I have just been told that my question is an "XY Problem". What does that mean? What am I supposed to do?


1 Answer 1


XY Problem means: You want to do X. You think about a solution Y. But you find out that there is a problem with this solution Y, so you ask about Y, not even mentioning X.

You should ask about your real problem X, and as a part of the question put: "I tried Y but with no success / with some problems." Find out more about XY problem (link).

Few examples how you should / should not ask:

  • \hspace does not work at the beginning of line. The poster was writing a call stack and needed each line to be indented by varying amount of space. Much better would be to ask I need to write a call stack with indented lines.

  • Redefining \verb to be \url The poster asked about changing some LaTeX commands. After a short discussion, it was found that his real issue is that the \verb command gets nice highlight in Emacs and he wanted \url to be highlighted the same way. The correct question would state something like How to get Emacs properly highlight \url.

  • How to correctly replace $$..$$ with \[..\] and $..$ with \(..\)? The posters asked about a regular expression for LuaTeX to replace the plain math modes with their LaTeX counterparts. After a thread of about ten comments, the poster reveals that the objective is to wrap math mode material into /ActualText and the original intention was to achieve this by hooking into the \(...\) and \[...\] macros. However, the problem is solved much easier using the LuaTeX mlist_to_hlist callback. The correct question would have been How to wrap math mode material into /ActualText?

  • 2
    Who invented the expression "XY problem"? Feb 22, 2013 at 20:18
  • @Lover I really don't know, sorry. And Uncle Google with Aunt Wiki both keep mum :-/
    – yo'
    Feb 22, 2013 at 20:27
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    @LoverofStructure According to ChatGPT, the term "XY problem" was first used by Andrew Koenig in a post on comp.lang.c in 2001. It was allegedly first used in an internet forum in 2009, although ChatGPT could not tell me which one. So I'm not sure if ChatGPT is right or just fantasising..
    – cabohah
    Jun 2, 2023 at 12:20

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