One thing I love about Anne Tyler's books is that, besides having wonderfully developed characters, she is very much into the use of words and language and always makes me think about the use of words. In her newest book, a character says that something is "the exception that proves the rule." Another wonders what that really means, which led me to look up the phrase. Straight Dope says it makes no sense, and I have to agree with that after reading a little about it. What do you think? Do you use it? If so, when?
I've interpreted this phrase in at least two ways. The first is where a notable exception to a rule is given as a counter example, and rebutted with the argument that it is the only exception, the exception which proves the rule. The second is when an exception is examined more closely and shown to be not an exception at all, but in fact entirely consistent with the rule.
I can't find the reference now but one of the language books that I have has a discussion of this phrase. I had previously thought that the phrase used "prove" in the now almost obsolete sense of "test", so that it really means it's the exception that tests the rule('s validity). The article (I wish I could find it) suggested that what it means is that what it means is that by examining the exceptions to a rule we strengthen the rule and prove its validity for the other cases (which aren't exceptions).
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Samuel Johnson.
Michael Quinion writes on the original meaning of the phrase (which is a Latin legal one):
It has often been suggested in reference works that prove here is really being used in the sense of “test” (as it does in terms like “proving ground” or “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, or in the printer’s proof, which is a test page run off to see that all is correct with the typesetting). It is said that the real idea behind the saying is that the presence of what looks like an exception tests whether a rule is really valid or not. If you can’t reconcile the supposed exception with the rule, there must indeed be something wrong with the rule. The expression is indeed used in this sense, but that’s not where it comes from or what it strictly means.
The problem with that attempted explanation is that those putting it forward have picked on the wrong word to challenge. It’s not a false sense of proof that causes the problem, but exception. We think of it as meaning some case that doesn’t follow the rule, but the original sense was of someone or something that is granted permission not to follow a rule that otherwise applies. The true origin of the phrase lies in a medieval Latin legal principle: exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, which may be translated as “the exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted”.
This is mentioned in the Wikipedia article that arnie linked to above.
I can't think of any exception that "proves" any rule, so I think I agree with you, Kalleh. I like the explanation in the blog you pointed to that says it is just an obstacle thrown out in debate to distract everyone from the fact that the exception disproves the rule.
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Read the last letter (from Hugh Miller) and Cecil's reply.
(from letter) `the fact that certain exceptions are made (in a legal document) confirms that the rule is valid in all other cases.'
(from reply) Cicero said, if you prohibit something in certain cases, you imply that the rest of the time it's permitted. To put it another way, the explicit statement of an exception proves that a rule to the contrary prevails otherwise.
If something is not explicitly codified as illegal, it is legal, not the other way about. Thus prostitution between consenting adults was "not illegal" in Rhode Island for a while when the legal code was rewritten and this subject was omitted. This is the ruse Wall Street will use to escape prosecution for their machinations.