Muphry's Law (English Usage)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Epicetus - Muphry's Law
Epictetus (AD 55-135), Discourses and Selected Writings; translated by Robert Dobbin (Penguin, 2008).


Muphry's Law is the principle that any criticism of the speech or writing of others will itself contain at least one error of usage or spelling. Also known as McKean's Law or the Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation.

The expression Muphry's Law (a play on Murphy's Law) was coined by John Bangsund in The Society of Editors Newsletter (1992).

Long before the law was named, Ambrose Bierce delivered this lesson: "In neither taste nor precision is any man's practice a court of last appeal, for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light; and their accuser is cheerfully aware that his own work will supply many 'awful examples'" (Write It Right, 1909).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "Muphry's Law is the editorial application of the better-known Murphy's Law. Muphry's Law dictates that
    (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."
    (John Bangsund, "Muphry's Law." Society of Editors Newsletter, March 1992)

  • Recently, a columnist for The New York Observer spotted a redundancy in the sports pages of The New York Times . . .:
    We all know that the verb "reverted" contains the direction "back" in it. To add "back" is thoroughly redundant. . . . To return is to turn back. Adding the word "back" may appear to solidify your meaning but it only exposes your ignorance.
    To which an even more observant reader replied:
    Now, we all know that the verb "contains" already contains the meaning "in it." To add "in it," as Phil does, is thoroughly redundant. Adding the phrase "in it" may appear to solidify your meaning but it only exposes your ignorance.
  • The Trouble With Sticklers
    "The language-snobbery thing can get complicated, but this much is simple: Don't be a jerk. . . .

    "Correcting errors in speech and e-mail is a great way to get people to stop talking to you and writing to you. . . .

    "If you're tempted to think less of a publication because of an error you spotted, remember this: The fact that you spotted that one does not necessarily mean you would have spotted every other one that was caught before you looked in.

    "Never forget Muphry's Law. That's right, Muphry's. It's the principle that a complaint on the Internet about usage or spelling is likely to have at least one usage or spelling error of its own. (For instance, one person's Web rant about the use of impact as a verb spells effect as affect.) Corollary: There's a good chance you know less than you think you do. Keep that in mind as your 'corrections' reach higher degrees of difficulty."
    (Bill Walsh, Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk. St. Martin's Press, 2013)

  • The Lighter Side of Muphry's Law
    "Like all the best grammar and language books, including my own, this one [F***ing Apostrophes by Simon Griffin] falls foul of Muphry’s law: the misspelling of Hear’Say may be blamed on confusion sown by the inappropriate apostrophe, but on the very last page we find 'Aknowledgements.' F***ing spelling."
    (David Marsh, "At Last, a Book That Tells You Exactly Where to Stick Your Apostrophe." The Guardian, December 4, 2015)