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The Exception Proves the Rule

My subject here is the familiar proverb, quoted, as usual, from Bartlett's.

The exception proves the rule.

I like this. It sounds nice, but I have to admit I've never been absolutely certain what it was supposed to mean. Here's my best attempt at a paraphrase.

The nature of its exceptions indicates the quality of a rule.

The thing that always bugged me about this proverb was that it seemed to claim that a rule with no exceptions isn't valid, or that there are no such rules. Indeed, the other reference to rules and exceptions in Bartlett's (by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy) says as much.

No rule is so general, which admits not some exception.

In my capacity as mathematician, I take issue with this. The best rules are mathematical or logical, and really do have no exceptions at all.

I also can't resist observing that it all boils down to this: exceptions should cover cases that are well, exceptional.


  See Also

  Details (Tempest)
  Exceptions to the Backlink Rule
  Exceptions to the Tree Structure
  Parts of Speech
  Persistence of Content
  Persistence of Location
  Picking Up Trash
  Rating Composite Works

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