Thursday Grammar: The Proof of the Posting is in the Reading

[Ed. Note: Yes, it is not Thursday. But something happened. See, I wrote all these posts in one afternoon and the scheduled them weeks into the future. This week, we were scheduled to run my masterpiece about the much misunderstood … Continued

[Ed. Note: Yes, it is not Thursday. But something happened. See, I wrote all these posts in one afternoon and the scheduled them weeks into the future. This week, we were scheduled to run my masterpiece about the much misunderstood phrase “The Proof of the Pudding.” Imagine my surprise when I open the Sunday Times yesterday and see that William Safire has made it the topic of his weekly column. Damn him! I got scooped, and decided to run this today. Thank you for caring.]

A certain kind of usage error occurs when someone hears an idiom whose precise meaning he doesn’t know, assumes (wrongly) that the context provides adequate clues to guess the meaning, and begins using the idiom to mean what he thinks it means.

Fans of The Princess Bride might term this the “inconceivable” fallacy — though Wallace Shawn’s misuse was a special case. (All correct usage is alike. Every usage error is wrong in its own way.)

Most of the time, guessing at meanings from the context is a reasonable way to go. But you get into trouble when a word you know is being used in a sense you don’t know.

Take the verb “prove.” It has two senses, which are…

  1. to establish beyond doubt or counterexample
  2. to test

Yes, these senses are related — proving (testing) one’s worth will, we hope, lead to proof (a firm conviction about) of one’s worth — and yes, the second sense is archaic. But there are phrases in current usage which rely on the archaic sense, and their meaning has been hideously corrupted.

Using the archaic sense of “prove”, when we say an exception “proves the rule”, we mean that it gives lie to the rule or may cause us to question it. Indeed, this is the original, correct meaning of the phrase.

In contemporary usage, however, the phrase has come to mean exactly the opposite of that. “The exception that proves the rule” today implies that a counterexample strengthens our conviction that the rule is true (however that works). Worse yet, the fact that it’s a long-standing idiom seems to lend rhetorical weight to whatever argument in whose service the phrase is being misconstrued.

Let’s do another: “The proof is in the pudding.” If we understand the proof to mean incontrovertible evidence, we understand a meaning of something like “only results matter.”

But this short form is actually a corruption of a longer saying “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” (yes, proof means “test” here), which has a subtler connotation: roughly, there are relevant and irrelevant tests for particular things (i.e., the proof of the pudding isn’t in the looking at it).

I wouldn’t suggest you go around correcting people. You’d be acting like a jerk and fighting a battle that’s already been lost. Which is my job.

But I do think the larger issue is worth considering. When particular words or phrases (usually long or complex ones) are used not to mean anything precise or correct but rather to establish status, then propositions are being offered more or less without care for their truth or falsity. This is what the philosopher Harry Frankfort terms “bullshit” (in his enjoyable and highly recommended monograph On Bullshit). Buy it.

Speak simply. George Orwell will thank you, and so will I.

Next Week: We beg the question.

8 Comments on “Thursday Grammar: The Proof of the Posting is in the Reading”

  1. Alec Harkness #

    Aha! That whole “exception that proves the rule” thing never made sense to me, but now it does.

    I have learnt something today… :)


  2. Siwi #

    I heart this series. I’d been going over the old “test” meaning of proof for a student who wondered why the word “reproof” made any sense (it would’ve helped if she’d ever heard the word “reprobate”), but I had never thought to apply it to “exception proves the rule.” I am so much happier and more at peace now that I understand that phrase.

    I have to say, I benefit more from the entries that correct me (nonplussed=big oops), but entries on errors I know about are satisfying as well. If there’s one of these lined up for “another thing coming,” I’ll be the happiest of campers (it turns out there are intelligent people who think that’s the correct phrase! It pains me right in my snobbery!).

    (this comment written but not successfully submitted before the now-preceding and more succinct sentiment)


  3. 24Frames #

    Good stuff. As always.

    I’m dying for somebody to publicise the rampant misuse of “ambivalent”. Hopefully this single comment on this blog will do the trick.


  4. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Great post. Can you do peaked/piqued (as in “that ____ed my interest”)? That one’s driving me crazy.


  5. Matthew Wrather #

    Thanks, everybody! I’m really glad my rantings are making people happy.

    I thought I was just being a dick.

    You know, “another thing coming” makes me think of “I could care less” for some reason, which should be a post in the series as well. Actually, after this Thursday, my original series of articles, written last month in a fit of rage, will be exhausted. So please, please send ideas to wrather at — i’ll be very grateful to know what you want to hear about.

    To be honest, though, I’m hoping to take it more in the direction of this post — rather than just correcting people, I would like to spend some time Overthinking(tm) how these errors come about.


  6. Gab #

    How about “drunk off my ass”?


  7. AJ #

    Thank you so much for this series. My friends call me a “grammar nazi” because I have a tendency to correct mistakes like these (and actual grammatical errors in writing, even for published works). I really enjoy reading these other mistakes and seeing how they occur and how they should be used.


  8. TheDarkFan #

    What brilliant posts!!! Thanks to you and those who comment on your posts, I now have some hope that people will stop murdering the English language and displaying their ignorance at the same time. It’s paradoxical that in this day and age, despite the abundance of dictionaries (printed and online), we are still treated to language which makes you cringe whenever you hear it. Anyway, I discovered a book online that might interest you all, it’s called ‘How to speak and write correctly’ by Joseph Devlin and it can be downloaded from Enjoy (By the way, nice nod to Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’)


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