Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

How do you ask a question when you don't even know the right words to use?


This may not be a very straight forward question, but how does one even
begin to find a solution to a problem, when they have no idea what’s causing
it, or even the terminology to describe what is happening? Are there any
concrete ways to narrow down a search, or steps to follow? It would seem that
much of the time, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, pretty hit and
miss, and many times if you find an answer at all, it’s by sheer luck that you
have stumbled upon it at all, and then many times, it’s only after days and
weeks of searching. Some times months even.

I love this question because I think it represents exactly where a
lot of people are. I know I get a lot of questions every day where
people try to describe their problem but have no idea what, or even how to ask
the question. The result is that I’m often left scratching my head wondering
just what the heck they’re talking about.

It’s not their fault or problem. It just is. But it also makes dealing with
these issues all that much more difficult.

Now, re-read the question and the response I’ve written, imagining that I
were an on-line car advice guru instead of a computer geek. It all still
applies, doesn’t it?

And as complex as cars are, computers are worse.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

You really don’t need to know the difference between a carburetor and a
catalytic converter if your car breaks down; you just need to know the phone
numbers for tow truck and repair shop. From then on in exchange for some of our
hard-earned cash, (hopefully) well-trained professionals take care of the

Computers are different.

While you don’t need a tow truck, the number of repair shops you might take
it to are much fewer than you’ll find for your car. Even if you find one, the
costs can be comparatively high. And unlike a car, which you hope never breaks
down but accept that it can, the expectation is that your computer will “just
work”. The expense of a technician or repair shop is something that you never
expected and try very much to avoid.

And just like a car mechanic, a trustworthy technician is difficult to

“… in some very practical ways, you do need to get
educated about the computer you use …”

By and large, we’re still in the stage where “normal” people are expected to
do most of their own maintenance, diagnosis, and often their own repairs.

Much like the early days of automobiles, actually.

And that means that in some very practical ways, you do need to get educated
about the computer you use, if only to be able to ask the right questions when
you do need help.

And for the record, “I’m too old”, “I’m not techie enough” or any of a
hundred other excuses don’t cut it; they are just that: excuses. I’ve received
wonderfully appropriate questions from several folks in their 80’s and older
as well as folks from all walks of life. All that’s required is a willingness
to learn.

First off, I’m a big believer in learning by doing. That means don’t be
afraid to do, ask, try, and even occasionally break things. By far the best
education we get is that we get from practice.

It’s great to have a tech savvy friend or family member, but be sure to
“use” them in the right way. Don’t just expect them to fix things for you –
it’s much more important that you learn from them so that you can go
on to fix things yourself later. They’re especially great because you can point
to something on your screen and say “what’s that gizmo called?”

If you’re near a community college or other institute that offers them:
beginners classes will not only help, but could put you in contact with others
that are learning along with you. In fact, those contacts after the class could
be more important than the class itself!

Q&A services and forums like Ask Leo!
are a great place to start on line. I try to be, but not all are friendly to
newbies, so definitely spend a little time looking at the on-line archives that
you find to see if the tone of the answers is appropriate for your level of
knowledge and confidence.

Not all forums and services will work for everyone. I’ve had people complain
because Ask Leo! is too technical,
and I’ve had people complain later that same day that Ask Leo! isn’t technical enough. Make sure
you spend some time really reading the ongoing conversations. That’ll not only
tell you if the conversation is appropriate for your needs, but you’ll probably
learn a lot just by following along.

When you do ask a question, try not to make too many assumptions about what
you think the answer is. For example just this morning I was asked something
along the lines of “what do I need to change in Internet Explorer to fix the
Start Menu?”. Well, the two items are unrelated: IE doesn’t control the start
menu, Windows does. I realize that it’s often difficult to tell where one
program begins and another ends; that’s why symptoms and data
are much more important than guesses as to what might be broken.

Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get an answer your first try. Speaking
just for myself, I get way more questions every day than I can
actually answer either here in print or in email. I know that the same is true
in many of the various other support services as well. The bad news is that you
may need to be patient or try again. The good news, if you want to call it
that, is that you are most definitely not alone. A lot of people are
asking questions.

I’ll include a couple of the “ask a question” sites like mine that I
personally trust and I know do very well with beginner and basic questions. If
you know of a resource yourself that might also be appropriate or friendly
towards folks just starting out, add a link to it in the comments to this
article – everyone can benefit. There are thousands of possibilities out on the
internet, and word of mouth is perhaps the best referral source of all.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

13 comments on “How do you ask a question when you don't even know the right words to use?”

  1. I’m an IT Manager at work (only one of the hats I wear!) and I get this a lot – it often comes out in questions or statements like “My computer doesn’t work.” When in fact they mean “My copy of Word has frozen…” Or they’ll say “My email isn’t working”, when they mean “I haven’t received an email for half an hour and cannot believe it’s because no-one’s sent me anything, not even spammers…”. Although these kinds of things are relatively easy to deal with – you go and have a look. Harder are the ones where people THINK they know what the problem is, and point you in completely the wrong direction to start with, wasting minutes (or hours!) of precious time while you try to troubleshoot the printing problem, only to realise that their network cable has become unstuck… All part of life’s rich tapestry. :)

  2. I always tell people I’m a beginner because I still feel intimidated by computers. Shortly after the Ask Leo! Newsletter made its appearance I asked a question. One of the most valuable pieces of advice Mr. Notenboom gave me was to pay constant attention to what I was doing. So I could tell someone, for example, “My cursor just froze along with the hourglass. Just before it happened I did such and such by clicking on this, that or the other. When I tried to exit I clicked escape a few times and that’s when everything froze.”

    Using the car analogy, if you tell a mechanic “it died”, that leaves a lot of possibilities. If you say, “I braked for a red light and the engine seemed to slow down then speed up several times. The light changed to green, I stepped on the gas, and that’s when it sputtered and died,” gives the mechanic something to work with. So maybe this is too simple for a lot of people, but it helped me. Thanks, Mr. Notenboom.

  3. I am frustrated by the fact that in most print-outs of material on my computer, several words on the right margin are not shown.
    What can I do to correct this situation?
    Thanks for your time and attention. Any response will be appreciated.
    Richard Oblander

  4. This kind of problem comes up so often in trying to define new systems – gernally termed requirements elicitaion / user requirements analysis. Its a fundamental part of systems engineering and one of the hardest things to do. If you think about users that want to build some kind of new system but don’t know all the details of what the technology could do…
    The best kind of ways to think about it is
    1. What do you want to DO with the system?
    2. How do you see yourselves USING it?

    If we put this in the context of the question (which I realise is more about problems with computers), then we should try to frame the question as (noting that most of them end up being like this)
    1. I want to DO this with the computer but I don’t know how (and what you want to do is the real question)
    2. I can see some of a sequence of things to do to solve my problem, but I don’t know all of it… can you help with the rest?

  5. First of all, I want to thank the folks who send us those great newsletters. Leo, Kim,etc. I’ve had a PC at home for about five years and learned the most just fixing stuff on my own. Granted, Its great to be able to visit sites like Leo’s and Komando’s for ideas to lead me in the right direction. But in the end when I manage to solve
    my problem, its a great feeling of accomplishment.
    I know how tough it is to fix a PC that’s down when its the only one available. I’ve found the ( be a great source of help if your pc still has Internet access. You are instructed on how to submit a post where someone will work with you on solving your pc related problem. My best advice to anyone is to
    make sure that you have Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware protection on your computer before its ever put online for the first time. Make sure to have a good firewall in place. Keep the clutter off your machine with weekly sweeps. Defrag if it needs it. You probably have software on your pc’s that you’ve never used. I take them out and dust them off just to see what function they serve and how to use them properly. Trial and error are a great way to learn about your system and along the way you pick up a vast knowledge. It didn’t cost you a dime. It doesn’t have to be rocket science.

  6. Jim has a good point. I don’t know how many times I have been glad to have a second computer available when one developed a problem. It is always nice to be able to get online to search for answers to problems, or tools to fix them. With the price of broadband, and cheap routers, I highly recommend having two or more computers networked together at home. When you upgrade a computer, think seriously about keeping the old one around for internet access at least.

  7. I highly recommend the “Learn ______(fill in the blanks) Visually” series of books for beginners. They are more well organized than the “Dummies” books (and I have a hard time recommending any book that calls people dummies), and have very good examples. They are especially good when a new operating system comes out, or you are trying to learn a new version of Office.

  8. Dear Leo, I’m so glad your archive includes the topic: “How do you ask a question when you don’t even know the right words to use?” I’ve had several computers and operating systems since the mid eighties and I’m still learning something new every day and especially with every up graded system. Sometimes I’m asked for help by friends or family. As eager as I am to lend some help, I’m often hampered by the person’s lack of understanding of fundamental computer related terms necessary to either describe the problem or ask a question. (Whatchamacallit, dojigger, thingamjig, etc., just doesn’t cut it!) I’m sending everyone I know a link to this article that is so well written. I’m also going to mention an important lesson I learned both professionally and as a computer owner. It’s quite simple… Next best to knowing the answer to a question, is knowing where to get the answer! – As side from reading the manual or using the help option, “Ask Leo!” is at the top of my suggested list.
    Thanks much and best regards, Woody (Retired PI)

  9. Our family was having dinner with another family at their house, and the wife showed me some pictures she had taken of our family. I asked her to send them to my e-mail address, which she had no idea how to do. I walked her through the whole process, and in the background I hear one of my daughters say, “Now there’s something new, my mother instructing someone else on how to use the computer!” Another daughter whispers, “That’s because she reads Ask Leo.”

  10. I’m close to someone who is self taught many years back.I used to call him for some questions but it takes time from his job at home online. I’ve found the best solution to find anything needed to fix is simply writing my question on a search engine.You will find the answer but beware of phoney deals who offer even free downloads to “improve” what you need.Many just burrow into your system for their own agenda.If you are finding similar answers from different sites,it might be the right answer.(That’s how I found Leo in the past!

  11. Long ago (and I do mean LONG ago), it was presumed that legal-speak was so complicated in order to remove any doubt about meaning. If that were truly the case, there’d be no need for lawsuits over contracts. No, legal-speak is complicated for the sole reason to keep lawyers employed.

    Every profession creates buzzwords in order to confer a level of esoterica upon its proponents. What is the difference between copying a DVD, ripping a DVD, or authoring a DVD? Why do you start a car, but boot a computer? Are hard drives still striped, whatever that means?

    The computer world is not unique, but certainly more apparent, in creating new words to infer a supposedly superior knowledge for those in the clique. And if too many of the common population become familiar with those terms, then new terms will be coined to replace the old ones.

    Geeks abound in every profession. Pose a question to 5 lawyers and get 8 different opinions. Same with the computer world.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.