Is "guideline" actually a synonym for "rule"?

My understanding was that a guideline is a suggestion, but I could certainly be mistaken.

Sources like: thesaurus.com suggest that it is, but some common usage might suggest that it isn't. An example is the scene from Pirates of the Caribean where a character says "... more like guidelines than actual rules."

Note: I'm not suggesting that the language in films is flawless, but rather a possible reflection of how the word is actually used.

  • Example: Google encourages developers to follow Material Design guidelines. It's not a rule and there's no penalty if you follow your own design.
    – NVZ
    May 2, 2016 at 20:30
  • Generally speaking, a "guideline" is less stringent than a "rule". Of course, some people's guidelines are more stringent than other people's rules.
    – Hot Licks
    May 2, 2016 at 21:44
  • 1
    In other words, you're using the film's language as a guideline rather than a rule.
    – Lawrence
    May 3, 2016 at 0:36

3 Answers 3


A guideline is just that - a guide. It indicates the general direction.


any guide or indication of a future course of action:

Rules, on the other hand, attempt to constrain behaviour by setting limits and parameters.


a principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.

I would say that they can be used synonymously, but it's not entirely correct. "Rule" is much stronger than "guideline", as the latter is an encouragement as to what should be done versus the former as a hard indication of what should be done.


Rule translates to a straight measure in many languages derived from Latin. Something that is rigid and determines the same measurement or requirement to everyone. Unwritten/unspoken rules cause problems to everyone not apprised thereof.

Guideline has two meanings depending on one's background. In general usage, it refers to a guide line or a rope that leads the (right) way, whereas others maintain it is a rope that raises a tent straight, thereby being a vital structural component which cannot be ignored. The second meaning is used if you have ever been camping (successfully) or in the military or been reprimanded by someone who has. The context needs to be established at each conversation.

  • Welcome to ELU.SE. julian, while your answer is fitting, this site strives to provide objective answers. As it stands your answer is purely subjective and could be improved by adding references. Take the tour or have a look at the help center to find out more about good answers.
    – Helmar
    Oct 2, 2016 at 12:19

A guideline is a rule that sometimes helps. It is a heuristic.

Rule is a general term. It includes guidelines and rules that are meant to be applied strictly and without exception. It also includes lots of other kinds of rules and other contexts of application. There can be rules about applying rules...

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