What do you call a person who always follows the rules, at the expense of everything else? I’m thinking there’s one word that can describe this, but I can’t place it.

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    Although it's mentioned in your title, pedant ("a formalist or precisionist in teaching") might suit your needs. Otherwise, formalist (from formalism: "the practice or the doctrine of strict adherence to prescribed or external forms (as in religion or art)") could work, in addition to Robusto's answer. – Zairja Oct 3 '12 at 18:15
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    Although it isn't exactly what you're looking for, I love the word myrmidon. – coleopterist Oct 3 '12 at 18:46
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    I haven't heard it used, but I'd be inclined to coin an eponym and call him or her a "Javert" – Kevin Oct 4 '12 at 2:28
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    A lot of great answers here, so I'll just add a comment. I think a shortening of the word dogmatist is in order: how about a dogmat? (Similar to a doormat: "one that submits without protest to abuse or indignities"). – user21497 Oct 4 '12 at 5:04
  • Oh, this is easy, you call him Sheldon Cooper – Eran Medan Oct 5 '12 at 1:42

19 Answers 19


A jobsworth is “someone who always obeys the rules of their job exactly, even when it would be more sensible not to”.

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    from the phrase "it's more than my job's worth" to break the rules and do what you want. In other words I might be fired for letting you get away with something, and I'm not willing to risk it. – Kate Gregory Oct 3 '12 at 21:09
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    Wiki gives a rather difference meaning to the term. ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jobsworth ) – Kris Oct 4 '12 at 10:20
  • This answers the question more accurately than stickler, as usually stickler requires "for xxx" after it. +1 from me. – Rory Alsop Oct 4 '12 at 11:18
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    If anyone is still listening : "Jobsworth" seems to fit. Its a British term commonly used in newspapers in the 80's and 90's. A contraction of "It's more than my job's worth" it is used to describe a petty official hiding behind regulations to save themselves work or cause aggravation to members of the public. e.g. "It may be an emergency, but it's more than my job's worth to let you use the office phone...." – flippertie Jun 26 '13 at 2:32

You could say the person is a stickler (sometimes clarified with for: “a stickler for the rules”, “a stickler for accuracy”, “a stickler for grammar”) if you mean they enforce rules or process that others don't.

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    Yes. Stickler might not carry the connotation of "at the expense of everything else" though. More "because rules must not be broken". – MetaEd Oct 3 '12 at 22:33

The Free Dictionary Online would say that person is:

A person inflexibly attached to a practice or theory without regard to its practicality.

This is also the adjective form. An alternative noun form is doctrinarian.

  • I would say doctrinaire applies more to following dogma (doctrine), rather than rules. But it's very similar: it does have the connotation of disregard for practicalities. – MetaEd Oct 3 '12 at 18:16
  • Is the word still used with connotations of (religious) doctrine? Or is it mainstream in just the rule-follower sense? – Kris Oct 4 '12 at 10:14
  • "The word doctrinaire has become naturalized in English terminology, as applied, in a slightly contemptuous sense, to a theorist, as distinguished from a practical man of affairs." (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrinaires) – Kris Oct 4 '12 at 10:18
  • ahh, so this is the result of being indoctrinated – dotjoe Oct 5 '12 at 20:26

A legalist.


Also, in Biblical usage, a Pharisee.

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    +1 for Pharisee. That would be a colorful choice indeed. – user7626 Oct 3 '12 at 21:31
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    +1 for Pharisee. Sounds less bland than legalist. Unless you want them to be labeled as bland ;) – Mechaflash Oct 4 '12 at 16:35
  • Pharisee was exactly the word that kept swirling around on the tip of my tongue. +1 for helping me gargle it out! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 4 '14 at 22:20

I’ve encountered a few people that you describe. Often, they were bureaucrats:

An official who is rigidly devoted to the details of administrative procedure.¹

  • I just logged on to give this answer (after pondering the question all day). +1 – JAM Oct 4 '12 at 1:47
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    Good possibility, though I think you'd have to qualify it some. If you just say that a person is a bureaucrat, I think it would generally be understood to mean, (a) he works for an organization that is rule-bound, without necessarily saying that he himself is; or (b) he works for a government agency, without necessarily connoting how rule-bound he is. Now if you say, "Bob acts like a bueaucrat" or "Wow, Bob certainly plays the role of a bureaucrat", then I think it would have the meaning you're looking for. – Jay Oct 5 '12 at 15:07
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    When I lived in Switzerland (a very rule-oriented place), I often encountered "fonctionnaires" (the French word for functionaries). The closest translated (pejorative) meaning I could come up with in English was bureaucrat, since functionary is not vernacular (in North America, anyway). – Fuhrmanator Oct 6 '12 at 15:14

The noun-form of the adjective in your question’s title should suffice: pedant.

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    A pedant (in the negative sense) is particularly concerned with trivialities, which is a different shade of meaning. Not to be pedantic or anything. – MetaEd Oct 3 '12 at 22:35

A punctilious person is someone who takes great care to follow rules and instructions.¹ Online Etymology Dictionary says:

1630s, probably from It. puntiglioso, from puntiglio “fine point,” from L. punctum “prick”²

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    I wonder if the Latin translation had the same connotation that it does today. :) – John Oct 3 '12 at 18:19
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    @John FWIW, "puntiglioso" is an actual Italian word today. Depending on the context it has a negative or positive connotation, but the meaning is the same it had in Latin. – user19148 Oct 3 '12 at 21:17
  • The same in Spanish "puntilloso" – Dr. belisarius Oct 4 '12 at 19:12

Not sure if slang is allowed in here (will let the downvotes reveal to me) but this is most classically defined (at least in the IT/hacker world) as being anal (short version of “anal retentive”).

(Warning: this should not be used in a formal conversation, and might be derogatory or offensive.)

  • Slang is fine ... It may not be the intended meaning, though. It has more properties than are called for: "fixation at this stage is said to result in orderliness, meanness, stubbornness, compulsiveness, etc." (WordNet) – MetaEd Oct 4 '12 at 0:10

I'm guessing you're thinking of dogmatic because it’s a fairly common term, the sort that would perch right there on the tip of your tongue. It’s not the best term in the answers given so far, however.

  • I don't see how this word fits with what OP is asking? "[...]a person who always follows the rules, at the expense of everything else[...]" (IMO) Dogmatic doesn't really apply here. – Souta Oct 4 '12 at 0:20
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    @Souta: I think the suggestion is fine. (Sure, it's the "wrong" part of speech, but it easily leads to dogmatist, which fits fine. As my uncle used to say, "Just give me the right adjective – I can find the right noun from there.") – J.R. Oct 4 '12 at 10:03
  • @J.R. I hadn't thought of it like that. My apologies – Souta Oct 4 '12 at 19:12

If we focus on the “at the expense of everything else” part of your question, both fanatic and the previously mentioned zealot are good options. Adjectival variations include fanatical rule-follower, a fanatic for X, etc.

From a different perspective, a martinet is a strict rule-follower, but the term is less used nowadays. Martinet has a pseudo-military connotation and draws focus to making other people follow the rules.

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    "Martinet" is a great suggestion. It's likely to be unfamiliar, but of all the words suggested here, I think it is the only one that captures the precise meaning the OP is looking for. – senderle Oct 4 '12 at 12:12
  • To me, a martinet is most concerned with enforcing the rules; whether he himself follows them is a different matter. – Marthaª Oct 4 '12 at 19:55
  • @Martha Yeah, I'm having my doubts about this suggestion. "Martinet" came from the name of an actual drill sergeant. And drill sergeants don't actually do their own drills. – Merk Oct 6 '12 at 2:18

If that person is also very bad at poetry, you can use the term Vogon.

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    I always thought of Vogons as alien Nazis... – bla Oct 4 '12 at 3:01
  • I'm not sure why there is a downvote here. The single most defining characteristic of a Vogon is their unreasonable reliance on bureaucratic rules and formalities. That, and their bad poetry. I think calling someone a Vogon in this case would be witty and accurate, though not everyone may understand the reference. – Zoot Oct 4 '12 at 19:39

If you were using this term in a gaming context, that person would be known as a "rules lawyer".


A bigot comes to mind.

Also, Zealot (close to Pharisee) might work

(non native here)

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    Zealot works well. Bigotry is often associated with racism, so bigot may not be as strong a candidate, but the dictionary backs you up. – J.R. Oct 3 '12 at 23:30
  • @J.R. Thanks. I'd never actually heard of bigot in that context. I think I only ever saw it in 'technical' contexts ("That is (not|only) for (functional programming|OOP) bigots") – sehe Oct 3 '12 at 23:34
  • Hmm. "Bigot" is normally defined as one is intolerant of others based on race, religion, politics, etc. I don't see any connection to being rule-bound. A "Zealot" is -- skipping over the literal meaning -- one who is excessive or fanatic about some cause. That cause COULD involve following a rulebook, but not necessarily. It wouldn't be an oxymoron to call someone an "anarchist Zealot". – Jay Oct 5 '12 at 15:11

You would say that the person is orthodox.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, reads:

Orthodox: adj. Adhering to what is commonly accepted, customary, or traditional: an orthodox view of world affairs.

  • It's true OED includes an entry saying orthodox can be used as a "standalone" noun - defined as a member of the Orthodox Eastern Church, an orthodox Jew, and (obs.) an orthodox opinion as well as the more generic an orthodox person. But I've never come across it thus used. – FumbleFingers Oct 3 '12 at 20:04
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    Well... I think the definition you quote is good, and nothing about that definition implies an adherence to rules over practicality or common sense. If I say, e.g., that someone is an "orthodox doctor", I think that would be understood to me that he believes in treating patients with medicine and surgery, as opposed to aroma therapy, acupuncture, faith healing, etc. But he might be very flexible in his application of the rules of his craft. Indeed, the term is most often used in connection with religion, and if you call someone an "orthodox Baptist", any Baptist I know would understand ... – Jay Oct 3 '12 at 20:22
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    ... that to mean that he rejects the idea of rigid adherance to rules and believes in salvation by grace. – Jay Oct 3 '12 at 20:22
  • "orthodox" doesn't usually carry the negative connotation of "at the expense of everything else." – J.R. Oct 3 '12 at 23:32
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    I partially disagree with the commenters; it does have a slight connotation of sticking to rules at the expense of better things. – Mitch Jun 26 '13 at 12:03

You could say such a person is lawful.

Conforming to, permitted by, or recognised by law or rules.

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    True, but I think this usage is mostly limited to people who play Dungeons & Dragons. – Jay Oct 3 '12 at 20:23
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    At the expense of everything else (for law's sake): Lawful Neutral; perversely (for harm's sake): Lawful Evil. – MetaEd Oct 3 '12 at 22:31
  • But only incidentally. – Kris Oct 4 '12 at 10:11
  • For those who don't play D&D, legalist (already given in another answer) probably serves this purpose better. – John Y Oct 4 '12 at 20:54

A nazi? (In the “soup nazi” sense.)

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    Because when I think Nazi, I think someone who follows the rules. – Evan Carroll Oct 3 '12 at 22:08
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    To the OP: be very careful how you use this word. If you're not sure whether it's appropriate in a particular situation, you would be safer to avoid it. – user16269 Oct 3 '12 at 23:34
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    the most common form of this, AFAICT, is Grammar Nazi. – Lie Ryan Oct 4 '12 at 4:38
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    I don't see the word as being a "pedantic rules follower" but rather a "rules enforcer". – ghoppe Oct 4 '12 at 6:32
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    Calling somebody a concept-nazi implies that they are sadistic or ruthless in their enforcement of the rules, rather than simply pedantic. – itsbruce Oct 8 '12 at 12:14

If you are looking for an informal or mildly insulting word, try anal.

Suzy is anal about political discussions in the office.


A “pedantic rule-follower” is called a tautology, because pedantic means rule-follower, so if you aren't on the search for tautology, you are searching a pedant.

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    Tautology is needless repetition. – American Luke Oct 6 '12 at 22:02
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    Isn't that that what I wrote? – user unknown Oct 8 '12 at 1:11
  • That's not how it came across. – American Luke Oct 8 '12 at 1:13
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    @Luke: Needless repetition. ;) – user unknown Oct 8 '12 at 17:49

Not sure of the original question, but id say that the best word for "rule follower, " is bureaucrat. God dammed bureaucrat. No skilled, bastards. Live in stale cubicles, starring at a computer all day, smelling someones leftover dinner being reheated in the break room microwave. Dreaming up rules for others to follow. Can you tell I'm self employed?

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