What are the Best Rules of Thumb?

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  • Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 October 2016
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The best rules of thumb, or general guidelines, depend on the exact topic. For example, in cleaning, the rule of thumb is often said to be to clean from the top down. A good rule is based on common sense and tips that have been shown to be successful when doing a certain task. The top-to-bottom cleaning guideline is based on the fact that, if the floor is cleaned before a higher surface such as a table, it can become dirty again from debris falling from above. Rules of thumb can be applied to any industry or task.

The process of job hunting has many guidelines known to be successful. For instance, maintaining comfortable eye contact with a prospective employer is said to be an important rule of thumb during a job interview. Other well-known rules for job interviews are having questions prepared, offering a firm handshake, and never being late. Following these guidelines can often help someone get hired from a job interview.


In general, the best rules of thumb consist of tried and true methods of doing something. People have different ways of doing things and still achieving success, but a proven rule usually brings success to just about every person who tries it. For instance, in sewing and woodwork, people are advised to always think carefully before cutting fabric — the saying is to "measure twice and cut once." This rule of thumb works for everyone since, once the fabric or wood is cut, it can't be made bigger again. Making sure that measurements are correct and accurate can prevent materials from being wasted.

Guidelines like this can help stop big mistakes. They advise against what a person's instinct or emotions alone may tell them when those things shouldn't be applied to a task. For instance, driving a car should be about defensive operation to prevent accidents. Studies have shown that many drivers experience the instinct to speed up in foggy conditions, but the best advice when driving in fog is to slow down, since visibility is severely limited.

A rule of thumb often becomes common knowledge if it's a popular way of doing something. For instance, the idea of inserting a straw or toothpick into the center of a baked cake to see if it's done is one of the best well-known guidelines because it works very well. Other good rules when baking cakes are to use the center rack in the oven and frost the cake only after it's completely cooled.


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Post 6

I have heard about that law, it's British by origin, and it seems it is still used in Alabama, US. The statement it comes from Quran is rubbish - and no, I am not islamic. My mother's best friend is, who is living in US now.

Post 5

As far as I know, the phrase "rule of thumb" really originates from an old normative rule, effectively prohibiting wife beating.

The lecture was by a university professor at the Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville, a specialist in arabic studies, who told us in the audience, that the Holy Quran contains a text, that allowed a husband to hit his wife, as a punishment, but he could only do it with a stick no longer than his own thumb.

The lecturer clarified, that wife beating is not common in the Arabic countries, where the Holy Quran's texts are taken literally as moral prescriptions. The husband is considered a spiritual and moral mentor to his wife and punishment is only allowed if

any other forms of "teaching" have failed or have become ineffective.

I find it quite interesting, that this "rule" was readily adopted and quoted without reference to the original source, as the other commentators to this article have indicated, referring to 19th century english/american sources.

Post 4

The term rule of thumb comes from brewing beer. it was used back in the 1700s as a way of seeing if the brew was ready for fermentation. It is in old recipes in Ireland and England from way back and is still used by traditional brewers today.

Post 3

Unfortunately there is no other explanation for the expression. It was a well known but not popular term among men who would use beatings as a form of cruelty, punishment, and or submission, to the women and sometimes men in their lives.

Recently at a lecture I heard a speaker say those who still use this expression in modern times are ignorant of the facts of the expressions origins and for intellectual purposes i.e. Speaking in public should refrain from a completely absurd outdated phrase.

Many years ago I heard another lecturer use the "thumb" reference and someone pulled him aside and explained the reference; he was shocked and thought the term came from the carpentry trade. I overheard in

detail the other man explain the true source. Wealthier political circles found it to be hideous and would speak of it with disgust, as the status quo was not accepting of "beating of the flesh to serve any of God"s purposes" as he put it.
Post 2

I have heard of that, but it seems that that is mostly a myth. While there have been some court cases that referenced the idea -- for instance, in 1868 a man was acquitted of beating his wife because the judge said he had the right to beat a wife with a whip no larger than his thumb (State v. Rhodes) -- it seems that there is no specific law with the phrase.

This misconception seems to have been started by Harriet Robinson in her book Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement (1881), where she stated that English common law allowed men to beat their wives with a stick no bigger than their thumb, although no such law has ever been found on the books.

Post 1

I had once heard that the term "rule of thumb" came from a law that said a man could beat his wife as long as he used a stick that was no wider than his thumb. Has anybody else heard of this, or know if it's true?

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