Breaking Muphry’s Law

By Mark Nichol

A recent newspaper blog post about a typographical error on Mitt Romney’s iPhone “With Mitt” app — it refers to “A Better Amercia” — inevitably succumbed to Muphry’s law, which states that any criticism of a writing or editing error will itself contain such an error.

After commenting on the mistake, the blogger referred to the microblogging site Tumblr, writing, “And there’s already a Tumblr [page] for this with people goofing on the slip-up….or what that be a Tumbeler?” That final phrase (which also reveals that the blogger obviously didn’t read my post about ellipses), should read, “or would that be a Tumbeler?” (If you want to ruin a joke that features a deliberate typographical error, there’s nothing better than immediately preceding it with an accidental typo.)

The adage the blogger’s boo-boo upholds is also known, with variations, as McKean’s law, after lexicographer Erin McKean; Skitt’s law, named for an alt.usage.english contributor; and Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, the grandiloquent nomenclature of technical writer and fiction writer and editor Jed Hartman.

A blogger with the handle Zeno called it the Iron Law of Nitpicking, a better label, perhaps, as it does not credit a particular person, but Muphry’s law (which only indirectly refers to a specific source) is of course the most appropriate moniker.

An Australian editor named John Bangsund explicated the law as follows in 1992:

(a) If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written;
(b) If an author thanks you in a book for your editing or proofreading, there will be mistakes in the book;
(c) The stronger the sentiment expressed in (a) and (b), the greater the fault;
(d) Any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent.

The oldest known statement along these lines, however, is one from early twentieth-century writer Ambrose Bierce (best known for his caustically misanthropic Devil’s Dictionary), who in 1909 wrote in a writing handbook, “Writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light; and their accuser is cheerfully aware that his own work will supply (as in making this book it has supplied) many ‘awful examples.’”

The moral of the story — one I disregard by writing this post, which according to Muphry’s law should be rewarded by divine retribution in the form of commenters pointing out some error I’ve introduced — is, “Writers in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

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22 Responses to “Breaking Muphry’s Law”

  • Viktor

    Very, very witty.
    Another amusing and somewhat informative article on this website.

  • Anthony

    I admire the consistency with which you misspell Murphy

  • Bill Welch

    I have to ask: Is your spelling of “Muphry’s Law” deliberate?

  • Charles Ray

    Gosh, oh, golly gee, I really hate to do this (and, I hope I don’t make a mistake as I do), but in the 4th paragraph, you have Murphy incorrectly spelled “Muphry”. I guess this only proves the point you were trying to make.

  • Cecelia Munzenmaier

    Great collection of aphorisms; thank you. A corollary is “Every time you create a handout with models of how to cite sources, you will have an error that is not detected until after the handout is distributed to students.”

  • Kinga

    Hi Charles,

    Actually no. It is ‘Muphry’s Law’, the one about proofreading. 🙂 It is obviously intentionally misspelled. Google it 🙂

  • Brecon

    @ Charles. Only in the 4th para? You might have missed a touch of intentional inory [sic].

    Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first employ as proofreaders.

  • sally

    Charles Ray – Muphry’s Law is the correct spelling – it’s defined in the first paragraph of the story and expanded upon later in the story.

    The writer spelled the word ‘Muphry’ as such throughout the story, not just in the 4th paragraph.

  • Ellie

    Been there, done that. Once emailed a newspaper columnist named Brian Demchinsky, self-righteously pointing out an error he had made. He graciously replied, thanking me for the correction.
    Signed, Bryan Demchinsky.
    Oops.

  • johnesh

    “That final phrase… should read, ‘or would that be a Tumbeler?'”
    What is this “tumbeler”? Did they mean “tumbler”?

    45,300 hits for “tumbeler” on Google, by the way.

  • Kay

    I love this!! I think I will fashion some sort of frame-worthy document of the Australian editor’s list to hang above my desk for all the Smarty Pantses around here who love to point out my occasional error.

    When I notice an error similar to the “Tumbeler” one, I wonder whether it was more an oversight by someone rewriting the sentence and leaving in a word meant to be deleted.

  • Anthony

    Well, I’ve learned something. I like it. Thanks

  • Tricia

    These comments simply go to show
    That when one thinks he’s in the know
    He’d best be careful not to throw
    Grist in some proofreader’s mill.

  • Ian

    I was rather concerned about your title. “Breaking Muphry’s Law” suggests that you are somehow going to write a critical piece that is without a Muphry error. That’s just looking for trouble. Well, I looked long and hard, and by golly, I think you’ve done it.

  • Carole

    You did it on purpose, right? And so far, it looks like Brecon’s the only one who got it.

    It’s so rare to find a typo in your writings (I can’t actually recall ANY), that I suspected what you were up to the minute I saw the title, but then to repeat the same error throughout the post – well, that confirmed it!

    Sincerley (that was really hard to type!)

    Carole

  • Tricia

    How painfully true! It’s the law of inevitable typos. Hate it, but the more I try to avoid errors the more I make. I twitch thinking how many will be found in this one post.

  • Barbara

    This post is hilarious! Thank you.

  • Kristina Bjoran

    This is absolutely delightful, and if it isn’t one of the Rules of the Internet already, it should be. I can’t count how many times I’ve read through various (thoughtful) article comment threads only to be thrust into some nitpickery battle over “awwwww you misused ‘there’!”

    And thank you for introducing me to Muphry’s Law. That’s just wonderful, and I’ll use the Wikipedia link to replace any of my own nit-pickery 🙂

    -Kristina

  • Meghann Clark

    For the people below attempting to correct ‘Muphry’s’ to ‘Murphy’s’;
    The name of the law is a deliberate typo, obviously Murphy’s law has nothing to do with editing so John Bangsund has cleverly coined the word Muphry as a title for the editing-specific law described above.

  • Meghann Clark

    Scratch that last comment! It turns out I was reading the comments from oldest to newest rather than vice versa.
    The article itself is a little disjointed but I liked the witty tone used throughout. Bravo.

  • Jeroen

    I don’t know if there is a law or a principle already defined, but I absolutely know for sure that pressing a ‘Send’ or ‘Submit’ button introduces typo’s.
    Checking what you have written before clicking is futile, some new error will always be added the moment the text is out of your control.

    Now, let’s see what happens …

  • karry

    Why does this post remind me of ” The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, t he olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rgh it pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!”

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