General Question

Perchik's avatar

"The exception that proves the rule"?

Asked by Perchik (4982points) November 8th, 2007

Ok. I’ve heard the phrase. What in the world does it mean? I thought if a rule had exceptions then it’s not a universal role?

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8 Answers

bpeoples's avatar

It’s a sarcastic extension of “There’s an exception to every rule.”

Ergo, if there’s an exception, the rule must be true.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t quickly come up with a bibliographic reference for you. Someone will be along shortly to oblige =)

sferik's avatar

There’s a good explanation of the meaning here.

christybird's avatar

@sferik, I read that explanation and although it is a very fancy article with a nice Latin quote, I learned in my Historical Linguistics class in college that the confusion over this phrase is due to an older meaning of “proof” (meaning “to test” rather than “to confirm”). Thus, “the exception tests the rule.” Words change their meaning all the time, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in glaringly obvious ways (as anyone who has read a book from a few decades ago that uses phrases like “Shelia was carefree and gay” very well knows). As another example, the word “meat” used to refer to all food, instead of just animal flesh (you get a sense of that older meaning in the word “sweetmeat”).

I tend to believe things I read in textbooks more than things I read on the Internet, but I’ll look into it a bit more, in the interest of open-mindedness, and report back what I find.

And @bpeoples, I think people definitely use this phrase sarcastically now, which only speaks further to how language is an ever-evolving, shifting thing. It works pretty well in that sense too!

bob's avatar

@christybird: the “it’s an older meaning of proof” explanation seems false; the latin explanation is older and less speculative. At least, that’s what the internet told me.

I like this expression quite a bit, but what’s a good example of when it’s appropriate to use this expression? You can’t use it every time a rule gets broken. Anyone have good examples?

finkelitis's avatar

I think it’s best used when you have to do serious acrobatics to get around a rule. For example, is you saw that Will Smith movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” you might walk away and say: “Well, there’s proof that anyone can make it in America.” But I might say, that character is the exception that proves the rule of class rigidity in America (at least the way the movie told it), because while it’s true he became wealthy, it took a ridiculous effort, and it could have easily, easily failed, and he’s rare enough that he could solve a rubics cube. So it’s clear that he was exceptional, and people like him are not the norm.

bob's avatar

Yes, that’s a much better example than the no-parking-on-Sundays example they gave at the link. Finkelitis wins.

christybird's avatar

Well, I haven’t been able to come up with a non-Internet source for Sferik, Bob et al.‘s use of this phrase (anyone?), but the Latin citation & legal origin do seem somewhat convincing, so I don’t know, color me convinced.
But I must say, it seems a bit esoteric to use it that way. Like, “huh…I guess so.” It makes your brain hurt a bit to come up with good examples of how you can use it. Maybe better as some kind of legal phrase rather than as a useful proverb per se.

bob's avatar

@Christybird: Garner’s Modern American Usage has the original latin sense as the source, as does H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

I don’t want to use the phrase as a reference to the latin, but when there is an exception that actually does show that a general rule is valid, it’s the perfect thing. (But this meaning, too, doesn’t conform to the strict latin sense. That’s OK though.)

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