exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis

If you follow my blog, and you’re a bit of a stickler for language use then you probably think something like “hey, this guy is way too lenient about language!” or “everything I think is wrong, he says is OK!” or something like that. 

With that in mind, today I’m going to talk about a piece of language I unapologetically loathe. I hate it so much that I don’t believe it has any place in the English language (as it is presently used) and should be banned.  The phrase in question is the hideously non-sensical “the exception that proves the rule“.

Whenever I see this phrase it confirms my suspicions that the world is largely insane made even more insane by the fact that people seem satisfied by this a response:

A: Have you noticed how all TEFL teachers are massive lefties?
B: Well, Neil’s a life long member of the Conservative party.
A: well the exception proves the rule.
B: Hmm I suppose you’re right.

We have pedants running around screaming about less/fewer or who/whom (all of which are perfectly reasonable and defensible) and yet when someone utters this illogical bumf -everyone around just sits there nodding.

Hahahaha….what?

It is to my mind quite spectacular that this phrase, having no meaning and being so obviously contradictory to all facets of common sense, continues to exist. How would science even operate if this were true? Image the scenario, a scientist discovers a new law of nature, another scientist points out that said law has an exception, the first scientist with tears in her eyes exclaims “well then, it must be true!”

Are we supposed to believe that rules without exceptions, are unproven? A few seconds of thought will confirm to anyone that exceptions do very little to strengthen rules. What has happen here is that the original Latin phrase (see title) has been misunderstood and is now being used in a totally nonsensical way. The original meaning is a (not very useful) phrase indicating that exceptions to rules, show that rules must exist. So if you said to your students “OK, you can speak (native language) in class today”, then what you’re also saying is that usually, the class is English only. The exception to this rule shows that there must be a rule.
Does this make any sense?

There are some folk (me at one time) who have latched onto a faulty etymology, in which it was claimed that “prove” means “test“. So exceptions test rules. This makes more sense but it  unfortunately has two problems. The first problem is that it probably isn’t true, -or at least I’ve seen no evidence it is correct. More importantly, even if it were true, that certainly isn’t how people are using it now. Nowadays it is almost certainly meant to mean “confirm”.
 
 
Semantic shift is natural and it’s not at all odd to see a word change meaning, for example uninterested and disinterested, swapped meanings, peruse now means the opposite of what it meant and the word decimate has almost entirely lost its original meaning. The difference here is however, all these words are no fulfilling a useful function in language or at least express something meaningful. “TETPTR” means absolutely nothing. It’s like saying “well, you can prove anything with facts“.
 
what on earth does this mean?

It is interesting to wonder why people so frequently use a meaningless phrase. One blogger suggests it may come from the deep human desire not to be wrong, -which is certainly possible. It kind of acts as a rebuff when inconstancy has been pointed out. You get to have the last word. Craked.com describe it neatly as “ignore that thing that disproves my theory; it only proves my theory”.

It reminds me of the similarly silly conversation stopper “I’m entitled to my opinion.”  which seems to mean “I’m not interested in the facts, stop arguing with me dammit.”
 







 

19 thoughts on “exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis

  1. However, the etymology part is true and is found in the other phrases \”The meaning become clear when you know that 'proof' here is a verb meaning 'test'. The more common meaning of 'proof' in our day and age is the noun meaning 'the evidence that demonstrates a truth' – as in a mathematical or legal proof. The verb form meaning 'to test' is less often used these days, although it does survive in several commonly used phrases: 'the exception that proves the rule', 'proof-read', 'proving-ground', etc. When bakers 'prove' yeast they are letting it stand in warm water for a time, to determine that it is active. Clearly, the distinction between these two forms of the word was originally quite slight and the proof in a 'showing to be true' sense is merely the successful outcome of a test of whether a proposition is correct or not.\” from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/proof-of-the-pudding.htmlSo every time someone uses it nonsensically, just say \”so how do you propose to test your proof?\”Another annoying one is \”that begs the question\” which doesn't mean the statement demands that I question it as it is normally used but means that the statement is circular or employs tautology as a supposed proof. Hmmppphhh!

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  2. Doesn't the existence of proving yeast and proofread etc suggest the etymology is this test meaning though? That's a few too many examples of proof used this way to explain any other way, surely? Then it does make sense, it's just being misused.

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  3. \”That begs the question\” doesn't make much sense when meaning a statement is circular, to me anyways. It also doesn't mean that I question the statement made e.g.Statement: There are too many boys in this class. We need more girls.Question: Do we?I've always heard it used to mean that if one accepts a certain statement, then one naturally would be forced to ask a related question that that statement causes e.g.Statement: There are too many boys in this class. We need more girls.Question: You're right, but that begs the question of how we get more girls.My understanding and usage anyways.

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  4. This is an example of how usage is causing semantic shift. NEW \”begs the questions\” has almost won out over OLD \”begs the question\”. In the same way that NEW \”peruse\” has completely defeated old \”peruse\”.

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  5. Just look at the evidence. Just because something seems so doesn't mean it is right? I mean you could look at English and say \”well look at all these latin terms, it must be a romance language\”, but it isn't. I don't know either way, -I don't think anyone does. But the existance of a latin phrase with a seemingly simillar meaning is telling. http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-exc1.htm\”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”.

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  6. 'Provare' is the Italian verb 'to try/test', and probably Latin too. Its meaning was just the exception that tests the rule, which makes total sense, n'est pas?

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  7. look at the evidence. Just because something seems so doesn't mean it is right? I mean you could look at English and say \”well look at all these latin terms, it must be a romance language\”, but it isn't. I don't know either way, -I don't think anyone does. But the existance of a latin phrase with a seemingly simillar meaning is telling. http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-exc1.htm\”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

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  8. I hear this a lot…and read it a lot. And wait for it.. say it from time to time. I think it has been addressed sufficiently above but i wanted to say that the meaning I attach to it (and thus the way I use it) is something more like, \”well since this case is different and notable we can see that the opposite it usually true.\” Example: A: That EBEFL fellow always writes interesting things. B: Sure does. He is great. A: I love it when he takes down prescriptivism. B: Ohh, does he do that much? Because I saw one post where he shared his distaste for one certain expression and said it was ridiculous even if it is used frequently. A: Oh that must be the exception that proves the rule because he is usually on the other side of things. Good on him for mixing it up. I quite sure this won't change your mind on this but I did want to share this way of using it. I think your distaste comes from people using it TO PROVE something and I am right with you on that.

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