If you have a set of rules that no one follows due to lack of enforcement, but on rare occasions when a rule is broken, out of convenience for the rule maker, they enact discipline for breaking that rule?

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    They could be said to be making an example of the person breaking the rule, but that's more common when the rules are usually stringently followed and the person being disciplined is being used to show what happens when the rules are broken to keep everyone else in line. It could still be used in this context as that's kind of what they're doing; punishing someone else to deter the others from stepping out of line. Probably not 100% appropriate though since the rules aren't usually enforced. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 8:17
  • @JohnClifford Yeah, that does sound kind of right, but I was thinking a word that implied the ruling was somehow unfair or out of spite.
    – Flosculus
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 8:31
  • Posted as an answer and deleted the comment. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 8:38
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    Discrepant and selective come to time as being included in noun phrases to go with a suitable noun. Like "discrepant ruler" or a "selective rule enforcer" Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 8:51
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    @DannyRodriguez The legal term of art in the US is selective prosecution, considered a violation of due process and equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution. So in this context, selective enforcement would be appropriate.
    – deadrat
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 9:04

7 Answers 7


Given that you're looking for a rule that's enforced for some people but not for others, the most appropriate description for this is a double standard:

a ​rule or ​standard of good ​behaviour that, ​unfairly, some ​people are ​expected to ​follow or ​achieve but other ​people are not

Cambridge Dictionaries Online

As Edwin Ashworth pointed out, the definition on Wikipedia is more general, and may suit your needs better:

A double standard is the application of different sets of principles for similar situations.

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    This answer would be is very close, but since the op stated that it is used on some occasions but not all occasions, it disqualifies the term "double standard". Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 8:46
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    @DannyRodriguez The rule is either enforced for some people, or not enforced for others. Doesn't that fit the definition of a rule that some people are unfairly expected to follow but others aren't? Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 8:49
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    @Danny Rodriguez Incorrect. 'Double standards' means 'the application of different sets (not just a single set) of principles [in] similar situations'. It could be two sets of principles [prosecute / turn a blind eye] applied to 300 situations [people doing 79mph in a 70 zone].. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 8:50
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    @DannyRodriguez I don't think you can apply the same logic here. The exceptions to the rule in this context are made because the rulemaker felt like applying them intermittently on a regular basis. It's not a case of them deciding not to apply the rules as a one-off because something good happened. That's not the same thing at all, IMO, but I appreciate your input on this. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 9:18
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    "A double standard is the application of different sets of principles for similar situations.", this is a better description of what the word/term I am looking for describes. "Selective enforcement", now I've read the description is also valid for another use case.
    – Flosculus
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 10:11

The general term is selective enforcement. This covers situations where there are different reasons (some morally better / more justifiable than others) behind what on the surface may appear inconsistent practice.

from Wikipedia:

In law, selective enforcement occurs when government officials such as police officers, prosecutors, or regulators exercise enforcement discretion, which is the power to choose whether or how to punish a person who has violated the law. The biased use of enforcement discretion, such as that based on racial prejudice or corruption, is usually considered a legal abuse and a threat to the rule of law.

In some cases, selective enforcement may be desirable. For example, a verbal warning to a teenager may effectively alter his behavior without resorting to legal punishment and with the added benefit of reducing governmental legal costs. In other cases, selective enforcement may be inevitable. For example, it may be impractical for police officers to issue traffic tickets to every driver they observe exceeding the speed limit, so they may have no choice but to limit action to the most flagrant examples of reckless driving.

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    Although the term "Double Standards" is more applicable for my use case "Selective Enforcement" is also useful, so thank you.
    – Flosculus
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 10:12
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    As is often the case with SWRs, I'm saddened by the relative number of upvotes here for an answer that, while being appropriate and having needed a bit of digging to find, is hardly fundamental to English usage, and hardly likely to be useful to many enquirers. Contrast this with John Lawler's far more valuable answer to 'Can “where” ever be used as the subject of a relative/adjective clause?', 2 upvotes at the moment. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 16:18

You could say that enforcement of the rules is wholly arbitrary


  1. not fixed by rules, but left to one's judgment or choice; discretionary:

    arbitrary decision, arbitrary judgment

  2. based on one's preference, notion, whim, etc.; capricious:

    young children and their arbitrary rules for games

Webster's New World College Dictionary Copyright © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio.

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    This is the word that sprang immediately to my mind, and as long as the OP's scenario doesn't involve clearly-recognisable patterns (e.g., (dis-)favouritism), I'd say it fits the best.
    – S. G.
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 20:58

I've heard this described as capricious, even though it doesn't exactly fit the definition.

given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior.
"a capricious and often brutal administration"

For example, "arbitrary and capricious grading".


This happened quite frequently in the military. Often, there was some obscure rule or regulation that nobody cared (or even knew) about, but was applied vigorously to the "slackers" or "goof-offs" or those thought to be disrespectful. We called it an "attitude adjustment". It was intended to correct other, often completely unrelated behavior that those in charge did not like but could otherwise do nothing about.

This definition from Urban Dictionary describes it, the last part "let them know their place" seeming to be the most frequent reason.

The act of correcting a person for their inappropriate actions, for stepping over the line, to show your dominance over them, or to let them know their place


I would say they are wishy-washy informally.


someone or something uncertain, indecisive and wavering, or someone who cannot make up their mind.


I would say simply that the rule is randomly enforced.

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    Wouldn't call it "random" if it's only enforced when advantageous to the enforcer. That word implies that it could be good or bad for all involved with equal probability. Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 13:40
  • @DarrelHoffman You are probably right. In which case it is enforced at the random discretion of the authority concerned.
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 5, 2016 at 15:55

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