The tag is for sure one of the most controversial tags in the history of Puzzling. It was often criticized for its inaccurate description, ambiguous meaning, tendency to "mask" low quality puzzles and generate speculative answers. Recently, the was burninated because it was considered a synonym of lateral-thinking. Personally, I haven't supported that removal, I actually don't mind because I prefer to focus the attention on another major issue regarding lateral-thinking: its nature, meaning and policy.

First of all, what do we mean by ?
According to the tag wiki, a lateral-thinking puzzle requires "thinking outside the box", a creative approach and, most important, a unique correct answer.
As you can see, the tag description seems to be pretty accurate, no way for different interpretations.

So, what's wrong with it, if not the description?
Probably the way people use (and abuse) it. Many users (especially new ones) tend to post extremely broad puzzles, marked with the lateral-thinking tag, without realizing that their problem allows several valid answers, none of these contradicting the original puzzle.
This tendency, inevitably, ruined the reputation of the tag, leading to a horrid bias of hate: questions marked with the lateral-thinking tag get an insane amount of downvotes, even if their quality is decent and admit only one reasonable answer (by "reasonable" I mean "logical, which makes sense and doesn't break physics laws).
I could provide examples of this behaviour, but I don't want to focus the attention on specific puzzles. If you feel that examples are required to support my thesis and continue this discussion, feel free to ask in the comments.

How do we these issues?
In my opinion, the only solution relies on a strict, clear new policy about lateral-thinking puzzles. In my opinion, the moderators, helped by the community, should establish, once for all, new accurate and explicit rules to handle the tons of lateral-thinking questions that get posted.

What are the options?

  1. All lateral-thinking questions are considered off-topic and do not belong to Puzzling. The tag must be deleted.
    In this case, I would support the creation of a new SE lateral-thinking community in Area 51.
  2. The lateral-thinking tag deserves an exception to the rules. No lateral-thinking puzzles will nevermore be marked as "too broad" because that is an intrinsic feature of lateral-thinking questions.
  3. New guidelines must be written to tell low-quality lateral-thinking puzzles from good ones. Personally, this is my favourite option, the one I support.

If we choose the 3rd option, these are some of the features I'd like to see in the new policy:

  • Lateral-thinking puzzles must not involve breaking physics laws (no portals, no black holes, no infinite dimensions).
  • The problem must not rely on wordplays and puns.
  • The language used to describe the problem must be particularly clear and shouldn't allow any misinterpretation.
  • The author is obliged to to clarify any doubt posted by other users under his puzzle as soon as possible.
  • Close-voting is allowed (EDIT:) recommended only if you find at least two completely different plausible answers, and the author has been already notified about this duality.

In particular, this last point gives an opportunity to the author to edit his puzzle, isolate the right answer and preserving the quality of his question.
Of course, the above list is not complete. If you have any proposal, this is the right place to discuss about it. Share your opinion, decide the future of the lateral-thinking tag!

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Yeah, that very last point is never going to work. You can't tell people how to use their close votes. Furthermore, enumerating only a specific set of rules is likely to cause instances of "but, but, there's no rule that says I can't post a question about breaking math rules! it only says physics rules" or similar nitpicking. The idea has merit though, and I definitely agree that the tag could benefit from a stricter set of rules. $\endgroup$
    – Doorknob
    May 3, 2015 at 14:31
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ PPCG has a set of Standard Loopholes used to avoid some of the issues with breaking rules. This may kind of page/topic/etc may help with the rules defining what lateral-thinking can and can't be. $\endgroup$
    – Brian J
    May 4, 2015 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ Also, most of the questions include a statement saying "standard loopholes forbidden" with a link to that page. $\endgroup$
    – Brian J
    May 4, 2015 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ The entire point of the closing feature is to stall a problematic question from becoming more of a mess via bad answers. Close votes should be used as soon as you believe you've identified a problem that prevents good answers, and your reopen vote likewise used only when the problems have been fixed. This is the means by which all question rules are enforced. Quite aside from Doorknob's point above, your fifth bullet hamstrings the rest of them. $\endgroup$
    – jscs
    May 6, 2015 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ I have edited the last point, hope it's better now! Also, remember that that isn't intended to be an exhaustive list of rules, it's just a fac-simile. $\endgroup$
    – leoll2
    May 7, 2015 at 6:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Doorknob Yes, you can, by using a per-site close reason that says "Lateral thinking puzzles that don't do X, Y and Z are off-topic." Plenty of other sites do it. $\endgroup$ May 7, 2015 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ @starsplusplus That's still not a "close votes are strictly allowed if and only if..." which is what the original revision of the post was suggesting. $\endgroup$
    – Doorknob
    May 7, 2015 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Doorknob Isn't it? You can't force people to vote the way you want, but you can certainly tell them to. A StackOverflow example: Questions seeking debugging help ("why isn't this code working?") must include the desired behavior, a specific problem or error and the shortest code necessary to reproduce it in the question itself. Questions without a clear problem statement are not useful to other readers. Seems pretty clear that you can close vote iff at least one of those three things is missing. $\endgroup$ May 7, 2015 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Doorknob Or on English: Questions on choosing an ideal word or phrase must include information on how it will be used in order to be answered. For help writing a good word or phrase request, see: About single word requests - clearly you can VTC if it doesn't include information on how it will be used. The close vote description sets out the rules for how the close votes are meant to be used. $\endgroup$ May 7, 2015 at 12:54

3 Answers 3


I very much like your idea and agree with you that the "3rd option" is the best. However, I see Doorknob's point (in his comment) about enforcing the rule...

Maybe a compromise (or step in the right direction) would be to take a modified version of your "policy" and put it into the tag-wiki for lateral-thinking. I don't think there should be a rule on close-votes (as it can not be enforced), but having the "proper-use-instructions" in the tag-wiki allows close-voters (which should be higher-rep-users) to rethink their action.

With this in mind, I would propose to take the following points into the lateral-thinking tag-wiki:

  • Lateral-thinking puzzles must not exploit breaking physics laws or similar, general accepted common-sense rules (no portals, no black holes, no infinite dimensions).
  • The problem must not rely on wordplays and puns.
  • The language used to describe the problem must be particularly clear and shouldn't allow any misinterpretation.
  • The author is obliged to clarify any doubt posted by other users under his puzzle as soon as possible.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If we add points like those in the wiki, I'd also suggest to insert a link to the tag wiki at the end of every new lateral-thinking puzzle, so that people could easily read the new guidelines. $\endgroup$
    – leoll2
    May 3, 2015 at 19:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Maybe this is the best we'll be able to do. Still, the rules you lay out are very woolly and imprecise. Never mind - I'm a mathematician, so I'm hard to satisfy when it comes to precision! ;-) $\endgroup$ May 3, 2015 at 22:33
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    $\begingroup$ @randal'thor As I've specified, my rules are just a starting point, of course they need improvements. This is exactly what happens when the politicians make a new law: first they have an idea, then they develop it, modify it, then submit for approval. $\endgroup$
    – leoll2
    May 7, 2015 at 6:17

What does mean? The tag description isn't that helpful.

A puzzle solved through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable only using logic.

This describes most puzzles, excluding some purely logic-based ones. Creativity and non-obviousness are what makes puzzles fun. No wonder people are tag is on so many types of question.

Such a broad tag isn't useful. I propose a narrower definition, under which only a fraction of puzzles tagged lateral-thinking would remain so.

A lateral-thinking puzzle tries to trick the reader into assuming or imagining incorrect things. For example, traditional gender roles cause readers to imagine a man when a surgeon is mentioned. Or, mentioning Paris and Berlin makes readers think of the major cities in France and Germany.

Whereas a typical puzzle strives to describe the situation as helpfully as possible, a lateral-thinking puzzle tries to be misleading while remaining technically truthful. But unlike a riddle, where one expects not to take statements literally, the solver is presented with what seems like a straightforward description.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Your last pararaph would probably make a very good excerpt for the tag, and I believe you have the excerpt editing privilege. $\endgroup$
    – jscs
    May 7, 2015 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ @JoshCaswell I feel like I should wait for consensus before I edit the tag, since that's part of what this meta post is about. $\endgroup$
    – xnor
    May 8, 2015 at 0:09

Proposal: Burninate , replace with new tag

The tag lateral thinking is used so broadly that's it's lost its meaning, like the now-burninated brainteaser tag. Any puzzle can be said to be "solved through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious".

A natural idea is to edit the tag excerpt and wiki to have a more precise and narrow definition. But, people don't read tag excerpts. They'll still tag according to whatever they think lateral thinking means. We'd have to constantly retag questions that don't fit.

So, I propose burninating and making a new tag (I'm open to better names) to replace it with a specific, useful meaning. Here's my attempt at a definition.

  • $\begingroup$ Trick questions tend to be solvable pretty quickly once someone's realised that it's a trick question. Putting an explicit tag about it on such questions is likely to just push that type of puzzle off the site. (Not taking a stand on whether or not that would be a good thing, just pointing it out) $\endgroup$ May 24, 2015 at 3:13

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