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The Rule of Flaw
September 7, 2011 7:15 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to make a list of commonly known "rules" that people have learned and follow, but are in fact not rules at all, and by following them people are led astray.

The best example of what I'm looking for is a grammar rule that many of us were taught as kids, which says that it is correct to say "Steve and I," not "Steve and me" or "me and Steve." It is improper to say, for example, "Steve and me are going to the pool," but presumably it's this "rule" that makes a lot of people say things like, "Would you like to go to the pool with Steve and I?"

I'm not just looking for grammar rules. It could be programming, driving, etiquette, or anything else that people regularly do improperly because they understand it to be "the rule." To be clear, I'm not looking for things that people just don't realize they're doing incorrectly, or that there's a better way of doing. That was covered thoroughly in the You were doing it wrong AskMe thread. I'm looking for specific examples of actual, known "rules" that are flawed, or just commonly misunderstood, but people follow anyway because they believe it means they're doing it right.

Thanks for your help.
posted by Balonious Assault to Society & Culture (62 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not ending sentences with prepositions. That's a convention for Romance languages and English is Germanic. A preposition really is a fine thing to end a sentence with.
posted by thewestinggame at 7:26 PM on September 7, 2011 [42 favorites]


Dollar cost averaging is perhaps 1) the greatest investment strategy ever conceived, or 2) a statistically poor strategy for lump sum investors, or 3) the root of all evil.
posted by paulsc at 7:26 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The term for overapplication of language 'rules' is hypercorrection.
posted by Paragon at 7:27 PM on September 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


In SEO world people still think meta keyword stuffing gets them to the top of Google. There are many other misconceptions, too.
posted by michaelh at 7:32 PM on September 7, 2011


There are a few "rules" that came from the use of typewriters but do not apply to any more sophisticated typographical system. This includes the mistaken "rule" that one should use two spaces after a period when they aren't using a typewriter. Or that one should use underlining (instead of italics) to emphasize book titles, when not using a specific style manual that requires it.

People who think that "that" should never be used to refer to a person. (This and many other "rules" are debunked thoroughly in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.
posted by grouse at 7:39 PM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Don't talk to strangers.
posted by HopperFan at 7:41 PM on September 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


I learned via this NY Times article that there is a strong historical precedent for using they as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. As in: Someone rang the doorbell. I guess they don't know the door is open. (As opposed to the more awkward: I guess he or she doesn't know the door is open.)

I love throwing this one in smug English teacher faces. :)
posted by unannihilated at 7:44 PM on September 7, 2011 [12 favorites]


I before E except after C.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:45 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


You get $500 if you land on Free Parking in Monopoly.
posted by philosophygeek at 7:49 PM on September 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


if you have sex on the first date, you'll never get called back.
posted by nadawi at 7:53 PM on September 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


Honesty is the best policy.
posted by perspicio at 7:56 PM on September 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


In math classes, students are taught order of operations by the mnemonic PEMDAS (or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally). A very common mistake is to misinterpret the mnemonic to mean that multiplication is always done before division, and addition is always done before subtraction.
posted by naju at 7:59 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


People are often explicitly raised to never let themselves be put down or "disrespected" over even relatively minor slights. This leads to a lot of yelling and "defending my honor" type crap. A better way to wend your way through life is to pick your battles and to not be so insecure and full of yourself.

"Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." Yeah, sometimes, but other times, maybe you're a dick with shitty jokes.

"Boys don't make passes at girls in glasses."

In law school, especially in your first year, your profs will often tell you to not bother with supplements. This is, generally speaking, nutty advice. Yes, there are certainly students out there who are able to just listen to class and do fine on the final, but only so many times are a student and a professor (and a final) so simpatico.

This isn't really a "rule," but in photography, "correct" exposure is a serious misnomer. "Correct" exposure is 18% gray. Your photo shouldn't necessarily be an average of 18% gray.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:00 PM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


no white after labor day.
posted by lia at 8:13 PM on September 7, 2011


The middle course is the best.
posted by perspicio at 8:18 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Violence is never the answer.
posted by perspicio at 8:26 PM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Write what you know".

Most people take this to mean, "write about your experiences, no matter how banal or derivative". What it really means is do some research, learn stuff, and then write about things that you understand.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:28 PM on September 7, 2011 [18 favorites]


The Rules
posted by -harlequin- at 8:31 PM on September 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


The customer is always right.
posted by toxic at 8:35 PM on September 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


It's perfectly normal to loathe going to work and you should expect nothing more.
posted by Sebmojo at 8:41 PM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


A lot of people have learned that "the exception proves the rule", but strangely believe it to mean that an exception brought up in the face of a claim somehow backs the claim as being valid. For example, "People who smoke pot are dumb" - "But Joe smokes pot, and he's pretty smart" - "Joe's the exception that proves the rule".

In fact, it means that a stated exception to an unstated rule proves that the rule exists. For example, if you see a sign that says "Store Closed on Sundays", you can reasonably conclude that the store is open Monday through Saturday, despite the fact that only the exception, and not the rule, was explicitly stated.
posted by Flunkie at 8:43 PM on September 7, 2011 [34 favorites]


I don't agree with Flunkie on "the exception that proves the rule." It isn't an interpretive principle for understanding a sentence that implicitly excludes A, B, and C by mentioning D. It is sometimes criticized for being illogical, since an exception should disprove, not prove, a rule. But that's not right either. I take it to mean "the exception that clarifies the boundaries of the general rule." For instance, if I say: "Modern, mainstream movies are made in color, not black and white," I'd be correct, as long as you understand I'm stating a general rule. But you might say: "How about Schindler's List"? And I'd say: "That's the [rare] exception that proves the [general] rule." Then we could look at all the factors that allowed that successful movie to get made in black and white (ultra-serious subject matter, a director with enormous clout), but we'd still come back to the correct observation that as a general rule, blockbuster movies in the modern era aren't made in black and white.

To answer the question:

Lots of rules about matching clothing colors: Don't wear brown shoes with navy. Don't wear brown shoes with grey. Don't wear black shoes with navy. A brown suit requires brown shoes instead of black shoes.

There's plenty of conventional wisdom about social interaction (sometimes seen on this very website) that's misguided:

Spend the vast majority of your time listening instead of talking. (Obviously, both people in a 2-person conversation can't follow this rule!)

Cushion your criticisms with effusive flattery: "I love you and you're great at so many things, but..." (This just gives the impression that you were extremely nervous about giving the criticism — oh, and it makes the flattery seem insincere.)

Every breakup must be done in person. (Yeah, if you enjoy inflicting and experiencing as much agony as possible.)

And, per -harlequin-'s comment, there are so many misguided rules about dating it would seem futile to even try to list them (the "3-day rule," etc.).
posted by John Cohen at 8:59 PM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't agree with Flunkie on "the exception that proves the rule."
See here.
posted by Flunkie at 9:05 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


No eating for an hour after swimming or you'll get cramps. Maybe if you're a competitive swimmer, but I spent my childhood with no AC and always in our backyard pool and never heard of this until my friends' moms banned them from swimming after a meal. It was a lonely time swimming.
posted by deinemutti at 9:20 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


That work is a necessary place to be self-actualized, when in reality (and consistent with the course of human history), it's not inappropriate to view it as primarily a a place to gain provision for you and your family. If you can be self-actualized in the process, all the better, but requiring it as a necessary or always-expected condition leads to a lot of dissatisfaction with life in general.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:38 PM on September 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


I don't know if its right or wrong, but I live by the 'three day rule' - call a girl three days after getting her number. I picked it up from Swingers, and its probably wrong.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:40 PM on September 7, 2011


Related.
posted by cashman at 9:45 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I (a relatively new driver) heard both "You should stop at train tracks; in fact, it's against the law to not stop," and, "The rule is that you should make sure you go over the tracks at high speed to ensure that you're propelled over them in the case your car stalls." Both of which sounded like pretty amusing rules. (Ontario MTO page on driving over train tracks)

"You'll 'spoil' the baby by picking the baby up too often" and variations on that. (But "There is plenty of evidence that babies who are carried often are babies who cry less." here)

"You lose most of your heat from your head" -- debunked
posted by kmennie at 9:47 PM on September 7, 2011


You should stop at train tracks; in fact, it's against the law to not stop

Sometimes it is the law for buses or trucks transporting hazardous materials.
posted by grouse at 9:59 PM on September 7, 2011


Five-second rule. Although I don't know whether there's a large contingent of people who actually believe it, rather than invoking it in jest.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:43 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Make a career out of what you love to do, and it'll never be work.
Utter bullshit.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:13 AM on September 8, 2011 [13 favorites]


Here's one I ran into while writing my Masters thesis on comparative cosmogonies.

Statement you often hear when looking at goddesses (my paraphrase of often long-winded stuff): "there may have been warrior goddesses and myths of warrior women, but there has never been an archeological find of women buried with war goods. Furthermore, there is a long history of women having lower status than men in warrior societies, so it seems their natural weakness prevails in natural fact."

Then you look at archeology: it so happens that in the majority of cases, bones are difficult to sex, and so they revert to the rule of... war goods = man. Do you think that any women buried with war goods are ever going to be discovered that way? For a cite, check out Gender and the archeology of death, go to the preview and browse to p.90, in the chapter VIII article on "The Position of Iron Age Scandinavian Women" by Anne-Sophie Gräslund.

Thankfully we are in a world where things like this are starting (just starting) to be questioned, and in August, the results of a study came out: Viking women buried with swords and shields. Some archeologists returned to a previously-excavated site where all remains had been sexed as male. They looked at the bones and... how about that... half of them were actually female.

As for the "warrior societies" argument, in the cases I looked at, the statements all referred to Occidental societies in which women had been forbidden from scholarly education, independent careers, and physical education, and any other cultures were ignored, such as the Iroquois, who were matrilineal, valued male and female contributions to society equally, and were warrior societies. ("Iroquois" is not a tribe but a league of first five, then six nations, btw. There are also Iroqouian – linguistically related – tribes such as the Huron and Cherokee who shared similar beliefs and cultural characteristics.)

So whenever you hear a "rule" about such-and-such category of people being "naturally" oppressed and having "no evidence otherwise"... look into the rules and assumptions that lead to those conclusions, because they are very, very often biased and incomplete, whether by design or by ignorance.
posted by fraula at 1:19 AM on September 8, 2011 [31 favorites]


Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

No, things do go wrong.. But often enough, they go right too.

Because, unless you're working on aerospace projects, the universe is generally neutral.

Despite that, Murphy's law is frequently hand rolled with a dab of boy scout be preparedness to form some kind of uber-rule where no-one acts until everything has been perfectly planned, all risks perfectly foreseen, and reasonable steps taken to avoid any possible negative repercussions.

The result is that stuff then goes wrong because no-one is doing anything.

Murphy should have said something like "Things sometimes go wrong, but prepare only as much as you need to limit reasonably foreseeable risk."

Or, "don't worry about stuff beyond a minimum level where you can afford to live with the consequences of losing occasionally."

Or even, "just roll the dice, sunshine."
posted by Ahab at 1:25 AM on September 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


"You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" is pretty much completely backwards. There's also a variant(or original?) with shit rather than vinegar. Granted, this is generally used regarding people rather than literal flies, but it's still stupid.
posted by Su at 2:35 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Being cold gives you a cold.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:43 AM on September 8, 2011


Su: Perhaps you could expand on your analysis. I have always taken the honey/vinegar expression to mean that you are more likely to be able to influence people by providing something that they want , which would seem to fit well with honey as a metaphor.
posted by biffa at 3:44 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day.

If you are thirsty you are already dehydrated.

Caffeine is a diuretic. - sort of but most coffee drinkers are so habituated that the diuretic effect is negligible.
posted by xetere at 4:14 AM on September 8, 2011


"No white after Labor Day." That is a rule, but it only applies to white shoes; not to cream, off-white or ecru shoes; not to white shoes with blue polka dots, not to white shoes with black stripes; not to nursing, athletic, or other specialist footwear; and not outside of the United States. Despite this, wearing white jeans on September 14 seems to be a very popular way of displaying rebelliousness and independent thought.

"Guest towels are not to be used for the drying of guests' hands." Yes they are. The clue is in the name: "guest" and "towel". A towel for guests, see? It's fiendish in its simplicity.

And what someone said about hypercorrection. While North Americans put 'erbs in their vinaigrette, Britishers add Herbs, because every Britisher knows it's common to drop your aitches, so they always pronounce their aitches even in words of Norman origin that never 'ad no Haitch sound in the first place. They do this because of 'ypercorrection.
posted by tel3path at 5:26 AM on September 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


US: Stay right. It's an explicit rule for driving, but it carries over as an unstated guideline for pedestrians.
posted by Ys at 5:46 AM on September 8, 2011


Calories in = calories out.

Yes, this is true on some thermodynamic level, but your body is not a closed system, and you don't burn fuel completely efficiently. What portion of the food you consume goes towards increasing your average energy level (making you want to exercise and burn off that energy) and what portion goes towards increasing your fat reserves depends strongly on the levels of various hormones in your body, particularly insulin. For more on this, see Taubes' Why We Get Fat.
posted by peacheater at 6:32 AM on September 8, 2011 [10 favorites]


Work hard and you'll get ahead.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:37 AM on September 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Better safe than sorry." It's a rule that avoids any analysis of the cost of the safety measure and the likelihood of the risk.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 6:41 AM on September 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


A yellow traffic light does not mean "slow down." It can mean "stop" or "floor it!" depending on the situation and your general outlook on life, but slowing down without stopping will always be exactly the wrong thing to do.

What's interesting here is that everyone does the right thing at a yellow light. But if you ask them to articulate the rule they're following, many people will get it wrong. It turns out this happens in all areas of life: people suck at describing the grammar of their own language, the social rules of their own society, the moral principles they follow, the procedures they actually use at work. Basically any time someone says "The rule I follow in this situation is...." there's a good chance they're just confabulating.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:54 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Customer is always right.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:56 AM on September 8, 2011


I don't agree with Flunkie on "the exception that proves the rule."

See here.


Thank you for corroborating my explanation, which is of the "scientific sense." That is how it's most often used. The meaning has evolved; the "original meaning" is now less common and sounds outdated to my ears.
posted by John Cohen at 8:02 AM on September 8, 2011


hyperforeignism
posted by sarahj at 8:30 AM on September 8, 2011


Your explanation was not the scientific sense, John Cohen. The scientific sense is when the supposed exception is examined more closely and it is determined that the rule does not apply to it at all, and therefore is not an exception to it.

Your example was what the page refers to as the "loose rhetorical" sense, wherein you're using the phrase to draw attention to the general but not total applicability of the rule by pointing out that the noted exception is a rarity.

In any case, this is the last thing I will say on this in this thread, as I don't want to derail further.
posted by Flunkie at 9:36 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's interesting here is that everyone does the right thing at a yellow light. But if you ask them to articulate the rule they're following, many people will get it wrong. It turns out this happens in all areas of life: people suck at describing the grammar of their own language, the social rules of their own society, the moral principles they follow, the procedures they actually use at work. Basically any time someone says "The rule I follow in this situation is...." there's a good chance they're just confabulating.

I can articulate it: when my foot is on the gas, I floor it. When my foot is on the brake, I stop. This doesn't always apply - sometimes my foot is on neither, and sometimes I'm going so fast that I have to floor it, or so slow that I have to stop. But it works pretty well as general guideline.
posted by breakin' the law at 9:56 AM on September 8, 2011


Interesting. I read somewhere that "the exception proves the rule" was using an earlier definition of "prove" which means "test." Therefore "the exception tests the rule." Which makes perfect sense.

I really like the legal interpretation, which also makes sense, and is even cleverer.
posted by musofire at 10:02 AM on September 8, 2011


I don't know if its right or wrong, but I live by the 'three day rule' - call a girl three days after getting her number. I picked it up from Swingers, and its probably wrong.

I can't remember exactly when in the relationship I got the number, but this rule is absolutely wrong, as my wife will gladly tell you.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:26 AM on September 8, 2011


"If it seems too good to be true, it is!" is a bad rule. I have had plenty of experiences in my life that were too good to be true, but they are, in fact, true!

"5mph grace above the speed limit" is false. The speed limit is the speed limit, in every state, for everyone (except emergency vehicles). What people are likely referring to is when insurance kicks in for speeding. In my state it's 10mph, so everyone (except me, heh) drives 9mph over the speed limit all the time, or so it seems. My grandparents' generation claims it's to account for variance in speed guns. Also not true.
posted by TinWhistle at 11:31 AM on September 8, 2011


These rules are pretty horrifying and seem to be the cause of a whole series of AskMes in which women want to know whether some guy is into them or not, after a couple of weeks of eyelash fluttering.
posted by emilyw at 11:35 AM on September 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


"5mph grace above the speed limit" is false.

There's no legal basis for this, but I've never been pulled over for driving 4 mi/h above the speed limit, even when I pass right by a waiting cop with a radar gun.
posted by grouse at 11:40 AM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


US: Stay right. It's an explicit rule for driving, but it carries over as an unstated guideline for pedestrians.

I'm confused. How is this flawed? It seems to me that this unstated rule would tend to make walking easier for everyone -- tell the Manhattanite furious behind the tourists strolling in the wrong direction all abreast down Fifth Ave that this rule doesn't work.
posted by andrewesque at 12:14 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


"5mph grace above the speed limit" is false. The speed limit is the speed limit, in every state, for everyone (except emergency vehicles).

The belief in the UK tends to be that you cannot be done for up to 10% above ths speed limit, a colleague of mine got done for 33 in a 30 zone, and whenever it came up it was astonishing how many people refused to believe that this was possible, even in the face of an actual police document for the citation.
posted by biffa at 12:33 PM on September 8, 2011


The high school / college 15-minute rule: if the teacher is 15 minutes late, the students may leave without penalty. There are virtually no formal instantiations of this "rule". Many teachers will informally abide by it anyway, but students frequently believe that this is an actual policy of their institution.
posted by Errant at 1:21 PM on September 8, 2011


US: Stay right. It's an explicit rule for driving, but it carries over as an unstated guideline for pedestrians.

Spoken like someone who doesn't have to walk through a double set of double doors and intervening vestibule every day in a public place. If everybody stays on the right, everybody can just keep walking. If you go in the left side, or cross to the right side in the vestibule, everybody gets faces in armpits trying to hold doors for people on the wrong side while I go on the right side and run into someone coming OUT the wrong way, and then we all have to have sex to break the tension.
posted by TheRedArmy at 1:31 PM on September 8, 2011


"Practice makes perfect."

"Thoughtful practice makes you better," more like.

Only money can make you perfect.
posted by TheRedArmy at 1:32 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always thought the ubiquitous advice to "forgive, but don't forget" has it precisely backwards. I will easily forget (because why should I waste time thinking about your ass?) but almost never forgive (because if you did me wrong, why should you automatically be excused?)

"Don't react/fight back when you are bullied, that's just what the bully wants." So wrong!

Almost all fashion "rules" are stupid too; I think they were invented so that people with no sense of style whatsoever wouldn't look even worse than they do naturally. If you're not completely dense, you can decide what to wear for yourself. (Except the rule that rightly states that leggings, for the love of all that's holy, are not pants.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:43 PM on September 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


The common use of the term "begs the question"
posted by triggerfinger at 7:24 PM on September 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


The Secret is a New Age self help film and book that claims there is a metaphysical basis for wishful thinking and victim blaming. It got popular for a while after Oprah publicised it.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:52 PM on September 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The belief in the UK tends to be that you cannot be done for up to 10% above ths speed limit, a colleague of mine got done for 33 in a 30 zone, and whenever it came up it was astonishing how many people refused to believe that this was possible, even in the face of an actual police document for the citation.
In the UK the official ACPO guideline is to prosecute beyond 10% + 2mph over the limit, so at 35mph in a 30 zone. This is a guideline though, and not a rule.

Also, it's worth noting that vehicle speedometers usually display a speed 1-10% faster than the actual speed so even if you think you're going at 38 you may only be going 35.
posted by dickasso at 12:33 AM on September 10, 2011


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