteria. DV != VTC. Apr 4, 2013 at 1:52
  • What about the other points I raised? Should the "will of the people" prevail over the FAQ? Why not just rewrite the FAQ? Is the "will of the people" consistent over time? I strongly disagree about this "will of the people" being too broadly applied. While voting something up or down is one thing, flouting the FAQ is another. At some point it's going to be quite difficult for any "moderation by the community" to be effective.
    – user25656
    Apr 4, 2013 at 3:31
  • @vasa1 I don't think either of the questions brought up for discussion here goes against the FAQ at all. You've quoted the FAQ, but not said anything I can read as an explanation for why any particular question is inconsistent with it. Furthermore, I've argued that they are both consistent with it in my answer here. The FAQ says questions should be reasonably scoped. We disagree about whether or not a particular question is unreasonably scoped. Both questions relate to real problems. Neither question requires an entire book to answer well. (Your argument that a book can be tiny is silly.) Apr 4, 2013 at 21:47
  • To expand on my objection to the argument that a book (as the FAQ means it) can be any size: "[A] whole book" in the FAQ is about size. It's saying that if an answer would have to be as long as a book (rather than a short to medium length article), then the question is too broad. So the idea that a question can be too broad even if its answers would be expected to be short is silly. I've explained how the appropriate way to answer the APT question would not actually be very long. To say, then, that how long it is doesn't really matter takes great liberties with (i.e., distorts) the FAQ. Apr 4, 2013 at 22:22
  • @EliahKagan, how much importance should be given to: You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face ? Is I want an executive summary an actual problem?
    – user25656
    Apr 5, 2013 at 7:11
  • @vasa1 Great importance. But both these questions fit will within that. In the original version of my answer here, I listed 11 questions that I thought clarified which of the two common meanings of the word "problem" applies. I now realize that I should have made this explicit, in anticipation for this objection. I've added a new section to the end of my answer that addresses this. This was a significant omission in my answer here--thank you for prompting its correction. (For real--thanks. Please keep disagreeing with anything I say that sounds fishy!) :) Apr 5, 2013 at 19:13
  • @EliahKagan, I will. And thank you for understanding that I'm arguing not just for arguing but to better understand how this site functions and should function. Ideally, I'd like a set of rules that people can easily follow without having to think deeply about it. Otherwise, the feature that sets the SE sites apart, that this site is moderated by the users, becomes a bit elitist (in the sense that it sometimes takes reading between the lines to do the right thing).
    – user25656
    Apr 6, 2013 at 2:30

Bearing in mind the Ubuntu philosophy that Ubuntu is for everyone. Would it not be appropriate to reason that Ask Ubuntu is for everyone?
If on reading a question that could be personally described as too broad by the reader the reader does not have to answer it. It is askers choice to ask. Readers choice to answer. The community then will decide how appropriate question is by using the many features of Ask Ubuntu.
Going by the answers to this question maybe this question could be considered to broad and is an example of different people reading the same paragraph will see it slightly different. Just as the same if there were two witnesses to any event - both accounts would be different due to a differing point of view!?
FAQ is guideline not concrete law!
EDIT:Perhaps making a signed Ubuntu Code of Conducts together with reading FAQ a prerequisite in order to access Ask Ubuntu would provide a better way of introducing new users to what is acceptable and what is not.
After reading fact it is not allways easy to put the theory into practice. There is clear concise advice on how to use comments for example as weell as plenty of questions in meta highlighting the need for people to change their habits so as to improve the quality of this Q&A site! Another point of interest that i found helpful in FAQ is remembering to bring sense of humour and found these helpful in remembering that i have one How to force new users to a FAQ that includes how to make a question, comment and answer and Please stop posting half answers and dumb advice as comments : p

  • I have no idea what you are talking about here...
    – Seth
    Apr 4, 2013 at 16:00
  • As this is a "what do you think...?" type question I guess the intention was to add what i think about "What makes a question too broadly scoped for askubuntu?" ...just trying to say what i mean and mean what i say -without hinting or suggesting there may be additional things i can not post"..."x2
    – geezanansa
    Apr 4, 2013 at 17:45
  • 1
    Are you arguing that when a question can reasonably be construed as not too broad, that this should be the reigning interpretation and it should not be closed? I'd agree with that. But, like @Seth, I'm not totally sure what you're saying here. To address one thing at the end of your post: The Ubuntu Code of Conduct does have a section that talks about how it's good to ask questions--though that does not mean we can never close a question on Ask Ubuntu. The CoC doesn't require anyone to value iron-clad adherence to the letter of any document over advancing the project or helping others. Apr 4, 2013 at 21:55
  • 1
    The CoC doesn't require anyone to value iron-clad adherence to the letter of any document over advancing the project or helping others Then what's the point of the FAQ and the way it's worded?
    – user25656
    Apr 5, 2013 at 7:14
  • @vasa1 I don't think anything I'm arguing for goes against the letter of the FAQ at all. I could stipulate to perpetual, iron-clad obedience to the FAQ no-matter-what, and I think my position would still hold just fine. I am not saying that we need even to bend the FAQ a little bit to allow either of the questions discussed here. I don't think you're adhering to the FAQ too strongly; I think you're wrong about what it means. When I said "The CoC doesn't require..." I was specifically addressing something that had been suggested about the CoC, not trying to aggrandize for my position. Apr 5, 2013 at 18:46
  • * I don't think you're adhering to the FAQ too strongly; I think you're wrong about what it means. * This is the point. My position here, and I may come off as arrogant, is this: If I'm misinterpreting the FAQ, the FAQ should be rewritten. IMO, there should be as little scope for different people interpreting things differently. Otherwise, we're down the rabbit-hole.
    – user25656
    Apr 6, 2013 at 2:37

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