Prove that rule!

rogersgeorge on February 24th, 2014

I’m pretty sure I mentioned this in the past, but I found a good example, and the idea is worth repeating. Besides, the guy who made the mistake (and he might have made it on purpose. He is, after all, literate.) is a worthwhile daily read. First, here’s the quote:

So, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to show you what is actually not the exception that proves the rule, because in this brilliant animated piece, Rina Piccolo not only does none of those things I object to, but she makes me laugh aloud several times and generally delivers not only a bravura performance on its own but a model of how to avoid undermining good cartooning in a cross-media interpretation:

The source is Mike Peterson’s Comic_strip_of_the_day.com for February 19, 2014. Mike and I are alike in that we both like to use comics to illustrate whatever point we want to make, though I generally limit myself to matters of writing, and his topics fare far farther. The mistake is the expression “the exception that proves the rule.”

To prove in the expression “proving a rule” is an old usage meaning to test, not show. You might remember this usage from the book of Malachi 3:10, where God says “Prove me now herewith…” about tithing.  (This, by the way is the only place in the Bible where God invites us to test Him.) You can find a few other examples of prove meaning to test in the King James Version, but that passage is the most famous.

So making an exception tests whether something is actually a rule, or merely a suggestion. Break the rule, and if you get into trouble for it, it’s a rule. If not, then it’s not.

My advice: If you’re going to make an allusion to an old idiom, use it correctly. Otherwise, use plain English.

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3 Responses to “Prove that rule!”

  1. Gonna disagree with you on that. Aside from the fact that I said it wasn’t, which make proving me wrong a kind of logical pretzel in the first place.

    The exception that proves the rule — exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis — is often provided in a kind of ex post facto way, in that, to be perfectly valid, it should be in the original rule.

    “All students must report to the office upon entering the school except those returning from drivers ed” means that the rule is rock-solid — because there is a specific exception given, there aren’t any others, or they also would have been stated.

    Students returning from the dentist must report, because the rule would have said “or from the dentist” if they were also excepted, and, more generally, it would have said “or other excused absence” or suchlike.

    Without the inclusion of the drivers ed students, the rule could also be seen as absolute, but the fact that this single exception is given proves that there can be no others.

    Idiomatically, it’s common to find the exception to the rule afterwards — so if Rina had done all those things I hate and yet produced an animation I liked, I might, in common parlance, have then declared her the exception that proves the rule, essentially slamming the door on all others. That won’t hold up in court, but it works as an idiom, particularly since the “rule” was only an informally stated opinion. Making the exception, however, and declaring it “the exception that proves the rule” would mean, “I’m not changing my general opinion, just saying that, in this case, she pulled it off.”

    Which is to say, don’t expect me to suddenly become a big fan of other people’s attempts, but, yeah, she did it well.

    Granted that such after-the-fact exceptions, unless they require a two-thirds majority and a great deal of other formal, irrevocable confirmation, really are more often in the realm of “slippery slope” and work to undermine, rather than reinforce, the rule.

    Still, bear in mind that what I said was that, since Rina’s animation didn’t do all those things I hate, I didn’t even have to declare an exception — which, in its own perverse way, proves the rule. No exceptions!

    And, to make you really crazy, “No exceptions, irregardless!”)

  2. Thank you for your erudite comment! The Latin shows that you certainly are literate, and your point that the idiom and your passage are unambiguous here is well taken. I admit that the idea that introduction of deliberate exception validates a rule is new to me. I’ll have to think about that.
    I read your blog faithfully, and I hope that both readers of my blog take my suggestion that they check yours out.
    Irregardless!!! Aak!!

  3. Dear Rogers:

    Please put me on your mailing list and ping me when you issue new posts. I have a great need to read your stuff on a regular basis… Though I’d love simplified explanations. I have been pretty ill these past few months, limiting my public appearances as well. I hope out paths cross soon.

    Jack R.

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