Is there a term to describe a phrase that can sound like advice but is actually a warning?

I work with math and algorithms and I often tell clients, "you will improve what you measure". I intend it to be a warning - measure the wrong thing and you are sunk. But it otherwise sounds like pretty good advice!

So is there something I can use to describe this type of phrase?

  • 1
    precautionary advice?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 30, 2017 at 4:29

3 Answers 3


a word to the wise, from The Free Dictionary

word to the wise (is enough). and A word to the wise is sufficient. Prov. You only have to hint something to wise people in order to get them to understand it.; Wise people do not need long explanations. (Often used to signal that you are hinting something.) John's a pleasant man, but I wouldn't trust him with money. A word to the wise, eh? Donna hinted about Lisa's drinking problem to Lisa's fiancé, hoping that a word to the wise would be enough.

A bit of friendly advice: Word to the wise is informal and old-fashioned; moreover, the OP's clients may not be wise enough to understand what he is trying to impart.

friendly advice is another possibility. See the answer by @J.R. at the beginning of his answer to this ELU question: Is "Just a friendly advice" grammatical?

Dear reader: I'm going to offer you a little friendly advice. When checking to see if something is "grammatical," do not rely on a Google search.

As J.R. used it, friendly advice was a bit snarky. But the OP seems to be talking about face-to face communication, in which case, if his tone and attitude are right, the phrase will be understood as he wants it to be -- a helpful warning.


There are many words for constructions like this in general (adage, proverb, saw) but I think the one that fits best here is maxim.


Easing into the topic

In the framework of pragma-dialectis, an argumentation theory used to analyze and evaluate argumentative discourse in actual practice, the term to describe a phrase which can sound like advise but is actually a warning is described as argumentum ad baculum, also known as 'appeal to the stick.'

In its fallacious form,

the ad baculum derives its strength from an appeal to human timidity or fear and is a fallacy when the appeal is not logically related to the claim being made. In other words, the emotion resulting from a threat rather than a pertinent reason is used to cause agreement with the purported conclusion of the argument.

An couple of explicit examples would be:

  • Chairman of the Board: 'All those opposed to my arguments for the opening of a new department, signify by saying, "I resign."'
  • Chief editor to intern: 'You could publish that article, but don't forget who's paying your wage.'

See this info-packed reference for a more detailed description of the concept.

Getting to the good stuff

The non-fallacious variant of the 'appeal to the stick' manifests itself, also according to the above mentioned source,

when the threat or the force is directly or causally related to the conclusion.

In our current context, as the OP has elaborated, 'you will improve what you measure' is intended as an implicit warning, albeit having the appearance of a mere good-natured advice, which translates into the explicit 'measure the wrong thing and you are sunk', or better yet 'unless you measure the correct thing, you will not improve.'

Less formal alternatives

Although the above breakdown should help in answering the question of how to label occurrences of 'something that can be advice but is actually a warning' for the OP's personal peace of mind, it would be rather tedious to attempt and relay such verbose definitions to clients.

In that regard, issuing out a simple, genuine friendly reminder for them to 'measure the right stuff', should suffice. :)

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