Big List: Exception proves the rule
Posted: 07 January 2013 11:28 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Another “big list entry” that might benefit from an update (or tweak) is “the exception proves the rule.”

Starting with a relatively small point, the big list references Fowler’s discussion of the phrase and its “five” uses.  However, the fifth, “wrong”, one is not really identified, aside from saying that it is the result of unclear logic and sloppy writing.

Wikipedia also references Fowler, and it gives a slightly longer summary of his discussion.  It appears that the “fifth” sense of the phrase from Fowler is a sense of “if any exception (non-conforming example) can be found for any proposed rule (regarding the probability of something occurring) this proves that the rule is correct.  That is, of course, a preposterous thing for a person to believe to actually be true.  However, whether it is “illogical” to think that that is true is a different issue from whether it is illogical to believe that that is what the expression means.  In fact, it strikes me as a perfectly natural parsing of the expression, as written.
And I think it would take a remarkable mind indeed to infer from the words “the exception proves the rule” that it means “[the fact that a statement of law is characterized as] the exception to [an unspecified, broader] rule [of law] proves [that] the rule [which is the opposite to the rule that applies to those who meet the specified exception][exists].” The “true” meaning of the phrase, I think, is virtually impossible to discern unless one is familiar with its historical use in a legal setting. Many discussions of the phrase acknowledge that “some” of the confusion regarding the phrase can be chalked up to its cryptic phrasing, but I think they understate the case: the phrase is almost impossible to parse without knowledge of its oldest usage or at least knowledge of the longer version(s) of the phrase, which is knowledge that only a tiny number of people have today, I think.

And, AFAIK, the “true” meaning of the phrase is not widely known to practicing attorneys and judges.  The phrase was not covered, in either the English or Latin version, when I went to law school.  I did a quick search of published opinions from the state of Washington (the state in which I practice) and found precisely one hit to it being used, and that was in a dissenting opinion.  It appears that the judge used it in the classical legal sense, but this is not entirely clear, as he used it as a “point heading” in his opinion but did not explain what the phrase meant or how it related to his opinion.  That is not to argue, of course, that “no” lawyers or judges know what it means, and i would guess that it has and does pop up every now and then in opinions, but I think it is very uncommonly known by attorneys.

In a partial tangent, I note that the Wikipedia article, in discussing Fowler’s take on the phrase, suggests that “the exception proves the rule” is synonymous with another phrase which is Latinate in origin, “expressio unius”.  It isn’t clear if the writer is ascribing this view to Fowler, or if this is purely the invention of the wiki author, but, in any event, while I think the phrases involve broadly analogous reasoning processes, I don’t think they are the same thing or that they can be used interchangeably.  [edit: actually, the wiki referenced “inclusio unius”, which I hadn’t heard of, not “expressio unius”, which I have.  So maybe inclusio unis is interchangeable with “the exception proves the rule”.]

I would also note that I have run into a wide variety of meanings seemingly being applied to the phrase “the exception proves the rule” which have even less to do with the Latin/legal phrase than the “fifth” one noted by Fowler.  For example, a common parsing, I think, is that the phrase means that it is often the case that something that was predicted to be a narrow exception often “proves”, in practice, to be the rule (that is, the norm).  Again, this would be a silly thing for somebody to believe to be literally true, but not necessarily a silly interpretation of the phrase, given how cryptically it is rendered.  And depending on whether one takes it to mean that it is “usually” true that this occurs, or merely that it “sometimes” works out that way, it might not even be a silly thing to think.

A somewhat related interpretation is that the phrase means that if a government agency carves out what was supposed to be a narrow exception to a rule, then it is likely that people will exploit the exception and it will prove to be “the rule” in practice.

Yet another parsing is that the phrase is not a prediction or aphorism at all, but simply describes a situation in which something that was thought would be a rare occurrence ends up being the most common occurrence.  For example, we thought only a few people who were laid off would be unable to find a new job within a year, but, sadly, the exception proved the rule. 

So, I suspect that the “right” interpretation is mostly only known to word scholars.  And there are a very wide variety of interpretations that are given to it, all or most of which are reasonable parsings of the phrase.  I have no idea which “misuses” are more common than others, but I think the misusers outnumber the right-users, and I think it is a bit unfair to say the misusers are employing poor logic or even sloppy writing (unless one counts any use of an idiomatic phrase as “sloppy” if the writer didn’t conduct research into what the phrase meant, historically, before using it).

[ Edited: 07 January 2013 11:40 AM by Svinyard118 ]
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