How Can an Exception 'Prove' a Rule?

Rob Kyff on

Q. I've been wondering about the expression "the exception proves the rule." Can you elucidate? I'd be interested in its history and some examples to clarify the meaning. -- Frank Aleman, via email

A. True confession: When someone asked me this question 20 years ago, I responded with a completely erroneous explanation. I had been seduced by the alluring canard that this expression reflects a former meaning of "prove" -- "to test." Under this fallacious theory, an exception "tests" -- not "confirms" -- a rule.

But since then, linguist and lawyer Bryan Garner has straightened this all out for us.

In his book "Modern American Usage," Garner says this maxim derives from a legal axiom: "The exception proves (or confirms) the rule in the cases not excepted." Here, "exception" means not "the ITEM that is excepted," but, instead, "the ACT of excepting something."

So "the exception proves the rule" really means that the act of excepting an item from a rule proves the rule's legitimacy for those items not excepted from it.

Take, for instance, the spelling rule that "i" comes before "e." By excepting certain words from this rule, such as words in which "i" and "e" follow "c" (as in "receive"), we're "proving" the hold of the rule over other words (as in "friend" and "fiend").

It's complicated, I know. But the general idea is that, by identifying an exception to a rule, we prove its legitimacy.

--Sponsored Video--

Q. When did it become acceptable to use single quotation marks instead of double quotation marks? I often see this in headlines, e.g., Senator calls bill 'reckless.' Why? -- David Mehalko, Danville, Va.

A. Because headlines are intended as concise, telegraphic summaries of news stories, most newspapers keep them as brief as possible. So they enclose quoted words in single quotation marks to save space and convey a crisp tone.

Perhaps the most famous use of quotation marks in a headline was fictional. In the movie "Citizen Kane," a tabloid headline exposing Charles Foster Kane's affair with Susan, an aspiring opera star, derides her musical talent by inserting quotation marks around the word "Singer": Kane Found in Love Nest with "Singer."

But the headline shown in the film violates journalistic practice by using double quotation marks around "Singer." So you might say that the act of making an exception for the Hollywood headline "proves" the rule requiring single-quotation marks in a real-world headline.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.


blog comments powered by Disqus

Social Connections


Dennis the Menace Bob Gorrell Little Dog Lost Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee For Heaven's Sake Hagar the Horrible