Exceptions that prove the rule

Wed Jun 4 22:54:52 2008
“In his essay “Toward an American Way of War,” Antulio Echevarria states that: “Nonetheless, it is worth mentioning that Weigley’s description of the American approach to warfare is marred by shortcomings in at least two respects: in the errors he makes in military terminology; and in his tendency to oversimplify the complexities of American military thinking … These criticisms, however, do not substantively undermine Weigley’s thesis—that Americans saw the primary object of war as the destruction of an opponent’s armed might rather than as the furtherance of political objectives through violent means—so much as they qualify it. They merely highlight the exceptions that ultimately prove the rule.” (Echevarria, p. 4)

There exist “exceptions that prove the rule,” but I have never in-person (and only very rarely in print) seen this phrase correctly used to describe them. An “exception that proves the rule” occurs when someone grants an “exemption that implies an existing regulation or restriction.” As far as I know, the first recorded use of this argument occurs in Cicero’s Defense of Balbo (see, ancient history is good for something…) and it has had a long career in law and rhetoric ever since.

Through translation and the gradual change of word meanings over time, the phrase “the exception that proves the rule” has come to suggest in modern American English that “anomalies substantiate the principle” which is certainly not the case. Unfortunately, this misusage has become widespread and is the one we find in Antulio Echevarria’s essay. In this particular case, the shortcomings in Weigley’s argument do not support his thesis, as suggested by Echevarria, but actually undermine it.


~ by severalfourmany on June 4, 2008.

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