What Does By the Book Mean?

By the Book Meaning

Definition: To do something according to standard procedure.

 To do something by the book is to follow the set rules and guidelines and carry something out using the typical, accepted methods. These rules may be written in an actual book, but they may also be societal norms that are widely accepted, even if not written. There is no leeway for variation of any kind when doing something by the book; there is only one accepted method.

Origin of By the Book

Not by the book definitionThere are two widely accepted theories for the origin of this phrase.

The first is that “the book” refers to the Bible and that the first meaning of the phrase was “I swear it to be true,” said with one hand on the Bible as security of honesty.

An example of this can be found in The Times from January 1833,

  • Patience in troth! By the book, it’s myself is the moral o’ patience!

A second theory is that standard procedures for things are often written down in books and that doing something by the book meant you were following the instructions to a T and not inventing any bit of the process.

In 1845, we can read in Murders in Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe,

  • To have a retentive memory, and to proceed by “the book,” are points commonly regarded as the sum total of good playing.

Examples of By the Book

Meaning of by the book In the modern day, people use by the book to talk about anything that was done in accordance with the rules.

  • The meetings are run by the book.
  • The tournament was carried out by the book.

It can also be used to describe a person who never deviates from what is expected of him,

  • He is very by the book.

Lastly, it can be used in a negative form to describe someone who doesn’t follow the rules and he or she should,

  • We don’t do things by the book around here.
  • He’s a bit of a wildcard. He doesn’t do things by the book.

More Examples

  • “I don’t talk about campaigns here,” Pugh told reporters at City Hall after the Board of Estimates meeting. “We did everything by the book. Our campaign report is public and open to scrutiny.” –The Baltimore Sun


If you do something by the book, you do not deviate from standard procedure, and you do exactly what is expected of you.