Assault, in traditional legal terms, is defined as an attempt or threat, going beyond mere words, to use violence, with the intent and the apparent ability to do harm to another. The common law encyclopedia calls it "an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact". The essential elements which make up the crime of assault are the use of an overt gesture of violence, going beyond mere words, towards the crime of battery. This is the reason the two are often coupled together in criminology. Battery is the resultant physical contact that stems from the initial overt threat to have a violent attack carried out.
Intent is an essential element of assault. This can be specific intent, e.g. if the assailant intends to cause the apprehension of harmful or offensive contact in the victim, or general intent, wherein he or she intends to do the act that causes such apprehension. Additionally, the element of intent is fulfilled if it is substantially certain, to a reasonable person, that the act will cause the result. The victim must generally be aware of the danger of physical violence for it to be considered assault. A person who starts beating a sleeping individual bypasses the element of assault and goes right to battery.
There can be no crime of assault if the act does not produce a true apprehension of harm in the victim. There must be a reasonable fear of injury.
Aggravated assault is committed when a person intends to go beyond the violence enough to scare an individual, or merely rough them up. Aggravated assault occurs during rape, robbery, or when there is a clear intent to kill.
A person convicted of civil assault is liable for damages. These consist of either compensatory - as for hospital bill reimbursement, loss of wages, etc., nominal - usually a small sum, in cases where a minor amount of damage has been done; and punitive, which are designed as rightful punishment befitting the crime.