As a rule

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Yesterday Rob S wrote to ask about a sentence from the newspaper ("Women's Work and Japan's Hostess Culture", NYT, 8/11/2009):

"A recent New York Times article described the Japanese profession of hostessing, which involves entertaining men at establishments where customers pay a lot to flirt and drink with young women (services that do not, as a rule, involve prostitution)."

So, does this quote mean that there exists a rule that says it cannot involve prostitution? Or is it rather stating that there is no rule that it must involve prostitution?

Is it forbidden, or just not required?

I responded, somewhat unsympathetically, with the opinion that "as a rule" is just a  quantifier over instances, meaning something like "in general" or "in most cases", and not evoking any concept of a rule in the deontic sense at all. This invalidated Rob's curiosity about "whether there was the absence of some rule mandating it, or the presence of a rule forbidding it".

Rob was a bit disappointed, I think, so I decided to try to do better, first by confirming my impression of how the expression "as a rule" is now used, and second by tracing its history to see if his interpretation has a basis in the past.

In contemporary examples, no mandating or forbidding is (as a rule) anywhere in sight. From the current harvest at Google News:

As a rule, observational studies like this are less reliable than placebo controlled trials.
As a rule, journalists are always in search of the dramatic and the new.
In this country, as a rule, boxers come from the bottom: Black, brown, immigrants, the poor, the uneducated.
You take it any way you can get it, but generally, as a rule, the easiest way is to win the division.
Teams, as a rule, prefer the opposition to rebound out of defence along the boundary line.
But as a rule, watching a three-game set between these teams is a more serious time commitment than watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

These quotations don't imply any sort of regulation or mandate. They're all just ways of talking about how things generally are, not how they should be or must be.

And it seems that the foundation for this non-regulatory interpretation goes back to middle English. The OED's entry for rule, n. has a sub-entry for sense 11.a. glossed as "A fact (or the statement of one) which holds generally good; that which is normally the case".  The citations for this sense go back to 1300.

This sense is extended in 11.b. to the expression as a (or the) rule, glossed as "normally, generally". However, the citations for this expression only date from 1842 — and without context, it's hard to be confident that the first two of them don't carry at least a tinge of the "regulation" sort of meaning:

1842 CHRISTIE in Fleury's Eccl. Hist. I. 137 note, The Oblation was, as the rule, made in the morning.
Encycl. Metrop. II. 818/2 Where two decisions [are] of equal value, a rule, the second usually prevails.
HUXLEY Physiography 5 As a rule, hail falls in summer.

So I turned to Literature Online to see whether the regulatory nature of "as a rule" might have changed over time. And I found that it seems to have done so.

Before 1800 or so, the examples are almost all  part of expressions like "laid down as a rule", "established as a rule", etc., which have a distinctly regulatory flavor. A typical (if ironic) example can be found in the opening passage of Henry Fielding's 1749 novel Tom Jones ("Of the SERIOUS in writing; and for what Purpose it is introduced"):

Peradventure there may be no Parts in this prodigious Work which will give the Reader less Pleasure in the perusing, than those which have given the Author the greatest Pains in composing. Among these probably may be reckoned those initial Essays which we have prefixed to the historical Matter contained in every Book; and which we have determined to be essentially necessary to this kind of Writing, of which we have set ourselves at the Head.

For this our Determination we do not hold ourselves strictly bound to assign any Reason; it being abundantly sufficient that we have laid it down as a Rule necessary to be observed in all Prosai-comi-epic Writing.

Or in a more sober vein, Sir Joshua Reynolds' 1778 address to the Royal Academy:

It would be useful to a Painter to enquire into the true meaning and cause of rules, and how they operate on those faculties to which they are addressed; by knowing their general purpose and meaning, he will often find that he need not confine himself to the literal sense, it will be sufficient if he preserves the spirit of the Law.

It is given as a rule, for instance, by Fresnoy, That the principal Figure of a Subject must appear in the midst of the Picture, under the principal light, to distinguish it from the rest . A Painter who should think himself obliged strictly to follow this rule, would incumber himself with needless difficulties; he would be confined to great uniformity of composition, and be deprived of many beauties which are incompatible with its observance.

In contrast, post-1900 examples are almost all of the type we saw in the current newspaper articles. This passage from W.H. Auden's (parodic) 1931 Address for a Prize-Day is a bit long, but it shows the pattern, and I enjoyed reading it:

All of you must have found out what a great help it is, before starting on a job of work, to have some sort of scheme or plan in your mind beforehand. Some of the senior boys, I expect, will have heard of the great Italian poet Dante, who wrote that very difficult but wonderful poem, The Divine Comedy . In the second book of this poem, which describes Dante's visit to Purgatory, the sinners are divided into three main groups, those who have been guilty in their life of excessive love towards themselves or their neighbours, those guilty of defective love towards God and those guilty of perverted love. Now this afternoon I want, if I may, to take these three divisions of his and apply them to ourselves. In this way, I hope, you will be able to understand better what I am driving at.

To start with, then, the excessive lovers of self. What are they like? These are they who even in childhood played in their corner, shrank when addressed. Lovers of long walks, they sometimes become bird watchers, crouching for hours among sunlit bushes like a fox, but prefer as a rule the big cities, living voluntarily in a top room, the curiosity of their landlady. Habituees of the mirror, famous readers, they fall in love with historical characters, with the unfortunate queen, or the engaging young assistant of a great detective, even with the voice, of the announcer, maybe, from some foreign broadcasting station they can never identify; unable to taste pleasure unless through the rare coincidence of naturally diverse events, or the performance of a long and intricate ritual. With odd dark eyes like windows, a lair for engines, they pass suffering more and more from cataract or deafness, leaving behind them diaries full of incomprehensible jottings, complaints less heard than the creaking of a wind pump on a moor. The easiest perhaps for you to recognise. They avoid the study fire, at games they are no earthly use. They are not popular. But isn't it up to you to help? Oughtn't you to warn them then against tampering like that with time, against those strange moments they look forward to so? Next time you see one sneaking from the field to develop photographs, won't you ask if you can come too? Why not go out together next Sunday; say, casually, in a wood: 'I suppose you realise you are fingering the levers that control eternity?'

In that spirit, I'm going to get back to my chores, and recommend to Rob that he cut back on his 18th-century reading, and catch up with as a rule's last couple of centuries.


  1. D.O. said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 7:48 am

    I might be quite wrong, but it seems that the two interpretations are grammatically different. "Modern" is always a separate clause and "ancient" is a part of the main clause. So it is possible to use "ancient" meaning today with appropriate grammar. Google search of "as a rule of" and "as a rule necessary" brings a few examples (as well as "Prosai-comi-epic Writing :))

    [(myl) Some of the old-fashioned regulatory uses seem to be syntactically similar to the modern ones. Thus Congreve's 1710 translation of Ovid:

    Who could have been of Danae 's Charms assur'd,
    Had she grown old, within her Tow'r immur'd?
    This, as a Rule, let ev'ry Nymph pursue,
    That 'tis her Int'rest oft to come in View.

    It's possible that "as a Rule" is part of the complement of pursue, shifted to fit the meter and rhyme, but it's at least interpretable as an adverbial adjunct in the modern style.

    But as a rule, what you say is correct :-).]

  2. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    It seems plausible to me that "rule" could be somewhat ambiguous, just like "law". Laws of nature don't involve legislation while civil laws do. Perhaps there are both sorts of rules as well? Certainly the word "regularity" applies in both case (perhaps the former even better than the latter), though I don't really know whether "rule", "regular", and "regulate" are perceived as being somehow derived forms of the same word. (For that matter, I don't know if "law", "legal", and "legislate" are either.)

  3. RGT said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    I have no references to quote and lack the professionals' ability with google to find any, but I (as a UK English speaker) would have assumed that "as a rule" was short for "a rule of thumb". Certainly the usage always seems about the same – as a 'rule' to guide your expectations, to allow usable estimates, etc. rather than in the sense of a mandate.

  4. Mr Punch said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    The second of the OED examples is clearly modern (note "usually"). "Rule" in the sense of "generalization" is recognized, common usage; the sense is that in "rule of thumb."

  5. Adrian Morgan said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    Yep, I've often thought about how weird the expression "as a rule" is, in that it strongly implicates that there are exceptions to the stated generalisation, whereas in other contexts to call something a rule is to implicate that there aren't any exceptions. I imagine that non-native speakers get tripped up by this one every so often.

  6. JimG said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    While the exception proves the rule, the meaning is reliable almost without fail, as a rule (a guide to measurement.)

  7. James D said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 9:34 am

    I'd always presumed that "as a rule" was a Wenglish calque of "fel rheol" — it certainly seems to be used a lot more frequently by Welsh English-speakers than by English English-speakers. But it seems that "fel rheol" itself shifted from tedious religious texts going on about "as a (general) rule of (our) life/faith" to its present meaning during the 19th Century too (I've only got the correct sense there back to 1837).

  8. John Cowan said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    myl: I think you may be deceived by Congreve's basically rhetorical punctuation there: it seems clear to me that as a rule is a complement.

    James D: The Welsh are stereotyped as using a lot of phrases like this, perhaps originally to give themselves time to translate their thoughts from Welsh. Consider Fluellen's remark in Henry V as an extreme case (and a parody too, of course): "If the Enemie is an Asse and a Foole, and a prating Coxcombe; is it meet, thinke you, that wee should also, looke you, be an Asse and a Foole, and a prating Coxcombe, in your owne conscience now? [italics added]"

  9. Nathan Myers said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    What a pity that Auden had no access to "frobnicating", and had to rely upon the imprecise "fingering" in its place. I wonder, was "twiddling" known at the time?

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    It seems apparent that "as a rule" is a circumlocution for the needed adverb "rulely" or "ruly," meaning "in the manner of," e.g., "services that do not, rulely, involve prostitution." Once established, the adverb could take its customary place before the auxiliary "do" (or even at the end of the sentence): "services that rulely do not involve prostitution."

  11. Paul said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 6:18 am

    The first of the OED citations looks rather like "rule" in the sense of a monastic order, seeing as it comes from a church context and refers to performing particular rituals or tasks at particular times.

    Thanks for the Auden. It strikes me that if Auden's suggestion for casual chatter in a wood on a Sunday, if said in a possible casual way, is a couplet of iambic pentameter.

    I s'pose you realise you're fingering
    the levers that control eternity?


  12. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 14, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    "…services that do not, by rule, involve prostitution" implies a rule, as would "services…according to the rules" and "services…owing to a rule", etc.

    Not being a linguistic, I'm left wondering whether Rob's error was in his failing to attend the insufficiency of the word, "as" in "as a rule" to lend the phrase the meaning he gave it .

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