Breaking Muphry’s Law
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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