It’s the exception that proves the rule

I’m sure you’ve heard some dolt say this line, “well you know it’s the exception that proves the rule”, you may even have been said dolt – I know I have been.

i before e except after c

Although we were all probably taught this at school, most people now know that it isn’t true. In fact, in more cases it’s the other way around. In many more words it is i before e after c too. But this is still trotted out as a common example of the exception proving the rule.

But this isn’t what the phrase “it’s the exception that proves the rule” is supposed to mean. Lots of people seem to think it’s a kind of shorthand for “we’ve looked into this properly because we aren’t just telling you what’s generally true, but about the exceptions too”, a kind of grown up version of showing your working. And showing your working is important, and to be encouraged, but that isn’t what it’s about.

The phrase actually dates back to Roman times*. In a court case a dude was trying to become a Roman Citizen, the only problem was that he was from one of the provinces. The lawyer who opposed his case pointed out that several other provinces had restrictions on allowing people from provinces to become Roman citizens so a general rule could be inferred that people from the provinces shouldn’t be allowed to become Roman citizens. Cicero, who was the dude’s lawyer, argued that this was faulty logic. He said that instead, the fact that particular provinces had restrictions in place inferred that there must be a general rule to which these were the exceptions. He was saying the fact there was an exception proves that there was a general rule that people could come in. The existence of an exception, indicated that there was a general rule. That’s what the phrase is supposed to mean.

* What doesn’t these days?

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