Enigma Explained: The Intentionally Blank Page

Enigma Explained: The Intentionally Blank Page
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The "intentionally blank page" in contracts and other documents is ubiquitous. What on earth is it there for?

For such an enigma, it's best to start off with a clean sheet. Wikipedia cheekily defines it as, "a page that is devoid of content, and may be unexpected." (Emphasis added.)

That's right, you just never know where a blank page may be lurking. You might be perusing a legal document, scrutinizing a government's tax code, reading a scientific study, or taking a standardized test... when it happens. One moment you were assimilating information from a text-filled manuscript and then, with a hasty turn of a crinkled page, nothing... blankness... a literary vacuum.

Panic grips you for a fleeting instant. "What am I missing? Was there some kind of printing error? Why the heck would they use invisible ink?"

But then you glance to the middle of the page and a see a rigidly worded, hugely reassuring, yet slightly paradoxical statement accentuated against the parchment's colorless abyss. "This page is intentionally left blank."

This situation is actually only slightly exaggerated. As Jack Suber, a respected attorney and printer with years of experience in preparing important financial documents and Supreme Court briefs, told RealClearScience:

"The phrase, 'This page is intentionally left blank,' is printed on blank pages so that the reader can be comfortably assured that there hasn't been a printing error that left out one page of vital, legally required information." 

He added, "With the same goal, some attorneys insist on the phrase, 'Remainder of Page Intentionally Left Blank,' when the printed text does not run all the way to the bottom margin of a page."

But why was the page left blank in the first place? The reasoning depends on the written medium.

"In American and most Western European books the odd numbered pages always begin on the right-hand side," Suber explained. "As a result, it's easy to win a bar bet against the uninitiated by predicting that you can open any book to an odd or even page as the bet requires. Simply split the book and with your eyes ostentatiously closed, point to the appropriate side and collect your winnings. 

"Due to this traditional layout, sections in a document that end on an odd page must have a blank even page so that the first page of the succeeding section can begin on the right."

In addition, pages for books, manuals, or large legal documents are often printed on large sheets for financial or technical considerations. These are called "signatures," and often have 8, 16, or 32 pages on a single sheet. As a result, some books whose page numbers aren't a multiple of 8, 16, or 32 will have extra pages. Publishers may leave these pages blank or include reviews, advertisements, or the phrase "For your notes" to draw attention away from the emptiness.

In standardized testing, where certain sections of the exam are timed, blank pages are often inserted to prevent the test taker from viewing upcoming test questions by reading through the thin layers of paper. The affirmation, "This page is intentionally left blank," is included to prevent the student from worrying that their exam may have been misprinted.

Fear not, my fellow readers, the intentionally blank page is not quite so mystifying as it seems to be. Sure, the statement, "This page is intentionally left blank," is a confusing contradiction if you really think about it, but the blank page itself has a reason, a raison d'etre. It may be "unexpected," but now you know what to expect.

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