Imagine you want to promote a certain behaviour in your offspring, say, to keep their room tidy. So, you set the following rule, (foolishly) thinking it will get the result you want: if I cannot see the floor in your room, you're grounded (i.e., the punishment only triggers if the room gets so messy you cannot see the floor).

Obviously there's quite a bit of mess to be made without reaching that extreme, so, we want too say that the rule is too lax. However, the perspective I want to highlight is that the "trigger" or "conditions for activation" of the punishment (what has to happen for it to come into effect) is too restrictive: that many legitimate cases of untidy rooms need to be punished/covered by the rule, if we want to get a desired result. We want the rule to apply/address/remedy more cases than it currently does.

A sample sentence would be: "This punishment, while potentially useful, is burdened with an overly restrictive standard of activation/trigger condition: it fails to apply in many cases where we'd like it to do some work."

After re-reading, I'm wondering whether "trigger" alone works well here? If so, is it the best word?

(I'm setting aside the positive/negative incentive discussion, since it's tangential...)

  • 2
    You've answered yourself, the word you are looking for is "condition". When a condition is met, something will happen. It also works for programming.
    – Zikato
    May 13, 2016 at 12:32

6 Answers 6


If your standard is merely nominal, you might call it a criterion.

some reason used for making a decision

If it's measurable or even merely ordinal level that triggers an action, then you have a threshold.

the point at which something changes

  • Excellent answer. Threshold is the first thing I thought of but criterion is even better in this context. May 13, 2016 at 6:12

Perhaps this is the line in the sand

a point beyond which, once the decision to go beyond it is made, the decision and its resulting consequences are permanently decided and irreversible.


While there are other meanings for this phrase (suggesting that the boundary is mutable), its current usage tends to convey a firm limitation.

Another phrase in common usage is litmus test

A decisively indicative test: opposition to the nomination became a litmus test for political support of candidates

Oxford Dictionaries Online


Prerequisite could apply here:

/prēˈrekwəzət/, noun, a thing that is required as a prior condition for something else to happen or exist


"The prerequisite for this punishment, while potentially useful, is overly restrictive: it fails to apply in many cases where we'd like it to do some work.


This punishment, while potentially useful, is burdened with an overly restrictive precondition for activation. It means

A condition that must be fulfilled before other things can happen or be done.

Also, you may consider sine qua non

a necessary condition without which something is not possible.


You could use the idiom set (or raise or lower) the bar too high (or low). meaning "to set the standard too high or low".


"This punishment, while potentially useful, sets the bar too low: it fails to apply in many cases where we'd like it to do some work."


In safety, there are regulatory limits for exposures to various hazards, such as noise and ionizing radiation. In many cases, there are also action levels, which are typically some percentage, e.g., 10% or 50%, of the regulatory limits. When an exposure reaches an action level, that triggers an investigation or intervention to determine the cause of the exposure, the goal being to take measures to reduce the level of exposure before it gets too close to, or exceeds, the exposure limit -- at that point the damage has been done and cannot be undone. Perhaps the term you are looking for is action level.

I agree that if you need one word, criterion or threshold could work, but both leave out the concept of a staged or phased two-level approach.

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