Language and meta-language

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Or maybe it should be text and meta-text. Anyhow, John D. Muccigrosso wrote to point out something that's obvious in retrospect, namely that all those pages that say "This page intentionally left blank" are thereby not, in fact, left blank.

In looking for examples, I discovered that the earliest example of this that Google Books can find seems to have been published around 1922.

Is this

  • an artefact of the scanning, indexing, or searching methods used?
  • the result of a change in wording, with the same idea expressed with different words in earlier times?
  • a genuine cultural innovation, so that before 1922, intentionally-blank pages were simply left blank without any self-identifying advice to the reader?

At some point, Federal regulations seem to have imposed such a requirement — presumably on certain classes of government documents, though I can't tell exactly from the "snippet view" at the link just provided.


  1. Lugubert said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    Reminds me of my favourite label statement: Do not use contents if package has been opened.

  2. Dan T. said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    That 1922 example, "Tentative scales of class rates and distances between common points in truck line territory: docketed for public consideration and hearing at Y.M.C.A. Auditorium … New York City, beginning October 23, 1922 …", is labeled by Google as "restricted", so no actual snippet is shown as far as I can see. I don't know the nature of the restriction, since by U.S. copyright law, anything domestic from before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain.

    [(myl) Well, the metadata (including dates) for Google Books items is notoriously inaccurate, so perhaps this work was actually published at some later time.]

  3. Levi Montgomery said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    For what it's worth (not much, I admit, but it might point vaguely in the right general direction), the first time I came across this, when I was about ten or twelve, was in an Army training manual belonging to the father of a friend, and I was told at the time that it was a requirement of "the government printing office." I've not questioned it since then, simply chuckled at it. Yes, along with the injunction not to use the contents if the seal is broken, and the instructions to "Lather, rinse, and repeat," apparently ad infinitum.


  4. TB said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

    I always thought (guessed) it was so unauthorized persons didn't write something fraudulent on the back of the paper unbeknownst to the issuer of the form. So maybe there was a rash of writing-something-on-the-back-of-the-page fraud in the lawless gangland world of the 1920s?

  5. Bob Lieblich said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    I just opened a large pdf file containing the complete text of a book, published by the US Government Accountability Office, on management of congressional appropriations (a complex and arcane undertaking, to be sure). Immediately after the introduction is a page on which this text and only this text appears:

    [This page is intended to be blank. Please do not read it.]

    I immediately did not think about an elephant.

  6. Chaz said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    My favorite was when I got a new insurance policy through my employer, and received my card. The card was printed onto a three-card template, so I was issued one functional card and two cards which read, "This card intentionally left blank."

    I still carry the blank cards in my wallet to show when demonstrating ideas similar to Magritte's 'Treachery of Images' since, as noted, the card is not blank.

  7. John Roth said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    I don't know about federal regulations, but I do remember IBM technical manuals all did this from sometime in the 1970s onwards (and possibly earlier.) The explanation I got was that it cut down on the number of calls complaining about printing errors leaving blank pages. It probably also has to do with automated documentation systems making it easy to do.

  8. Brett said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    I remember being told that the reason was so that people could be confident that they had the entire document they wanted. If the pages were truly blank, they might think that something was supposed to be there, but there had been a printing error.

    I also remember seeing what I considered better wording on an AP test: "No test materials on this page." And I can attest that leaving blank page at the end of a test booklet will prompt your students to ask why they are missing the last page.

    [(myl) Pragmatically, it's clear why it makes sense to have a notice of this kind. Semantically, the self-reference makes it tricky to express the idea in a way that doesn't contradict itself — I guess you need something awkward and complicated like "It is the publisher's intention that nothing should be printed on this page except for the sentence containing this notice". And historically, the question is whether this is really a relatively recent invention, and if so, how it came about that this innovation first appeared in the pages of a work entitled Tentative scales of class rates and distances between common points in truck line territory.]

  9. Mark P said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

    I'm not aware of a regulation regarding blank pages in federal documents, or documents produced for the federal government, but I often see that self-negating message in them. It's certainly possible, if not likely, that such a requirement exists for classified documents. Some agencies require individual portion markings for unclassified documents or "For Official Use Only" documents (so labeled, in my opinion, to circumvent requirements that only classified documents be exempted from public release). For example, in an FOUO document, some agencies require that each paragraph be marked "FOUO". Portion marking is required in classified documents so that a reader can tell what, specifically, is classified, and what is not. But if a document is entirely unclassified, there seems to be no reason to require portion marking.

  10. John Cowan said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    "This page has been intentionally left, except for this annoying little message, entirely blank."

  11. Iain Ireland said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

    An interesting variant on this:

    The Zork series of adventure games had hint booklets available, called Invisiclues. They contained common questions, along with a series of increasingly specific answers written in 'invisible' ink. To read the hints, the reader had to colour over the hint box with the accompanying special marker.

    To prevent people from getting clues by simply reading the questions, several of the sections were deliberately nonsensical: "Which object is best for casting images?" In that case, the first hint would make it clear that the question was a red herring – "What are you talking about?" – and the remaining hints would read "This space intentionally left blank." Which had the benefit, in this case, of being literally true.

  12. JFM said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    > GO WEST
    Living Room
    You are in the living room. There is a door to the east, a wooden door with strange gothic lettering to the west, which appears to be nailed shut, and a large oriental rug in the center of the room.
    There is a trophy case here.
    A battery-powered brass lantern is on the trophy case.

    There is an issue of US NEWS & DUNGEON REPORT dated 06/23/99 here.
    On hooks above the mantelpiece hangs an elvish sword of great antiquity.

    sword: Taken.
    lamp: Taken.

    The engravings translate to 'This space intentionally left blank'

  13. John said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Well, what about a footer saying "The next page has intentionally been left blank."?

    Or a big X over the page vel sim.? Is that a typography problem perhaps?

    John D. (not C.) Muccigrosso

  14. Robert Maefs said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Before advances in offset printing and book making this wouldn't have been an issue. If I recall correctly, the early 1900's was when advances in high speed presses and automated binding became widespread leading to some standardizations including readily available pre-arranged signature sizes. If your content didn't fill up an entire signature you needed something to keep the public from thinking you botched your print job.

    So my hypothesis is that your point #3 is most likely. Prior to the beginning of the 1900's this wouldn't have been an issue, and once it became an issue, printers solved it using the tool at their disposal: printing.

  15. James C. said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Couldn’t one get over the semantic complexities by having something like “This page intentionally not left blank”?

  16. Sili said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    Ah, John Cowan came to my rescue. I was about to ask how one was to express the intended meaning without resorting to quining:

    "This page intentionally left blank, save for the text "This page intentionally left blank, save for the text " …

  17. Amy Stoller said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

  18. Richard I. Garber said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    I wondered when Magritte was going to come up. By the way, on Monday Dave Kellett added his own variation on this in his Sheldon cartoon.

  19. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    There is nothing worth reading on this page??

  20. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    Amy Stoller beat me to it.

    Maybe we need something more contemporary though, "What had happened was…" at the top of the page, then at the bottom "we ran out of in"

  21. Ellen K. said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    This strikes me as a particular variety of language not to be taken literally. In this case, it's a style of writing that's usually literal, but in this case, isn't, except with the addition of an understood but not stated addition.

    "This page left intentionally blank (except for this message)."

    "Do not use contents if package has been opened (prior to your acquiring the package for use)."

  22. mollymooly said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    Every summer, an artificial beach is created by the municipal government of Paris on the lower quay that runs along the right bank of the Seine. This is a rather sanitised, family-friendly affair; topless sunbathing is prohibited.

    A few bohemians too indebted to escape the torpid metropolis in the dog days of August attempted to create a more freewheeling resort opposite the official one. "This plage intentionally left bank."

  23. axl said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    essential reading:

  24. Tom Vinson said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    How about "Move along, nothing to see here"?

  25. pjharvey said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    I had to mark a page this way myself, after a formatting error left a rather large document I printed out with a blank page. Rather than correct the formatting and have to reprint the whole document again with updated page numbers, I consulted my boss and agreed that adding 'this page intentionally left blank' and printing and inserting that single page was the best solution.

    I toyed with the idea of writing 'This page unintentionally left blank', because it was an accident that it had been printed blank, but once recognising the problem I suppose it had actually been left blank intentionally. Until I wrote the message. But, yes, it is difficult to express the intention succinctly without contradiction.

  26. vic said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    In the late 60's I worked on a military project where we had classified specifications which were loose-leaf bound. Once or twice a year we had to "sight" the documents to be sure no pages were missing. I vaguely remember that blank pages had that inscription so we wouldn't think that a page had been replaced.

    I just did a Google search, and Wikipedia confirms this:

    BTW, the Wikipedia entry has section 1 as "Uses for intentionally blank pages" and the classified document is section 1.5; section 1.1 is "Irony"

  27. m said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    You make this sound kind of daffy. But in the old days the message about the intention was often directed at the people who printed from a master copy containing blank pages. The editor/printer/collator might legitimately be concerned about errors if the page was simply empty without a message. And so we had that jargon.

    [(myl) Do you actually know anything about this, or are you just making stuff up? Because "in the old days" — i.e. before about 1922 — apparently blank pages were just left blank. It's obvious that the message can be functional. The post had two points: (1) that the typical way of expressing the message is self-contradictory, and (2) that the message is apparently a relatively recent innovation, in the sense that books were printed for almost 500 years without it.]

    Reasons for blank pages (maybe obvious) —
    1) To make left-right pages come out correct, if your style required that every chapter start on a right page. If you did not leave a blank left page in the master copy, then the printer (machine or human) wouldn't correctly match up the fronts and backs.
    2) In technical manuals, writers frequently had to leave sequential blank pages for updates that were expected but not ready at the time of the current production cycle. Then one wouldn't have to create a whole new master with re-done pagination. And the update could be printed and shipped at lower cost (not accounting for the time that it took end users to interleave the new material into their binder, which they might never do but that's not important now.)

  28. Ken Grabach said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    Having been a government publications librarian, and before that, a librarian with the U.S. Army, I can recall many times seeing such a statement. It occurs often on publications issued in loose-leaf. The blank page is either the verso of a printed page, or a chapter or section divider. It becomes a useful indicator that the recipient has not received a document with a missing page or a page misprinted. It seems silly only when you have not had such a thing happen to you.

    [(myl) The concept neither is nor seems silly. The problem, again, is that the now-conventional way of expressing the concept is self-contradictory, unless perhaps some sort of text/meta-text distinction is invoked.]

    Commentors are assuming this is in response to an accident that is then covered up, "what happened was", when there are many times, as vic and I indicate, where there are very valid reasons for the blankness (less the label) that are truly intentional. It appears on publicly distributed publications, not in classified material only. Also, classified material has a protective cover giving the status. It is not indicated in the content. I think this is because classification of secret, etc., is meant to be based on a period of time, which usually is then revoked.

    Also, with desk-top publishing, where even government publications are distributed in PDF (portable document file) format, an office printer can skip a page, or issue a blank page between all the correctly printed pages. This, I think, is why the phenomenon continues. Again, it is useful to know this page is blank intentionally, and not in error at the recipient's end of the operation.

    Linguistically speaking, it is, of course, a solecism. But in practical terms, it can be most useful.

  29. Isseki Nicho said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 5:35 pm

    I often see variations of:

    This document is valid only if nothing is written below this line.
    —–This is the final line.—–

  30. peter said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    On British motorways newly-erected electronic signs will often display the message, "Sign not yet in use".

  31. Ellen K. said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    Just to clarify my earlier post…

    This strikes me as a particular variety of language not to be taken literally.

    Would be

    This strikes me as a particular variety of language-not-to-be-taken-literally.

  32. Brian said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 6:33 pm

    I'd be willing to bet a fair sum that the 1922 citation is either wrong or not from 1922 (e.g. an interpolation from a later printing).

    [(myl) Why? Do you have evidence that the practice was introduced later than 1922? If so, when, and by whom?

    I don't hold any brief for the Trunk Line Association as the originator — I'm mainly surprised that there (apparently) aren't any 18th- or 19th-C instances. And so I wonder what the history is, and why.]

  33. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

    There was/is a satirical religion on Usenet in which blank sheets of paper are sacred objects, and the main joke was that of a schism in which one sect teaches that a blank sheet of paper has nothing on it, while the other sect teaches that a true blank sheet of paper declares, "This page intentionally left blank". Each sect, of course, considers the other to be the worst sort of heretic.

  34. Neal Goldfarb said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    ( )

  35. empty said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    This reminds me, sort of, of a question I've had for a while about signs that say


    Do they have more legal force than signs that just say


    ? And if so, is this because the law gives a landowner has some rights if he posts a "no trespassing" sign?

    Just to be safe, mightn't you want to post a sign that says



  36. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    Is Tristram Shandy's black page the locus classicus here?

  37. Richard M Buck said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

    Ceci n'est pas une page blanche.

    Apologies to Amy Stoller, and others, who kind of beat me to it, but I couldn't resist.

  38. Tim Carmody said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    This came up this past summer, when I filed my dissertation. I would have had to reprint all 250+ pages (on cotton-stock paper) and make a new appointment to drop off my diss. Instead, I printed "This page is empty" — precisely because it was even more sharply self-contradictory than "This page is intentionally left blank."

  39. David D said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    Anatomists have another ridiculous bit of linguistic self-contradiction in the bone named the "innominate".

  40. George said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    "This extra page was inserted to provide space between sections"

    (or whatever the reason)

  41. Pliny said,

    February 19, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    I am reminded of a Martin Gardner column on self-referential sentences in Scientific American from the early 80's (?). My favorite was an Errata page with one entry:


    For "errata" read "erratum".

  42. Keith said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 12:09 am

    Well, on several pages of a teaching manual I have printed for a class, I have the text "This page was blank before this was printed on it." *

    The main reason for doing this is to get the sections to start where I want them to: on the right hand page. If I didn't do this, copies sometimes came back from the printer with the blank pages removed and the sections starting on the left hand page.

    That, in any case, is my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

    * The statement is itself not strictly correct as all the "blank" pages had page numbers in the bottom margin.

  43. Rubrick said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 1:36 am

    This space intentionally filled with words.

  44. Jon Lennox said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 3:48 am

    "This page contains only meta-text."

    Unless that makes the contents meta-meta-text, in which case you have an infinite recursion.

  45. Adam said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 5:45 am

    I've used "This page intentionally left almost blank" before.

  46. Barbara Partee said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 8:54 am

    Two nice tidbits on the Wikipedia page about intentionally blank pages that @vic mentioned (the very existence of such a Wikipedia article makes me smile):
    (i) They do mention one reason why the blank page sometimes really can't be blank: "If a printer's document processor has been designed to skip completely blank pages, notices may also be required on intentionally blank pages to prevent incorrect page numbering."; @Keith notes a similar reason.
    (ii) The last of the external links on that page has a wonderful name: "Guide to writing intentionally blank pages". I checked and it's serious. (Actually I'm cheating: the end of the name is "in XSL-FO". I still like it.)

  47. dkmarsh said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    '"This page intentionally left blank, save for the text "This page intentionally left blank, save for the text " …'

    Reminds one of the classic shampoo instructions:

    "1. Lather 2. Rinse 3. Repeat"

    Or, at the Federal level:

    "Instructions for use: 1. It is a violation of Federal Law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling."

  48. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    There's a story about Disraeli: when Victoria asked him whether he was really a Jew or a Christian, he replied, "Madam, I am the blank page between the Old and the New Testaments."
    Do printings of the Bible always leave intentionally a blank page?

  49. John said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    I wonder whether this started as a mistaken omission of an omission. That is, the note was put on a page sent to the printer as an instruction, so that he would print what should be a blank page. Then the printer printed what was meant to be an instruction as content.

  50. Maneki Nekko said,

    February 20, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    How about "There are only eight words on this page."

  51. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 1:04 am

    @empty: "Posted: No Trespassing" is like "Designated Smoking Area".

    The question is probably not the legal force of "Posted" but the beliefs of a person who is sufficiently tempted by your land to temporarily believe any pretext.

  52. Karl Hagen said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    I frequently produce tests that require blank pages so that each section of the test opens on the correct page. (Students aren't allowed to work ahead, and you don't want them to see the start of the next section before they're allowed to. The message I use is "THIS PAGE CONTAINS NO TEST MATERIAL," which neatly avoids self-contradiction. It might take a little more invention for general-purpose writing, but the same principal could probably be applied with a little creativity (e.g., "this page contains no text for the user manual", etc.)

  53. Dick Margulis said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

    Responding to a question posed by myl at least a couple of times (I admit I have not pored over all responses) regarding the 1922 date:

    It is hard to produce an unintentionally blank single page on a large-format printing press (one printing a forme of 4 or more pages. It is possible to have a blank side, so that half the pages in the signature are blank (for example, if a doubled sheet passes through the press). But it is not possible to have a single (unintentional) blank page in that situation. So long as all documents were sent out to commercial printers for production, the single blank page was a non-issue.

    However, with the introduction of office duplicators (and I don't have handy the specific dates on which various machines were introduced, but the 1920s sounds right for the first Multilith Corporation machine), blank sides became common, whether the machines were operated by job printers or by in-house printing departments.

    Many documents produces by government contractors have been produced on such equipment from the beginning, and it makes sense that the need for the endorsement would have become apparent early on.

  54. Peter said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    Karl Hagen: How about "This page contains no document content"?

  55. Older said,

    February 21, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    I was a (literate, academic, publicly employed) adult before I ever saw a page which read "This page intentionally left blank". I thought it was hilarious, although the purpose was obvious. I showed it to my then-husband, and we posted it on our wall for all of our friends to enjoy.

    That was about 50 years ago, and while I cannot be sure it had never been used before, I'm pretty sure I would have noticed if that notation were in anything like common use (in the US).

    My present husband and I have just such a page posted right now on our wall'o'weirdness, because we still think it's hilarious (you may think we're easily amused; we think that's a good thing).

  56. Bob L said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 1:19 am

    WorldCat shows one copy of this title, from the New York Public Library, thus the same copy scanned for Google Books. The WorldCat listing gives "Vendor Info" as Kirtas Technologies, Inc., which is currently partnering with NYPL to digitize books (per this press release). So perhaps we are seeing an artifact of the digitization process? The title is available for $20 via Or for free to someone in NYC!

  57. koj said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    The 'office duplicator' hypothesis seems plausible – wikipedia (an unreliable reference, admittedly, but handy for the lazy) indicates a date of about 1900 for the first widespread marketing of mimeograph machines. (they were invented by Edison. I should try to do a list of notable turn of the century inventions *not* by Edison, it'd probably be quite short)

  58. Bedwards said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    Somewhat related: last year a few friends and I found a locked safe in an abandoned Nuwaubian temple that was flagged for demolition. Hoping to find some obscure artifact of a legally demising cult, we dragged the safe home and went at it for a couple of hours with a hatchet and sledge hammer.

    Upon finally opening the safe, most of us sweating, some of us bleeding, all of us now drunk, we found nothing apart from a slip of paper saying "This safe to remain empty."

  59. bronxilla said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    This error could easily be corrected by simply adding the phrase ", sort of", at the end of the sentence.

  60. Robert G. Lee said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 6:56 am

    From a favorite cartoonist who enjoys wordplay:

  61. Tablesaw said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    It might be gone now, but in the Toontown area of Disneyland, there was a sign with the text:

    Please do not pay attention to any printing you may see on this sign. We only wrote this to let you know that this is a blank sign. With nothing on it. Except this message.


  62. Chris said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    @EMPTY: I first encountered this usage one summer in Colorado, where I was baffled by the frequent signs along the side of the road that simply said "POSTED."

    I had no idea what that was all about until I asked someone.

    Apparently it's short for POSTED: NO TRESPASSING, i.e. "because I have posted this sign, I have officially told you that you are not allowed on this property."

    It still strikes me as funny, though.

  63. Ellie said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    Several days later: I just ran across a document that uses the phrase, "The Remainder Of This Page Intentionally Left Blank"

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