In Russian there is an idiom letter and spirit of the law (буква и дух закона). Letter is a metaphor for technical aspects of the law. Spirit is the purpose the law was adopted for.

There are cases, when a technically legal (in accordance with the letter part) lawsuit contradicts the purpose of the laws (the spirit part). For example, when a person sues a company for spilling coffee on themselves it's a technically correct case that misuses the laws. The purpose of the consumer protection laws is to protect people from misconduct of the companies, not from their own stupidity.

Another example: In "Breaking Bad" the agency that fights drug dealers tracks a criminal (Bob Ehrmantraut). His lawyer can't find any other way to stop this but to demand a restraining order (he accuses them of sexually harrassing the old man) on the officers in question. Again, this may be technically legal, but it goes against the intended purpose of the law.

What do you call these aspects in English? I'm looking for a nice expression or metaphor.

Sample use in a sentence:

At this point in time the Yeltsin regime already broke the law both in A and B.

A and B represent the technical and the semantic aspect of the law.

  • 4
    The letter of the law and the spirit of the law are both idiomatic in English. They are used in the manner you've described.
    – Lawrence
    Feb 24, 2017 at 13:27

1 Answer 1


At such-and-so point in time the Yeltsin regime had already broken the law both in both letter and spirit.

Letter and spirit of the law

The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law is an idiomatic antithesis. When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the "letter") of the law, but not necessarily the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording. (Wikipedia)

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