Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.
Sub-editors, proof-readers and those individuals scornfully referred to as ‘Grammar Nazis’ are living in constant fear of Muprhy's Law. The Law states: “If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”
It can also be said to extend to those who are critical of other people’s grammar; especially in social media. It takes its name from a deliberate misspelling of Murphy's Law, an adage which states that: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
In 1992 the Society of Editors, in Australia, set out the law as:
(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.
Examples of the law in action include US journalist and author Stephen J. Dubner's criticism of The Economist in 2008 for an alleged typographical error in referring to ‘Cornish pasties’. Being unfamiliar with the English beef and vegetable-filled snack, he assumed the intended word was ‘pastry’. In fairness to Dubner he graciously accepted he made an error – though he was initially wary of the Cornish pasty which The Economist mailed to him by way of a no-hard-feelings.
A less humorous occurrence of the law was highlighted in 2009 when the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote a letter of condolence to the mother of Jamie Janes, a Grenadier Guardsman who was killed in action in Afghanistan, in which he misspelled the deceased’s name. The British tabloid newspaper The Sun carried a scathing article criticising Brown’s lack of care, yet in the same article misspelled the same name and was forced to publish its own apology.
The lesson here is to check, double-check and treble-check text – especially where there is criticism of another's mistake(s). Having worked in newspapers for 16 years the old rule (beaten into our skulls by our experienced chief sub-editor) is to get someone else to check your copy – the assumption (proved correct on far too many occasions) is that you won’t spot the mistake right under your nose; especially if you are the author of the mistake.
The ‘infinite monkey theorem’ states that: “a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text,” such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. However, it can take just a millisecond for a human to make an error that will make them look like a proper monkey.
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