Archive for May 18th, 2010

May 18, 2010

YfL13: Rules and Pudding

I’ve missed out of posting a couple of weeks’ Yell For Language columns. I apologise if anyone was particularly looking forward to them. Here is yesterday’s, anyway.

[An edited version of this was published in the New Indian Express' educational supplement yesterday].


To Prove: To establish the truth or validity of by presentation of argument or evidence.

To Prove: To determine the quality of by testing; try out.

I have a peeve. It is not a pet peeve, because I have many peeves and asking me to choose a favourite would be akin to asking a parent to choose a favourite child.

My peeve is this: the rampant abuse of the expression “the exception that proves the rule”. It’s one of those things people will just glibly throw out when something happens that doesn’t fit their current system of understanding, and it’s clear that they have no idea what it actually means.

This expression does not mean what you think it means.

People nowadays tend to think of the word “prove” in terms of evidence; like fingerprints on a murder weapon (the victim in this case apparently being the English language). But think about what this would mean for “the exception that proves the rule”. You’re effectively saying “I have a theory about how the world works. This piece of information, does not fit my theory. Therefore my theory must be accurate”. No one with half a brain would accept this as a rational, logical statement! The only reason people continue to throw the phrase around is because they’re used to throwing language around without thinking about what it means. The continued, thoughtless use of this phrase is just another indication that we live in a world where the vast majority of people haven’t got a clue what they are actually saying. I find this thought depressing.

So what does the phrase actually mean? It’s all in the word “prove”, and it becomes obvious when you think about other situations in which we use the word. “Waterproof” does not mean “substance that proves water exists”; it’s fabric that withstands water. To “proof” a document has to do with checking it for errors. “To Prove” has multiple meanings, and the two I’ve listed at the top of this article are, I think, the major source of confusion.

Ultimately there are two possible ways to read the phrase in question. One is quite close to the usual interpretation (though different enough to matter): If something is to be considered exceptional, it implies (or proves) that there is a normal state (a rule, in the sense that we use “as a rule”) for it to be an exception to.

The other possible reading takes the word in its other sense; “to test”. In this case, “the exception proves the rule” because the existence of an exception causes you to question the rule, and find out if it really is universally applicable. I prefer this version of the phrase, but it is less popular.

It’s precisely because of this sort of linguistic confusion that I’m fond of another phrase, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. This one presumably means that one tests the quality of pudding by eating it, but it works both ways – it’s equally true that eating pudding is a great way to discover whether or not pudding exists. Plus, it is a phrase that positively demands that we all eat pudding, which is surely a good and noble task.