I can't seem to recall the proper way to refer to the action of avoiding a rule or order not by breaking it but by using some sort of loophole to work around it.

I'm not sure if it's an actual idiom or just an expression.

I was trying to describe a toddler who was told he couldn't leave a room (couldn't set a foot outside the room, was the exact wording) while his father was assembling a piece of furniture, due to the small pieces around. So the toddler lay flat on the floor, his feet obediently inside the room while the rest of the body was on the hall, as close to the action as possible.

How can I say he 'went around' his mother's order?

  • 2
    I think an ancillary problem here is the use of toddler. A toddler is a small child just learning to walk- one who is still unsteady on their feet. Walking typically happens around 8 months to a year-ish. Too young to understand language to the point of being able to identify a loophole in the rules and exploit it.
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 2:04
  • 3
    A toddler is aged from about 1-3. They are able to understand much more than you think, @jim and are also masters of manipulation by then. How about ‘transcend the rules’?
    – Jelila
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 6:13

4 Answers 4



to manage to get around [an obstacle], especially by ingenuity or stratagem; work around by outwitting

As in:

By obeying the letter of his mother's order, but not the spirit, the toddler circumvented the prohibition.

  • 1
    Yes, aka to skirt the rules.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 0:32
  • 2
    Honestly, I think "follow the letter but not the spirit of the rule", while rather long, would be an excellent phrase to use.
    – JonathanZ
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 1:58


It's very commonly and idiomatically used in (American) English for this situation. Saying "The child technically obeyed his mother", or "He obeyed his mother, technically" carries a strong implication that while he didn't violate the rules he did something that the rules were intended to prevent.

In spoken English the word "technically" would be stressed, and maybe drawn out a little, to highlight that it's the "technically" part that's important, not the "obeyed" part.


One might use the idiom: bend/stretch the rules TFD

to do something that is usually prohibited.

As in:

The toddler bent the rules.

  • 2
    One would not say that a toddler bent a rule....
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 0:33
  • 2
    @Lambie: would you mind clarifying why a toddler wouldn't 'bend' a rule? Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 1:00
  • That definition is very weak in my opnion. Fishing at the lake on the one day out of the year when it is allowed is not bending the rules.
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 1:55

"Obey to the letter of the law" (as opposition to its spirit).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.