Looking for a word that refers to:

The emphasis or observation of a rule (or law) to the letter, in a way that violates the spirit (or original good intention) of that rule (or law).

  • Do you mean Legalism? Dec 6, 2016 at 15:25
  • 2
    There's the perjorative jobsworth.
    – Chenmunka
    Dec 6, 2016 at 15:57
  • 2
    Great question. Seems kind of like passive-aggressive, but it's more specific. // The question can be strengthened with a context, an example sentence, and clarification as to how important it is to you that it be a single word. Dec 6, 2016 at 16:15
  • related english.stackexchange.com/questions/79793/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Dec 6, 2016 at 19:55
  • 1
    Isn’t that called finding/exploiting a loophole?
    – Jim
    Dec 7, 2016 at 4:31

5 Answers 5


"Pedantic?" "Pharasee?"(a member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law)

  • You're on the right track. I don't feel like it fits because of the retroactive origin and culturally specific connotations of the term, but Pharisaism is seen being used this way in the following article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bad_faith#General_use
    – voices
    Dec 6, 2016 at 22:00

In a bureaucracy, rules are so literally followed that often, the spirit in which the rule was made in the first place does not matter.


bureaucracy noun [plural -cies]

4. any administration in which action is impeded by unnecessary official procedures and red tape

Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © Harper Collins Publishers

Urban Dictionary:


2. A form of government, the authority of which is not so much to accomplish anything, but to obstruct accomplishment by anyone else.


Are you thinking to a blind application of law ?

For example:

the blind application of law can occasion injustices which are potentially greater than the crime being policed.


My point here is that the "law" has been changed in the past and the situation must be evaluated based upon it merits. Sadly, the blind application of law seems more important that looking at the merits.


gaming the system

here is how the Wikipedia explains the phrase 'gaming the system' in reference to exploiting their internal rules

Gaming the system means deliberately using Wikipedia policies and guidelines in bad faith to thwart the aims of Wikipedia. Gaming the system may represent an abuse of process, disruptive editing, or otherwise evading the spirit of community consensus. Editors typically game the system to make a point, to further an edit war, or to enforce a specific non-neutral point of view.

bad faith is a key component of gaming the system .. perhaps I should list it as a separate possibility/answer but bad faith applies in many situations beyond "letter of the law" issues. "following rules in bad faith" starts describing a situation when you're looking for a word for it.


There is the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

If you violate the spirit of the law, you are not violating the letter of the law.

However, if you violate the letter of the law, its spirit is surely impugned as well.

  • This does not address the question. And it's also incorrect: all four combinations are possible. Jan 5, 2017 at 21:57
  • Especially when the law is sloppily worded.
    – The Nate
    Aug 27, 2017 at 6:43
  • All four combinations?? It addresses the usual language used when using the expression letter of the law and spirit of the law....
    – Lambie
    Aug 27, 2017 at 17:15

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