Speed Bump

In an otherwise good article, American Greatness‘s Edward Ring states:

But the exception proves the rule.

It is a statement that makes no logical sense.  Any exception to a rule actually disproves the rule, as a moment’s thought will show, because a rule is that which applies to all relevant circumstances.  If there are any exceptions, it’s not a rule but a guideline.  (/Captain Barbosa)

So where did this contradictory statement come from?  Originally, the verb to prove came from the Latin word probere, which means to test.  And yes, that was the word’s original meaning, for example when one “proves” (or tests) a mathematical theorem by subjecting its hypothesis (or theory) to a multitude of conditions.  If all the conditions generate the same outcome, the hypothesis/theory becomes a theorem (or rule), and its “proof” means “having been tested”.

I’m probably wasting my time on this, because the phrase has become nigh-ubiquitous, and seldom called into question except during angry rants like this one.

For me, though, it’s still a speed bump.


  1. Yeah, my pet peeve is when people say “begs the question” (actually a type of logical fallacy) when they really mean “raises the question”.

    I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle.

  2. I seem to recall the original idea was that the rule ought to be able to explain why you have the exception.

    1. Except that “explain why you have the exception” is not what “prove” means, and it never has been.

  3. I’m right there with you, Kim. This particular phrase once had an actual meaning that people understood, but it was based on a definition of “prove” that is now archaic. (It survives in the phrase “proving ground,” which refers to a place where weapons systems are tested. But in everyday usage, “prove” no longer means “test.”)

    The phrase “exception that proves the rule” should be allowed to die. There is no legitimate reason to use it today. It fails to communicate anything useful, and instead only confuses people. But the world is full of idiots who mindlessly repeat things they have heard other people say, without any understanding of what those things mean.

    If you challenge everyone who uses this phrase to explain what it means, 99% of them will not be able to do so. They say it because they think it makes them sound intelligent and educated. It actually does the opposite.

  4. I could care less how you, literally, gild the lily as that’s not the proof of the pudding.

    1. The correctly misspelled version is “guild the lilly.” This may seem like nitpicking, but when you’re misusing the English language, it’s important to misspell the words to make it clear that you’re not just ignorant of what they mean — you don’t even know what the actual words ARE.

      As for your final phrase, the correct misuse is “the proof is in the pudding.” Your version, “the proof OF the pudding,” is actually legitimate, which is why no one uses it anymore.

      1. Paint the lily, gild fine gold … if you want to get technical, that’s the error I was focusing on. You’re right about the pudding, although I do hear folks say “of the pudding” and don’t mention the eating at all. I really should put more thought into these comments.

  5. By the way, KIm, I am still getting 524 errors submitting these comments and, although they do post, I have to reload the page manually to see the results. Also the edit feature doesn’t happen as it used to.

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