A prompt is a request for additional information given by a moderator to a player whose answer to a question is partially correct but ambiguous. In this scenario, the player is said to have been prompted by the moderator because the answer they gave was promptable - alternatively, they may say they were prompted on their answer. Receiving a prompt allows a player an opportunity to give an additional answer.
A player may receive multiple successive prompts. It is possible for a player to intentionally aim to be repeatedly prompted to stall or to attempt to gain additional information about an answer, but this is unsportsman-like.
The set of answers which warrant a prompt is enumerated in the answerline alongside the acceptable answers. Under strict readings of the rules, no answers other than those written down should be prompted on; moderators will occasionally use their discretion to determine that an answer should be prompted on or accepted, but this is to be avoided.
The most common reason for a prompt is that a player has answered with a superset of the correct answer.
ANSWER: the second Punic War [prompt on the Punic Wars]
ANSWER: polar bears [or Ursus maritimus; prompt on bears]
The standard formatting for answers which can be prompted is underlining, though in older sets it is possible to find alternative formats.
Answers which are insufficiently specific to uniquely identify a single person are typically prompted on - for instance, if multiple people in a field share a surname or if it is a monarch with a regnal number. Many of these cases are explicitly included in acceptability guidelines (like ACF gameplay rule G.3A regarding regnal numbers).
The strictest interpretation of prompts dictates that they should only be awarded to answers whose ambiguity is the only barrier preventing them from being accepted - answers which are overly specific/general or are a superset/subset of the correct answer are simply incorrect. In this view, prompts are used purely to allow players to clarify that the answer they gave was the correct answer. This is, in fact, stricter than any ruleset currently used in quiz bowl but is still interesting from a theoretical standpoint: questions written to fulfill this definition would require extraordinarily precise clue choice and language in order to ensure that players could determine the correct answer precisely enough. This specificity means that the set of players who knew the clues in these questions would be exactly the set who knew the answer.
At the other end of this spectrum is an incredibly permissive concept of a prompt which awards them to effectively anything that is even roughly correct. This is so broad that the utility of prompts approaches zero - if anything can be prompted on, the player has no way of knowing whether their answer is too specific, too general, or something else entirely. Situations can approach this if there is a mismatch between the scope of the answer and the scope of the clues, which can happen in vanity sets and/or bad questions.
The current state of prompts lie in between these two extremes, with the rules mandating prompts for various forms of inexactitude. Additionally, writers and editors are given room to grant prompts and thus sets can be more permissive than this.
Prompts allow players an opportunity to receive points for knowledge that is not precisely what is asked for. That they are not as strict as they could be is a concession to players and writers alike, granting room for imperfect play and less tightly written questions. The need for some prompts of some questions could be removed by editing to a higher standard of uniqueness, but conversely the ability to add "extraneous" prompts allows for a broader range of topics and approaches to be used in questions.
Both ACF and NAQT provide formal definitions for what prompts are, but the criteria that an answer must satisfy to warrant a prompt are not super strictly defined:
|If a player gives an answer which is not outright incorrect, but is nonetheless not specific enough to precisely identify the answer, the moderator must prompt, asking the player for a more specific answer (e.g. “I need more,” “More specific, please”, “More,” or simply “Prompt”), rather than ruling on it outright.
||A moderator may prompt for a clarified response in three cases:
The process of giving an answer in response to a prompt is different from simply answering a question because the player has additional information: they now know that their original answer was "close enough" to a correct answer. Because of this advantage, players are generally assumed to have similar, if not the same, chance of converting a tossup after being prompted and at the end. This assumption is central to many conventions of protest resolution, e.g. ACF gameplay rule H.5E states that in situations where a player "should have been prompted" their team will be awarded an uncontested tossup. This has been challenged as unfair, although no strong alternatives have been considered.
Much of the utility of prompts to the player arise from the well-defined and relatively restrictive conventions for which answers can be prompted on. The player typically only has consider a limited range of ways in which they can modify their original answer to get the correct answer. This can be compromised in situations with atypically permissive criteria for prompting, where players may be unable to determine exactly how their initial answer (or answers, as is often the case in questions with many prompts) was incorrect. To give an absurd example, a ruleset which obeyed conventional guidelines for prompting but added in prompts if the answer given rhymed with the primary answer would be much harder to play despite more opportunities for players to be prompted.