Tuesday, 9 February 2010

I Know the Answer, What's the Question?

I note that I've been neglecting my duty of exploring and explaining proverbs and phrases recently, and I'm back with an absolute cracker. As the title might suggest, it's easier to talk about the origins of this phrase than it is to talk about what it actually means, yet we use it all the time. After today, though, you'll be able to work out whether it's being used properly. Get ready to have your brain tickled, because here comes...

"It's the exception that proves the rule."

See? It's a very common little saying, I'm sure you'll agree. I'd put good money on you having used it before. However, should I ask you what it means, would you be able to tell me? You might have an idea in your head, and there's more than one answer you could give. Let's have a little look, and see what's going on here.

At first glance, your reply might be that the statement doesn't make any sense. After all, you can't have exceptions in a rule, can you? If you do, you certainly haven't proven the rule. On the contrary, you might as well throw the whole supposed rule in the bin. Well, don't be so hasty. If you've ever thought to talk about it with a learned English teacher (and I'm under the impression that there are a few reading this), you'd probably get an answer like this:

The problem here lies in our understanding of the word "prove". Naturally, we take it to mean something like "show for certain". That's blameless enough, it's pretty much the only common use we have for it. There is, unfortunately for you, a lesser known use of "prove". Yes, it can also be used as "to test/trial something". A "proving ground" is a place where you test yourself, not a place where you make yourself certain. If you do want proof you exist, read some Descartes. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating" means that we can only test a pudding by scoffing. It's easy to see how you might have thought otherwise, but you know better now.

Now, that's a very nice answer, and it deals with most of the problems with our original phrase. Luvverly. Alternatively, it has been argued that it isn't the word "prove" we're messing up with, it's "exception".

This is the brain busting bit, so bear with me. In this instance, "exception" doesn't mean that the rule has been broken or tested, but simply ignored. I'll try an example. To begin with, we need a rule:

"I'm usually at college in the week."

Bingo. Now, imagine that I make the claim "I don't have to go to college this week", and it happens to be true. Here, we're not putting the rule to test. I'm not trying to fight against the college, this is simply an irregularity. In the same way, it isn't proving that the rule's true or false, it's doing something else. By being this kind of "exception", it's demonstrating that there is a rule, and that it's simply being ignored. I suppose you have to consider a "rule" as something that doesn't have to apply. It's not a law. I could skip college whenever I wanted, the only downside being that my teachers probably wouldn't appreciate the *cough* artistic symbolism in my actions.

I'm going to keep this post relatively short, then, so I don't have to put a health warning at the top. By all means, read through it again, get confused, and leave a comment to query me. To sign off, you'll notice I haven't gone into the origins of the phrase, which is a kind of self-imposed rule for posts I set myself when I started. Does this, as an exception, prove that rule? I'm not sure myself any more...


(P.S. It first came to to be of note English in the 17th century in a legal document, but with very similar phrases being used a hundred years previously. I couldn't help myself!)

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