Cracking Enigma– The Exception That Proves The Rule: It’s Nonsense, Absurd, Or An Unlikely Defense…

A big issue with most business and organizations are the many rules that govern their existence, but an even bigger issue are all the exceptions to those rules. In fact, there can be so many exceptions that it’s a wonder that anybody can discern any rules at all… A business ‘rule’ is a statement that defines or constrains some aspect of the business. It’s intended to assert structure or to control or influence the behavior of the organization…

However, the English language is rich with many seemingly nonsensical sayings that are part and parcel of the vernacular, for example the phrase; the exception proves the rule… or similar variants is an old adage that originated from the Latin expression– ‘exceptio probat regulam’ ( i.e., the exception confirms the rule), which says that an inconsistency of a rule confirms the validity of a rule, which is a completely absurd notion…

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Do you get it? According to Cecil Adams; the whole point of this expression is that it does not make sense. It’s what you might say to confound adversaries when your argument is completely discredited… to suggest that since a non-conforming case exists and that it somehow confirms or supports a generalization is absurd… According to Brady Manning; so why do people continue to use the phrase, even though the original version was not logically sound? Probably because it sounds fancy and has helped many people to win arguments against people who do not understand logic… But regardless, there is no such thing as– an exception proving a rule… it’s wholly illogical and contradictory…

In the article How Does An Exception Prove A Rule? by Arika Okrent writes: The phrase; the exception that proves the rule  indicates a deviation from the norm, a challenge to the stereotype. It says, in effect, the norm or stereotype is the rule and here is something that is an exception to that rule. But wait, how does the exception prove the rule? Wouldn’t it do just the opposite? Doesn’t it prove the rule does not hold for all cases and is, therefore, not a rule at all?

It’s sometimes argued that the confusion over this expression stems from the wrong understanding of the word ‘prove’, and that ‘prove’ here means ‘test’. The idea is that the exception ‘tests’ the validity of the rule, and the test could either leave the rule intact (i.e., if some kind of explanation can be found), or overturns it… Its been suggested that the expression has probably evolved through some blending of other expressions, for example; when people say something is– ‘the exception that proves the rule’, they could just as well say it’s– ‘an exception to the rule’… however, ‘the exception that proves the rule’ does more by highlighting the unusualness of the exception. Clearly,  there is a good bit of hyperbole going on when someone pulls out this expression, but that doesn’t mean it make any sense…

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In the article The 7% Rule; Fact, Fiction, Misunderstanding by Philip Yaffe writes: Have you ever heard the suggestion that a person’s communication effectiveness is only 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal? According to a study by Albert Mehrabian; customers based their assessments of a salesperson’s credibility on factors other than the words they speak… and his study assigned 55% weight to the speaker’s body language, 38% to the tone and music of their voice, and 7% to the actual words. however, over the years many experts, including Phil Yaffe himself, have rejected the validity of a; 7/93 Rule…

Although you live in a highly ‘visual’ world, most information is still promulgated in written form, where vocal variety and body language play little role… Likewise with a speech, if your words are incapable of getting the message across, then no amount of gestures and tonal variations will do it for you… Hence, you are still obliged to carefully structure your information and look for– ‘le mot juste‘ (i.e., best words or phrases) to express what you want to say…

So, what does the ‘7% Rule’ really mean? It means that there are many, so called, rules that are nonsensical, like the expression– ‘the exception that proves the rule’… This is another expression people say without examining its meaning… In fact, an exception can never prove a rule; it can only disprove it… The problem is not with the adage, but with the language. In old English the term ‘prove’ meant to ‘test’, not to confirm as it does today. So the adage really means: It’s the exception that ‘tests’ the rule, and if there is an exception, then there is no rule, or at least the rule is not total…

English speakers are not alone in continuing to mouth this nonsense; in some other languages it’s even worse, for example; the French actually say; the exception that confirms the rule (i.e., l’exception qui confirme la règle…) probably because it was mistranslated from English but it’s still wrong…

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In the article The Pareto Rule, Or The Exception That Prove the Rule by Brian Hull writes: The Pareto Rule (or, 80/20 Rule, or Law of Vital Few…) ostensibly states that for many phenomena; 80% of the consequences stem from 20% of the causes…  A common application is, e.g.; 80% of revenues, profits, sales… come from top 20% of customers… also, 80/20 rule is often used as a metric to analyze many business activity, problems, issues… and that makes a lot of sense. However, being obsessed with strictly ‘adhering’ to it is probably unwise and counter-productive, for example; working to get more than 20% would seem like a worthwhile objective, but then it becomes an exception to this rule.

Hence, it’s important to observe the benefits of the rule and alert to its implications, but not to live or die by it… for example; if a business has 90% of profit, revenue… coming from 10% or less of its customer base, it’s obviously at a greater business risk than one that has 60% of its profit, revenue… coming from 40% of customers… Hence, does the business with the latter or a more even performance profile really need to get closer to the 80/20 Rule? Probably not: The point is– the Pareto Rule can be useful under the right circumstances; but is it the exception, or the rule…

Many people use exceptions fallaciously to show that a rule does not exist. A typical retort to a generalization starts by disagreeing that it is a rule, followed by citing a compelling example of an exception to the rule… these exceptions are usually rare, but they can be very effective at swaying popular opinions against well established rules… However, when relatively rare exceptions get fallaciously cited as if they were common-place, e.g.; the exception proves the rule… it can legitimately mean that the attempt to refute the rule is fallacious; by a kind of logic that says; Is that all you’ve got? rationale…

According to Dhirendra Kumar; how can an exception prove a rule? It clearly does the opposite… Hence, if you have a rule and if there is an exception, then the rule is wrong. This logic is generally used as an excuse by people who have accepted some rule or principle and then violate it… and it’s often associated business decisions…

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There may well be situations when violating basic rules of business’ best practice can result in a better outcome… However, these exceptions are few and far between and, in many case, they can only be detected with certainty in hindsight… Hence as a guideline, it makes a lot of sense to never fall for; ‘the old exception that proves the rule’ story…

According to Jon Brock; I have often had cause to query the wisdom of old sayings; one that has always seemed particularly nonsensical is the phrase; ‘the exception that proves the rule’… this so called rule basically says– there is a rule and if you find something that breaks the rule, then that somehow proves the rule was correct, which is totally idiotic… According to Lorenzo Paoli; the pursuit of excellence is often seen as a rare occurrence, an exception… and when it does occur it can be referred to as; ‘an exception to the rule of being average’ but exceptions– ‘do not’ prove rules they ‘deny’ them…

All of this analysis is good stuff; but how did the phrase– the exception proves the rule… get so corrupted in the first place, and how did it manage to survive so long? It’s current usage is so obviously absurd that unless it satisfied some highly desirable rhetorical niche, it could not have survived… Here is a theory; consider a situation where in the face of indisputable evidence, a person is cornered with an embarrassing rhetorical moment and they have nothing substantial to say in their defense; and consider if they had a ‘snappy’ comeback phrase, such as; the exception that proves the rule… the shear strength of the phrase will leave an average person gasping for some type of response to this enigmatic statement…

Hence, whether nonsensical or not– it may very well make a very handy expression to have around as an unlikely defense, which is probably the reason for its survivability…