WORD IN THE HAND: EROR
Inky little Muphry ensures pedant punishers get it rong
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Murphy’s Law dictates that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. It is the law that governs the fall of a slice of bread that has slipped from the grasp of someone with butterfingers. The bread will inevitably land buttered-side to the floor, unless it has been buttered on the wrong side to start with, as Murphy might have done. That other law is called The Luck of The Irish.
Then there is the Five-second Law, which allows you to pick up the bread and eat it, regardless of the dust and cat hair embedded in the butter, as long as it has been on the floor for less than five seconds.
Now, for those of you about to fire off an e-mail to me about the correct use of “less” and “fewer” (I should, of course, have written “fewer than five seconds”), let me warn you about Muphry’s Law.
Muphry’s Law dictates that anyone pointing out a mistake in someone else’s speech or writing will make a mistake in their compaint. I mean complaint.
The term Muphry’s Law was invented in 1992 by an Australian word nerd (they are everywhere) called John Bangsund. In an article for the Society of Editors newsletter, Bangsund set out the four parts of Muphry’s Law:
(a) If you write anything criticising 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.
It seems strange that this phenomenon took so long to be named. Surely there were previous instances of errors committed by the critical? Perhaps the proliferation of written material since the advent of the Internet, which goes hand-in-hand with grammatical lawlessness, has something to do with it.
Bangsund may have been the first to spell out the law of pedant punishment, but he was not the last. In 1999, webmaster Jed Hartman described “Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation”, which states: “Any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.”
This phrase was repeated (without the humour) in 2001 by US lexicographer Erin McKean, who said: “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.” She called it McKean’s Law.
Then there was G Bryan Lord, who went by the name “Skitt” in an online grammar discussion group. Skitt’s Law, he said, had two prongs: “Any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself” and “The likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster.”
Muphry, Hartman, Skitt and McKean. Whose law is it anyway? If you ask me, Muphry wins this naming contest buttered-hands down. His more famous cousin, the pessimistic Murphy, is often depicted as a leprechaun. I imagine the blushing, squirming Muphry as an inky little gremlin, because in the world of print publishing, acknowledgement of an error is often preceded by the phrase, “Gremlins got into the presses”.
Maybe they did. I would like to think that a gremlin lives between the cracks of my keyboard, where it feeds on hairy buttered crumbs and turns good words bad. It would be so much easier to blame naughty old Muphry than admit to having made a mistake. Gremlin, however, is just another word for human fallibility. We are all wrong sometimes.
Perhaps the safest thing to do is introduce a deliberate error into everything we write. Perhaps that will prevent accidental mistakes.
Just because they are inevitable does not mean mistakes should be tolerated, of course. Please continue to point them out whenever you sea them.