The other day while on a vacation I drove past a property and saw a sign that read

Trespassers Will Be Shot On Sight

I've never seen a sign such as that, I was a little taken back. After some research, it turns out that this type of warning sign is total legal (the best answer I found on this. Also, onsite answer).

This got me thinking when does a warning become a threat and what consideration is used to determine one from the other?

  • As an aside, the sign has a usage error. The phase calls for "sight" and not "site."
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 7, 2020 at 18:40
  • @ohwilleke That's a hilarious typo. I'll take care of it. Thanks for pointing that out. Oct 8, 2020 at 8:58

1 Answer 1


A warning is arguably often a form of threat (and vice versa). The words are close synonyms. A threat, however, is usually used only in connection with an action that has some sort of human (or at least, AI) agency, while a warning often made to alert someone to a mere natural consequence of an action with no human agency (e.g. a warning that an object is hot and could burn you if you touch it).

But, the term "warning", when used in connection with an action that involves human agency, is usually used when the action threatened would be lawful when taken (and often refers to a threat from a third-party rather than the person giving the warning), while the term "threat" is usually used when the action threatened would be unlawful when taken, or if the action, while lawful, is threatened for an improper purposes that amounts to blackmail (e.g. a threat to release legally taken photos showing that someone is having an affair if money is not paid). Also, a threat is generally made by the person who would take the action (or their agent), rather than a disinterested third-party.

Incidentally, a threat to bring a lawsuit, since a proper purposes of a lawsuit is to secure money from someone, is not improper to connect to a demand to pay money.

  • 1
    This might be a different question altogether but couldn't a warning be taken as a threat in the case of a battery charge? Jan 20, 2020 at 18:37
  • 1
    It could. The meaning of words is context specific. The fact that something is a warning does not preclude it from also being a threat.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 20, 2020 at 18:39
  • @ohwilleke Although you are right that a person can threaten to sue someone if they do not pay a sum of money. If a person makes such a threat, but then fails to follow up on their threat, they can prosecuted for extortion in most states.
    – Cicero
    Jul 29, 2021 at 19:14
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    @Circero A threat to sue when there is some colorable legal basis to sue is almost universally not extortion. There are several cases on that exact point that have been pointed out in other Law.SE answers in the past.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 29, 2021 at 19:27
  • @ohwilleke It is extortion if the person making the threat FAILS to sue after their threat is ignored, or if the threat is otherwise considered to be insincere. Here is one debt collector who went to jail for writing demand letters: insidearm.com/news/…. There are many other examples. In New Hampshire where I am a lawyer was criminally convicted a few years ago for sending formulaic demand letters to a large number of businesses.
    – Cicero
    Jul 29, 2021 at 19:44

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