Misused and Misunderstood Sayings (2)

In the previous issue I held that misuse of an expression is not merely a matter of taste but rather demonstrates obtuseness of one kind or another -- about logical consequences, historical context, or distinctions.

Here are a few more examples:

ISSUES: Pass the Kleenex, because here is where I start to cry. A proud and noble word has been degraded through self-indulgence and promiscuous use, and we are all the worse because of it.

Properly used, “issues” refers to questions – not any questions, but the questions that must be answered if we are to arrive at a justified conclusion in a controversy. The answers to such questions, i.e., to the issues, lead to one conclusion or another. So we may compare issues to crossroads – just as taking different roads will lead to different destinations, so giving different answers on the issues will lead to different conclusions.

This original and proper use of “issues” can still be found in legal proceedings, for example, “The first issue in the case of Anna Nicole Smith’s estate is what jurisdiction should govern.”

However, the use of the term has promiscuously spilled over its boundaries. “Issue” now means “problem” or “difficulty” or “consideration” (as in “I have issues with that,” pungently delineated in Dick Feagler’s February 21 Plain Dealer column.)

I can see how the term acquired this expanded usage. A problem generally comes along with the question of what to do about it. Because we don’t distinguish between the question and the problem, we apply “issue” to both.

We can see the transition occurring in examples such as this from a discussion of dogs’ health: “In the case of whippets, we have issues with hearts and eyes.” In other words, whippets possibly have heart or eye problems, and their owners face the question of what to do about it. The word “issues” presumably started out referring to the questions but has migrated to the problems.

But what is wrong with such promiscuous usage? On what grounds do I say that the original usage of “issues,” meaning questions, is the only proper one? The answer is that promiscuous usage blurs distinctions and thus blurs our thinking. If “issues” refers to anything at all we might meet in coming to a decision – whether a question to be decided, or a problem, or a difficulty, or a consideration – then we won’t recognize the questions we face, and we won’t be able to address them.

And in this way we lose a powerful logical tool, for thinking in terms of issues (in the proper sense) adds a dimension to our deliberations; it opens up the decisions we have to make and sheds light on the ways in which our decisions agree or disagree with those of others.


IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT:” This is perhaps best known through its association with Snoopy the wonder-beagle. However, the line originated as the first words of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.

It has achieved fame in the past two decades as the reputedly worst opening line of any novel written in English. Its reputation has engendered the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contestants compete to write the worst opening sentence.

However, I believe that “It was a dark and stormy night” has gotten a bad rap. Consider it on its merits: “Dark” universally suggests evil and mystery. “Stormy” suggests conflict and stress. Thus in seven words and eight syllables the author creates an oppressive and foreboding atmosphere. The writing, I submit, is effective.

However, it has paid the price for its high quality – it has become a cliché. Since clichés are scorned in the literary world, this line became an easy target. And once it began to be ridiculed, others climbed on the critical bandwagon and the ridicule became entrenched.

(For the sake of accuracy, I should mention that “The night was dark and stormy” is not the entire first sentence. It is only the first clause and is followed by a semi-colon. The rest of the sentence isn’t all that bad, in my judgment, but it rambles on and exhibits a certain over-enthusiasm about wind and rain. I surmise that the first clause would have fared better by itself. To find the whole sentence, search for “It was a dark and stormy night” on the Internet.)


THE EXCEPTION PROVES THE RULE,” meaning that an exception to a rule proves the rule to be correct (based on the assumption that “Every rule has an exception.”) For example, someone propounds the rule that “All lions are brave.” Then someone else finds Felix, a cowardly lion. So the first person says, “Well, that’s the exception that proves the rule” – meaning that the rule still holds good, despite the exceptional case of Felix (or because of the exceptional case of Felix).

Think about this.

Look at where this interpretation leads us: If it were really true that an exception proves a rule to be correct, it would be impossible for a rule ever to be falsified! For every instance that conformed to the rule would confirm it, and every instance that didn’t conform to the rule would also confirm it.

Taking this to the logical extreme, every rule is justified. The rule “All lions are brave” is justified, because lots of instances conform to it and therefore prove it true, and the instances that don’t conform to it – i.e., cowardly lions -- also prove it to be true.

But the contrary rule “All lions are cowardly” would also be true for the same reason – cowardly lions like Felix prove the rule to be true, but brave lions also prove the rule to be true, because they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

So if we say that the exception proves the rule to be true, then all rules are necessarily true. But all rules are also necessarily false, because their contraries are true. So all rules are necessarily true and all rules are necessarily false, and we don’t know which alternative to choose. So we can’t ever know what is true and what is false, which is to say that we can never know anything.

You might say, “Your mistake is to go to the logical extreme.” But if we don’t go all the way to the extreme, how far do we go? We have no way to pick out the exceptions that prove the rule to be true, as against those that don’t. We believe the exceptions prove the rule when we want to believe that, and not otherwise. In other words, we have a right to believe whatever we want to believe, and rules mean nothing – hardly a palatable alternative either.

Such are the logical absurdities we are led to if we say “the exception proves the rule” and take it to mean that the exception proves the rule to be true.

. But there are ways to deal with exceptions -- or better, apparent exceptions -- and still preserve the rule they seem to contradict. One is to treat rules not as holding true strictly but only generally. For example we might say that “Lions are generally but not always brave.” Then if we find Felix to be a cowardly lion, we see him not as an exception to the rule, but simply as one of the minority.

Or we might think of the rule as being incompletely stated. We can say that “All lions are brave” really means “All lions who lead the pride are brave.” Then we can make a distinction between those lions who lead the pride and those who don’t, and a cowardly lion who is not a leader of the pride would not be an exception.

By the way, the more sensible meaning of “The exception proves the rule” is “The exception TESTS the rule,” meaning that if we want to know whether a rule holds true or not we should look for exceptions, and if we find an exception we know the rule has not passed the test. On this interpretation, the word “proves” is related to “probe” which of course refers to a test.


Sports fans, here’s one for you: THREE YARDS AND A CLOUD OF DUST. Associated with the late Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, this refers to the conservative, “smashmouth” kind of offense that Woody was known for, depending on strength and willpower more than agility or guile. The “cloud of dust” refers to the collisions between linemen and the straight-ahead assault of running backs. “Three yards” refers to gaining yardage in small but dependable chunks, sufficient for slow but inexorable progress.

But think about this. If a team makes three yards on each play, then after third down it will have made nine yards and will face a fourth-and-one. It will almost certainly punt (except when the team is close to the opponent’s goal line, etc.). That is no way to march down the field.

The appropriate expression, of course, is “FOUR yards and a cloud of dust.” If a team makes four yards on each play, then after third down it will have gained twelve yards and a new first down, and it can continue marching down the field.


THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF. This is a new one. I found it recently in the headline of an article about the movie “Dreamgirls.” There the connotation of “dream” is of something ideal, some supreme (no pun intended) goal to be sought after.

However, the expression derives (with slight alterations) from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, and there it connotes not the ideality but rather the frailty and unreality of dreams. It appears in a speech by Prospero, a magician -- a speech that is often taken to be Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater.

I would be doing a disservice if I did not quote the entire passage. It gave me goosebumps when I memorized it at age 14, and it gives me goosebumps still:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits, and Are melted into air, into thin air, And like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Let’s not mess with Shakespeare.

Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 3, Issue 5, Posted 4:04 PM, 02.23.07