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What are some general guidelines for editing a MathOverflow post? Are there some "do"s and "don't"s I should know about?

(The material that was previously in this question box has been moved to an answer box, where it belongs, in response to a pertinent comment by Noam Elkies.)

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    $\begingroup$ On removal of "fluff": sometimes I think this concept is overplayed, such as suggestions to remove a thank-you from the OP in a comment under an answer (it is suggested that upvoting is enough) as being "too chatty" -- this could be useful to assure that an unaccepted answer really did help the OP. That's just my personal belief though. An exchange of "thank you" plus "you're welcome" without further information coming in can probably be removed after a spell. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 7 '15 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ Everybody knows that $ZFC$ should be $\sf ZFC$, or at least $\rm ZFC$. :-) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 7 '15 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ The choice of fonts aside, per good TeX practice, $ZFC$ should be $\mathit{ZFC}$. The former is typeset as if it were three variable names in a row, and consequently has kerning (and ligatures) messed up. $\endgroup$ – Emil Jeřábek Apr 7 '15 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ This post might be a good candidate for the faq tag. $\endgroup$ – Emil Jeřábek Apr 7 '15 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Emil: Whenever someone mentions bad kerning, I remember how much I hate myself. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 7 '15 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ At this point I half-expected someone would edit my amateurish TeXing and and improve the tags! But maybe they didn't want to annoy me. :-D $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 7 '15 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ I am a bit leery of grammatical corrections (cf. posts on LanguageLog) and I personally feel that respect for OP's idiom outweighs grammatical niceties unless there is something drastic such as subject/object confusion $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Apr 7 '15 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ Since fonts were mentioned, I feel compelled (if not obliged) to mention my pet peeve of people making things blackboard bold when the original post had no danger of ambiguity $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Apr 7 '15 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi I mostly agree with your first comment (and I certainly don't want to encourage Mrs. Grundy who is in the habit of prescribing "correct" grammar, such as avoiding split infinitives). I'll probably wind up editing some more to reflect that. But I do feel strongly about spelling names correctly. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 7 '15 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ This all looks very reasonable, but I don't see a question. Is the etiquette on Meta (Metiquette?) that "FAQ" articles such as this are posted in the question queue? $\endgroup$ – Noam D. Elkies Apr 7 '15 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with Noam, actually. This should have been posed as an answer to a "simple question" like "What are the etiquette rules to consider when editing someone else's post?" $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 7 '15 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ @NoamD.Elkies Thanks for your observation; looking over past "public service announcements" on MO meta, you're right that they sort of follow the question-answer format. Maybe this will look more in line with that practice. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 7 '15 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf they once scolded me for an attempt to fix. $\endgroup$ – Incnis Mrsi Apr 19 '15 at 15:11
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Most of the time, the edits that I see on MO are respectfully and tactfully performed and small in scope, and gratefully received by the post's author as improvements. Occasionally though I see flare-ups over an edit, to the point where a post will be self-mutilated or self-deleted; (more rarely) there will be an edit war. I hope this answer can help to provide some general precepts, so that such situations can be avoided or ameliorated.

First, a few general points to keep in mind:

  1. From the Stackexchange faq: If you are not comfortable with the idea of your contributions being collaboratively edited by other trusted users, MO might not be right for you.

All within reason, of course. More on this in a moment.

  1. Editing is welcomed and encouraged. However, if an author of a post is resistant to edits, even reasonable ones based on generally accepted guidelines, be the bigger man or woman and let them have it their way.

The general aim is to clean up and improve posts over time, but in this case the reluctant author probably just needs more time to understand how things work around here. Of course you can gently remonstrate in a comment, but don't go on about it too long or be too insistent.

  1. We're supposed to be adults here. Try to resolve edit disputes through simple communication, without being rude to your fellow community members.

As it says here: Be nice. Most of "be nice" follows from the golden rule, but one corollary that is particularly pertinent to editing is this: assume good intentions. If you are annoyed by an edit, take a deep breath and remember that the editor is probably just trying to be helpful. Master your emotion, and don't get all touchy and defensive. Adopt the spirit of general cooperation to optimize our posts.

If simple polite communication doesn't work and you find yourselves at an impasse, you can flag for moderator attention to help resolve the dispute.


The following types of edits should be considered fairly uncontroversial:

  • Fixing a misspelled name, as a basic courtesy to the name's owner.

Correcting misspellings more generally is permissible I think, but I would consider it low priority, and you probably have better things to do with your time.

On fixing grammatical errors: if the text is really unclear because of bad grammar, then yes. If the meaning is clear but the author's English is not perfect (according to you), then I'd be a lot more circumspect. John Baez once said that "broken English" is the language of science, and we should be respectful of some variation. I often enjoy other people's written accents, as it were; I find they impart some of the charm to our little international community. (Thank you Yemon for your comment which prompted this.)

  • Clarification without changing the meaning. For example, to prevent closure of a question that might otherwise be okay, or adjusting the title if it describes the question poorly.

  • Fixing a minor slip (e.g., accidental insertion of the word 'no' where it was clearly not meant, etc.) where it doesn't require a full post to justify.

  • Adding related resources or links that will help someone answer the post, or that help provide context.

  • Editing of tags to more appropriate ones.

  • Adding in information found only in comments, so that one doesn't have to read through the comments to get the information.

  • Embedding or re-uploading images, fixing formatting, etc.

This last point probably deserves some amplification. If someone has messed up the LaTeX or MathJax, for example forgetting a dollar sign, then by all means get in there. Potentially more contentious is where you're sure that you understand good LaTeX practice (for which there is a large body of literature) and you want to clean up what looks like amateur WYSIWYG-style formatting; it could be using $<$ for $\langle$ for instance, or spacing issues, etc. Well, proceed with fingers crossed, but if the author complains, refer to general point 2. above and back off. Even if you're sure you're right. (Take a moment also to reflect on point 2 below.)

I'll throw in one more, as being part of the vision of the founders of the StackExchange sites, although my own attitude about it is somewhat soft:

  • It is permissible to remove "fluff" such as "Hi" or "Thanks in advance" or a signature in a question.

The founders would like SE sites to be more wiki-like and less a discussion forum. I can see the point of that, but I'll offer a personal comment below.

Here are some Don'ts:

  1. Don't perform massive edits (e.g., a lengthy post that you think should be trimmed down) without prior discussion.

  2. Don't self-indulge as a copy-editor. Examples might be: changing British spellings to American spellings, or enforcing consistency in "house style" (like thinking ZFC should be $\mathit{ZFC}$).

The point is that MO doesn't actually have an articulated house style as such, although there may be some general consensus on good LaTeX or MathJax practice, and those who have thought about such matters should be listened to respectfully.

  1. Don't change the meaning of a question, or add your own question-extensions to a question, etc.

Mainly these points can be summarized as: get your own ego out of the picture; don't be self-indulgent. Even though your icon may appear to announce your edit, the idea is to be quietly helpful: perform the edit discreetly and without fanfare.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the "fluff" issue has been discussed before, but do not have a link at present to give. In particular, StackExchange wants less fluff and more fact, while MathOverflow had (and I hope still has) a culture of politeness and tolerance for some fluff. In particular, occasional expressions of thanks reinforce the civil and forgiving atmosphere. Certainly we can stand a few (if not too many) Hi's as well. Gerhard "Position On Signatures Remains Unchanged" Paseman, 2015.04.08 $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Apr 9 '15 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ @GerhardPaseman Yes, MO is "special" among SE sites and we like it that way. I can tolerate plenty of fluff in comments (and as a mod, I am sometimes uncomfortable processing some of the "too chatty" flags when people are just being friendly with each other). A little friendly banter with Asaf or Will Jagy is harmless. I am usually somewhat less keen on fluff in questions (e.g., affecting a tone of familiarity as in "Hey there, Math Geeks!" or text-message abbreviations like 'plz' and thx' -- those do set my teeth on edge). I dislike sloppiness in questions, e.g., misspellings in titles. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 9 '15 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if it makes sense to include the information that one can undo an edit with two clicks. The rollback-option is not at the (IMO) most intuitive place, so for some (newer) users this might be unclear, and this might aggravate any frustration about an edit. OTOH, it might also lead to inconsiderate rollbacks. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Apr 12 '15 at 0:43
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If you see a sloppy accidental error then certainly correct it. But when an author put special effort into editing--then changing it is ignorant, arrogant and insensitive, simply rude. You should ask, you should not waste the author's effort by "editing" according to your own ideas (even if they are standard).

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    $\begingroup$ That's very interesting. See revision 7 here: mathoverflow.net/posts/39828/revisions $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 11 '15 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ I think that in many cases, it will not be obvious to an editor that the author "put special effort into editing". In particular, this applies to the incident that prompted this post. $\endgroup$ – Eric Wofsey Apr 11 '15 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ @EricWofsey The post was prompted by my reflecting on more than one such incident. There are enough instances of people reacting negatively to their posts being edited, and counterreactions, that I thought some general discussion was in order. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 11 '15 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Todd: I generally do not like my posts to be edited. Of course, I can't help if they are, and I rarely rollback edits if I find them reasonable; but many times I would prefer to be consulted via comments first (in other words, I prefer to have the issues pointed out to me). Then I can consider whether or not I feel that bumping an old thread to the main page is reasonable enough for this sort of edit, or I will try to find additional issues which need attention. But in general, I am not a fan of waking up and finding a useless edit had been suggested to my posts, and was approved by others. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 12 '15 at 1:29
  • $\begingroup$ @EricWofsey -- one who edits someone's post has (should) pay a careful attention to the text. In the given case the editor had to see my consistent patient effort into enforcing my style of mathematical communication. Overwhelming majority of people on Internet and on MO at least tolerate my style even if they don't care or even dislike it. Many continue Internet discussions with me following there my conventions, within the given thread (sometimes even outside of them). An active destroying someone else's style would be intolerant, and hostile when persistent. $\endgroup$ – Włodzimierz Holsztyński Apr 12 '15 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble -- you may start another thread. It may be at least as interesting and useful. We may have another good discussion. $\endgroup$ – Włodzimierz Holsztyński Apr 12 '15 at 1:52
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila Well, I'm all against useless edits! (Does that happen often?) I get my posts edited too sometimes. Most of the time it's an improvement, and I'm glad for the intervention. Maybe once or twice I've thought the edit was useless, and knowing me, I probably just let the editor know what I thought and wouldn't have felt compunction about rolling back if I thought the intervention was without merit. My main message though is not to blow one's stack, not be territorial, but accept occasional edits as part of life and usually coming from good intentions. I don't worry about the bump. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 12 '15 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf Wanna know someone who's really gracious about edits? Joel David Hamkins. It might be something little, but my observation is that he almost always thanks the editor for the little effort to make a micro improvement. It makes for a good collegial atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 12 '15 at 2:15
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    $\begingroup$ @WłodzimierzHolsztyński If I may speak frankly: I really wish you would temper your language in your interactions with others. Things would go down much, much better if you avoid calling people "ignorant", "arrogant", "insensitive", or say things like "shame on you", or accuse people of "gaming", etc., etc. In the present instance, much drama and unpleasantness could be avoided if you were to say something like, "I appreciate that you probably mean to be helpful, but I prefer my own style of formatting, and so I'm going to roll back to the previous version." $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Apr 12 '15 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble -- mea culpa $\endgroup$ – Włodzimierz Holsztyński Apr 12 '15 at 3:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Todd: I try to do that when I notice the edit, and I approve of the edit (e.g. when it is an obvious typo). $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 12 '15 at 7:35

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