I just used this phrase in answering another question, only to realize that

  1. I didn't know its origin and
  2. it is usually used in the negative, as in "..it's not a hard and fast rule, but..."

I'd like to know the origin, and perhaps why it seems to be more commonly used in the negative.

  • 2
    I have certainly heard this phrase used in situations like "I am wondering if this is a hard-and-fast rule." I don't know if it is really more common in the negative.
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 15:10

4 Answers 4


Here, fast doesn't mean "(capable of) moving quickly". Much rather, it is being used in the sense "firmly fixed" (see fasten your seatbelts or fast friends). The Phrase Finder says that "This is a nautical term. A ship that was hard and fast was simply one that was firmly beached on land." It adds that the term was used in figurative sense by the early 19th century.

Personally, I don't think it's being used more commonly in the negative. Indeed, a quick COCA search returns 40 occurences of "hard and fast rule" or "hard-and-fast rule", but only 22 of them are using it in a negative context — and I am being as generous as possible there, counting not only "no hard and fast rule" and "not a hard-and-fast rule", but also "don't have any hard and fast rule", "rather than any hard and fast rule", "was never a hard-and-fast rule" and the like.

One thing stands out to me, though: out of 16 occurrences of "hard-and-fast rule", with hyphens, 12 appear in a negative context, or 75%. For the non-hyphenated version, it's almost the other way round: 60% positive, 40% negative. (Again, counting "negative" very generously.)

The figures from the BNC are too small to be statistically meaningful. But anyway, here's an overview:

                              COCA                   BNC
                        total   negative      total   negative
hard and fast rule        24       10            8        7
hard-and-fast rule        16       12            1        1 
  • The only example of hard and fast I found on the NOAD is it is impossible to lay down any hard and fast rules; also in this case, the sentence has a negative meaning.
    – apaderno
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 15:07
  • 3
    Fast in this case is used in the sense of stuck fast or held fast. It's one of those words that is auto-oxymoronic. Look at cleave: it means to split apart and also to hold together. Ain't English grand?
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 15:11
  • 8
    To expand on what @Robusto says, cleave and cleave are actually two different verbs that happen to be spelled the same in contemporary English. The "stick together" cleave comes from Old English clifian and is related to clay, while the "cut in half" cleave comes from Old English cleofan and is related to glyph. (This is quite different from fast, which is actually one word with two contradictory meanings, one of which is rather archaic to boot.)
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 15:31
  • 3
    Perfectionist! I should retract my upvote. =P
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 15:40

I agree that it tends to be used in the negative, and I think the reason is pragmatic.

If you are saying there is a rule for something, you can in principle point to the rule: you don't need to qualify it. (You might say there is a "specific rule" or a "definite rule". You might say that there is a rule but it's not certain whether or not it applies to this case. But there is not any pragmatic need to qualify the rule).

If you are denying the rule, it is much harder to be precise: we often don't know all the rules, or don't know exactly what they say; so there is attraction in being a little bit vaguer. "There is no rule against ..." is a precise statement, which might easily be shown to be wrong, whereas "There are no hard and fast rules against ..." is comfortably vague.


Same meaning of "fast" as in "fasten." Confer the online etymological dict. (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fasten):

O.E. fæstnian "make fast, firm," also "ratify, betroth," from P.Gmc. *fastinojanan (cf. O.Fris. festnia "to make firm, bind fast," O.S. fastnon, O.H.G. fastnion, O.N. fastna "to pledge, betroth"), from *fastuz (see fast (adj.)). Related: Fastened; fastener; fastening.

So a "hard and fast" rule is one firmly fixed in place - it isn't going anywhere or changing soon.


Just to jump in, I'm currently studying Danish, and I have discovered it provided Old English many of its words. Fast in modern Danish means "fixed". I'll guess that it was introduced to English during the Danish invasion in the middle ages and has remained a feature in both languages. Alternately English and Danish are both northern Germanic languages, it is also possible that fast has been carried forward in both languages from an earlier common ancestor language.

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