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 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.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

What is proof?

rogersgeorge on December 12th, 2011

I might have posted about this mistake before, but here’s a nice comic to remind you about it. People misinterpret “the exception proves the rule”  almost  as often as they get “beg the question” wrong ( I’ve written about that one, too.). Recently I discovered a comic that’s been around at least since 2007 (so I have some catching up to do in my copious spare time), and a recent strip mentions this expression.

Kieran Meehan writes a clever strip about some professional people and crooks called Pros and Cons. Here’s the strip:

I haven't figured out all the characters, but the gal on the right runs a diner and she's the sister of one of the other characters

Most people (in my experience, anyway) think that the exception proving a rule means that when something breaks a rule, it illustrates the existence of the rule because you notice the exception to it. BRAAP! Completely wrong.

“Prove” is an old word for “test.” There’s the famous reference to tithing in the Old Testament book of Malachi that goes “Prove me now herewith and bring all the tithes into the storehouse…” We still use the word prove in a testing sense in certain contexts, such as when someone says something like “Well, let’s see if the plane proves airworthy.”

What this expression means is that to really find out is a rule is for real, you have to break (the exception) it (the rule) and see what happens. If something bad happens because you broke the rule, yup, it’s a rule, all right. If nothing happens, it wasn’t relly a rule in the first place.

Children do this to their parents all the time. Don’t make a rule unless you’re willing to enforce it. Does this comic get the expression right or wrong? I’m not sure—I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s funny.