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The Spirit of the Law vs. The Letter of the Law

Posted by Word Camel on March 10, 2002

I have always understood that people who behave according to the letter of the law maybe technically correct, but may miss the point or spirit of why the law was made in the first place.

I have used the phrase, "he's sticking to the letter of the law" in a disparaging way. However, I have found people I've met here in the US using the same phrase in exactly the opposite sense. Also, when they say he's acting in the spirit of the law, they mean it in a negative way.

Which is it? I suppose it could be both, but it seems odd to me. Any thoughts?