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This Page Intentionally Left Blank

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'This Page Intentionally Left Blank' could be one of the oddest sentences in the English language. Found in instruction manuals around the world, it indicates that the page on which it appears has been purposely left empty of words or pictures. But once this phrase has been printed on the page, the page is no longer blank; in fact, it is intentionally not blank. Therefore, this statement is only correct when it has not yet been made. Once it has been written down, it is instantly wrong. By virtue of self-reference, the phrase is denying its own existence and contradicts itself. The only known phrase that is more confusing is 'This is a lie'.

To fully appreciate the absurdity of this, compare the following:

Not really blank:

Upper widget snarkle adjustment
Page 15.18 Issue 3.1, 1.26.64

Blank or not blank?

Upper widget snarkle adjustment
This Page Intentionally Left Blank
Page 15.18 Issue 3.1, 1.26.64

The ultimate in pedantry has been found in this example:

Upper widget snarkle adjustment
The page on which this statement has been printed has been intentionally left such that this statement is the only statement printed on it.
Page 15.18 Issue 3.1, 1.26.64

The inventor of this version obviously has taken the point and amended the phrase such that it doesn't contradict itself any more. However, it is so clumsy that it is most likely to draw readers away from studying the manual and have them start contemplating about the deeper sense behind it.

The Purpose

Some theorise that it is a koan, a statement devoid of meaning designed to bring the minds of those that read it to a higher state of being. Others believe that its purpose is to generate confusion in the hardy souls who actually attempt to read instruction manuals, thus making it even more difficult to understand what the manual is about.

But the sentence was introduced in the days when printers would randomly fail to print pages, and it served to reassure readers that they weren't missing out critical sections. However, a printer failure would be indicated by a pure white page, whereas the pages in question aren't blank at all. There's the page header and footer, and the page number, and the lines at the top and bottom. And the logo. And the chapter header. Oh, and the previous page finished halfway down.

Even in the days of desktop publishing, intentionally blank pages do have their purpose. The buyer of a technical item such as a telephone switching centre or a combine harvester can choose from a wealth of features and options when placing the order. Printed manuals are still called for, because the customer may not want to carry a laptop computer around when fixing a problem. In order to avoid confusion, the operations manuals need to be composed so that their contents precisely match the choice of features that each customer has made. Hence the manuals consist of pre-printed chapters which are simply put together in a binder, and the only things to be produced individually are the table of contents and the index. The length of a chapter can amount to an odd or an even number of pages and thus intentionally blank pages come into being. However, this doesn't justify printing the ominous phrase on them.


Manual writers with a less warped way of thinking have found a very simple alternative: in some materials, the phrase has been replaced by the simple heading 'Notes' (or suchlike), which clearly indicates that there was no intention to print anything on the page and encourages people to scribble over it. Even simpler, some unique symbol (for example: -<<>>- ) after the last paragraph of a chapter will make it unmistakably clear that there's nothing to be expected until the next chapter begins.

The Future of Intentionally Blank Pages

Pages which are intentionally left blank are not restricted to print media. On the internet there are lots and of them. A famous example can be found at the bottom of this page.

There even is a TPILB-Project which is promoting intentionally blank web pages as places of 'quietness in the overcrowded World Wide Web' which offer the opportunity of 'relaxing the restless mind'. Now that's a point.

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