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[META] How to use the title field

on 2/13/13, 2:20 PM 2,953 views

I am unclear as to the site etiquette with respect to the title field. I can see titles have been moderated (although some are still not questions), to include a question mark.

Should the title also be a question or should it describe the question circumstances?

Edit: Should it be the answer you are looking for? For example a title with 'How to...'

That's the question we needed: +1 :)

Antonin Bourguignon (abo)
on 2/14/13, 8:05 AM

Indeed. Although 'How to use the title field' is not a question, so it should not have a question mark ;)

on 2/14/13, 8:35 AM

I recommand the reading of this excellent question on SO meta: How do I write a good title?

To cut a long story short:

  • Make the topic stand out.
  • Keep it short.
  • Lead with the most important words.
  • Don't start with "How do I..." (I often do it myself because it's the easiest way to turn a non-interrogative title into a question -- but it's not the best practice)
  • Don't sweat replicating a tag keyword.
  • "What is a ..." is fine

Some Good Examples

Here are some good titles, taken from existing posts. They succinctly summarize the question and will catch readers' eyes when scanning down the list.

  • Turning Linux USB power on and off?
  • How to UPSERT in Oracle (update or insert into a table)?
  • Python: What OS am I running on?
  • Raise an existing X11 window via command line?
  • 64-bit XML-RPC values?
  • Move an existing X11 window via command line?
  • Sum 3 columns in SQL when one column has a null value?
  • Oracle: searching over a range of values?
  • PostgreSQL encrypted backups
  • Readable font for code presentations?
  • Object Oriented vs Relational Databases
  • Oracle: formatting number as xxx-xx-xxxx
  • PostgreSQL Long VACUUM
  • Best timing method in C?
  • Map Routing, a la Google Maps?
  • Constructing images using HTML markup?
  • Inserting PostgreSQL BLOBs at a high-rate?

Some Bad Examples

These titles, also taken from existing posts, accurately present the question when read individually, but make it hard to pick out questions of interest when scanning the list.

  • How can I format xxxxxxxxx like xxx-xx-xxxx in Oracle?
  • How can I programmatically enable and disable the power to a particular USB port on Linux?
  • How can I raise an existing window via command line in X11?
  • How can I quickly insert a BLOB in PostgreSQL?
  • How can I move an existing window via command line in X11?
  • How can I store multiple items in an XML file for easy parsing?
  • What is a good font for code presentations?
  • How can I sum 3 columns when one column has a null value?
  • How can I construct images using HTML markup?
  • What is the best book for software design?
  • How can I generate unique random numbers in PHP?
  • How can I quickly insert a BLOB in PostgreSQL?
  • How can I tell what OS am I running on in Python?

Some other good readings:

On 2/14/13, 7:46 AM

A lot has been discussed about this subject on Q/A sites, like the ones on StackExchange.com sites.

Basically (quoted from SO):

Using the title to ask a question (a good, not retoric one) is going to give the reader as much context in as short a space as possible. A good question is going to let the reader know what he is going to read, and in this case, let the answerers know what end-state you desire.

Let's take your first example, "Fooing a bar". Although short, it lacks context. There's nothing in the question that indicates what sort of answer that could be. Possible actual questions include:

  • Philosophy: Is it wise to foo a bar?
  • Advice: When should I foo a bar but baz a bar?
  • Mechanics: How do I foo a bar?
  • Possibility: Can I foo a bar?
  • Comparison: How many different ways can I foo a bar?
  • Survey: How do you foo a bar?

Those extra words aren't just sitting there doing nothing. Each one of those is a different question with a different answer and a potentially different audience. They are directing the answer and informing the reader. Choosing the right question is the key to getting the answer that you need.
end of quote

Here are some related questions with answers from StackOverflow site talking about the subject.

Sorry for taking SO as an example, but as for today I consider it to be the best Q/A site. Also on the old forum it clearly states that this new site will follow SO guidelines.


I think that the title should be the digest of your question. I'm not sure if they need to be interrogative, but the interrogative form is probably better to describe your question.

I think that the question circumstances should be in the body.

Think about that: if you want to find an answer to a question, using the search box, will you ask your question, or ask the question circumstances? I think you'll write the question.

I think you are right it should not be the circumstances. Perhaps my choice of words was poor, I have edited my original post. I don't necessarily think you would write the question, more likely the answer. i.e. in this case search for: How to use the title field.

on 2/14/13, 4:11 AM

The most important is to make it "find-able" for when other users will have the same question.

Fabrice Henrion (fhe)
on 2/14/13, 5:10 AM
On 2/14/13, 7:07 AM

To make the Question findable I think the title should be the answer which is being sought. The question should be contained in the text such that it can be properly explained.

For example if I had a question about how to use the import tool. Specifically, I wanted to ask about importing products.

I would search the site for 'How to import products', not 'How do I import products?', or 'What is the best way to import products?'

The main text body should then contain. 'I have a problem, I can't figure out how to import my products... How do I do use the import tool?'

I think that it is more concise this way, the titles will be shorter and contain the same amount of information.

Just as a note - 'How to do something' is not a question, it should not have a question mark. So if the titles are to be interrogative the title should not begin with 'How to... '

I rarely use full phrases to do a search. Most commonly I use key words, something like 'import products openerp" or "configure import products".

on 2/14/13, 9:27 AM

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Asked: 2/13/13, 2:20 PM
Seen: 2953 times
Last updated: 3/16/15, 8:10 AM