I posted a puzzle for answerers to solve, about finding a pattern across several lists of words.

My effort to remove patterns other than the one I used to construct the lists apparently wasn't sufficient; I got two answers that found reasonable explanations other than my intended one. One of them is just a tiny bit off, but the other one, to my mind, is completely plausible.

I'm inclined to mark that plausible answer as accepted, in a desire to be fair about the challenge and avoid a "guess what I'm thinking!" situation. I also thought I should post an "official" answer outlining my intended solution.

My other option would be to continue to wait, and potentially add more data -- another patterned list -- to the question. I'm hesitant to do that, because it means invalidating these two unofficially-correct answers. That's hostile behavior on other SE sites, and it doesn't seem like a nice move here either (in fact, I've had it happen to me and I think it sucks).

(Hindsight being 20/20, of course, I probably should have added that list before I got these two answers.*)

Given that the situation is screwed up, and that it's my fault, I am looking for recommendations about how to proceed here. What's the best -- or least bad -- resolution?

*And done a better job checking for false patterns.

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    $\begingroup$ This is also why sequence puzzles are meh. Ideally, the solution is "don't post puzzles that can have multiple answers." (Of course, that's not always possible.) $\endgroup$
    – Doorknob
    Mar 26, 2015 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, @Doorknob, I'm really quite chagrined that I didn't catch these two patterns. I made an effort to preclude exactly this kind of answer, but I obviously failed. The situation is entirely on me; I'm just trying to figure out how to resolve it in the best way for the site and the answerers. $\endgroup$
    – jscs
    Mar 26, 2015 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ That often happens with riddles: some people answer in a credible way, nevertheless it's not what the author was thinking! $\endgroup$
    – leoll2
    Mar 26, 2015 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ Your consideration for your first puzzle is commendable. I think the questioner should accept an answer that is equal or better than what they had in mind - for the as-stated puzzle. For me, this is consistent with the overall SE objectives and reduces the "what am I thinking" games as you have mentioned. For this puzzle, I would call this a learning, not a "screw up". $\endgroup$
    – Len
    Mar 26, 2015 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ I think you can always put your own answer describing the originally intended answer on once the puzzle gets quite old - even linking to the other answers and acknowledging the situation as you've described it above. All in all, I reckon you're being pretty even handed and tend to agree that putting in extra, answer-invalidating info is not the way to go. $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2015 at 12:02

3 Answers 3


FWIW, here's what I've done in the past:

  • Upvote the answer.

  • Thank the answerer for their great contribution and acknowledge that the answer does fit the problem as stated.

  • Explain that while you think it's a good answer, it isn't the one you were looking for, and that this reflects a fault in your question, so you'll be revising your question.

  • Revise your question to be better-defined in a way which excludes the right-but-not-what-I-wanted answer.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ +1. Objectively - i.e. not from the point of view of someone who's posted a perfectly good but now invalidated solution - this is probably better for the site as a whole, because you end up with a question that's better-defined and thus has more value to the internet than one that accepts multiple equally-valid solutions. (Of course this is assuming I'm understanding correctly the aim of SE, which relates to a new meta post I'm working my way to composing.) $\endgroup$ Mar 28, 2015 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ After some thought, I've come to agree with rand's comment: this would likely produce the best long-term result. (I'm still not sure that I'll do it in my particular case, however, because I'm no longer confident about my ability to not produce more false patterns.) $\endgroup$
    – jscs
    Apr 1, 2015 at 21:22

First, I'm not sure this situation is anything but an inevitability. In this regard, it seems okay for a question to have one or two correct-but-not-intended answers. (Any more than that, though, and it's probably too broad.)

You're right that adding more data would invalidate existing correct-but-not-intended answers, which I agree seems mildly unfair.

The best outcome honestly seems to be to just accept the answer that fits your criteria the best, regardless of whether this is actually intended. The community (and you, if you'd like) can acknowledge or dispute the correctness of other answers, and you can decide which one is the best if you were approaching the puzzle as a third party.

  • $\begingroup$ Inevitvable because...? Of the type of puzzle, as Doorknob opined above? $\endgroup$
    – jscs
    Mar 27, 2015 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Josh Yeah, pretty much because of the type of puzzle. Puzzles like these, wherein an idea is found by criterion, are almost guaranteed to have multiple answers, since information is removed in the obfuscation/puzzle-creation process. (At least how I've seen/understand it?) $\endgroup$
    – user20
    Mar 27, 2015 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ And isn't that the best reward for creating these puzzles? When someone solves a puzzle of your creation better than you did, you get to feel the same awe and sense of wonder that the rest of your audience does. The effort, intellect, and heart spent on creating the puzzle wasn't enough to limit the great amswers to one. Your effort was proven insufficient to the task and you need to give more next time. It's a wonderful feeling. $\endgroup$ Apr 7, 2015 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ This question made me re-live a micro-trauma but I'm now glad I came across it. @TravisKindred The feeling I've had when leaving questions too broad has been far from wonderful. This question posted 1.5 years ago is (very annoyingly) my highest voted question, and it genuinely haunts me to this day. I actually avoided PSE for a while after the blowback. But looking back after all this time, I can genuinely appreciate the answer from Jonathan Allan just as you describe. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2017 at 9:55

My suggestion to what can be done

After some reasonable time have passed and your puzzle was still not solved with the intended answer, you can continue to wait or you can post the intended answer.

My suggestion is to post the intended answer and mark it as accepted.

With the non-intended but credible answers, acknowledge them as good answers but not as the intended answer. Make sure you let them know that it was a flaw in the question and their answer is still valid.

Let the community decide how to receive the non-intended answer with upvotes. This way, we can easily distinguish between the actual answer vs alternate answers.

A meta question was asked here about accepted answer vs community chosen answer

Why choose this as accepted answer?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ My concern with this approach is that it may turn "solve this puzzle" questions into "guess what I'm thinking" questions. $\endgroup$
    – user20
    Apr 9, 2015 at 16:20

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