Never Argue With a Fool, Onlookers May Not Be Able To Tell the Difference

Mark Twain? Biblical Proverb? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Conflict on social media is now endemic, but it is not really new. Acrimonious exchanges between participants during the primeval days of online forums were known as “flame wars”.

Famed humorist Mark Twain has received credit for a germane cautionary remark:

Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

Unfortunately, no one has presented a good citation for Twain. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find substantive evidence crediting this remark to Mark Twain. It does not appear on the Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2

The Bible contains a thematically related passage in Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5: 3

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.

Statements that were closer to the modern template emerged in the 1800s. Here is a sampling with dates which shows the variation in phrasing and the evolution over time. All of the earliest citations were anonymous.

1878: Don’t argue with a fool, or the listener will say there is a pair of you.

1878: Don’t argue with a fool or listeners will think there are two of you.

1896: Arguing with a fool shows that there are two.

1930: When you argue with a fool, he’s doing the same thing.

1930: When you argue with a fool be sure he isn’t similarly occupied.

1937 Never argue with a fool. But if you must, the safest way is to carry on the debate with yourself.

1938: Never argue with a fool in public lest the public not know which is which.

1943: When you argue with a fool, be sure he isn’t similarly engaged.

1951: It isn’t smart to argue with a fool; listeners can’t tell which is which.

1954: Never argue with a fool. Bystanders can’t tell which is which.

1966: Don’t argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

1999: Never argue with an idiot. You’ll never convince the idiot that you’re correct, and bystanders won’t be able to tell who’s who.

2012: Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

On May 20, 1878 “The Rochester Evening Express” of Rochester, New York printed a collection of miscellaneous “Happy Thoughts” while acknowledging another periodical. Here were the first three. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 4

—”He liveth long, who liveth well”

—”Wit is the god of moments; but genius is the god of ages.”

Don’t argue with a fool, or the listener will say there is a pair of you.—Cincinnati Breakfast Table.

On May 22, 1878 the “Lyon County Times” of Silver City, Nevada printed a collection of sayings under the title “All Sorts of Items”. Here were two items: 5

Don’t argue with a fool, or the listeners will say there is a pair of you.

It’s supreme folly for soldiers to expect full rations from a quarter master.

On May 28, 1878 “The Daily Graphic” of New York City printed the adage together with a comment: 6

Don’t argue with a fool or listeners will think there are two of you.—Cincinnati Breakfast Table.

We thought of dissenting from this proposition and showing its falsity, but the more we think of it—come to think, we won’t.

In 1886 “The Leicester Chronicle & Leicestershire Mercury” of England printed another anonymous variant of the saying: 7

Don’t argue with a fool, or listeners will say there are two of you.

In 1896 the “Lykens Register” of Lykens, Pennsylvania printed a collection of “Words of Wisdom” which included the following compact instance: 8

Arguing with a fool shows that there are two.

In March 1930 a newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota printed this variant: 9

Inexperienced candidates for office should bear in mind that “when you argue with a fool, he’s doing the same thing.” When sharp barbs are being hurled, however, there is tendency to forget that arguing with a fool is foolish.

In November 1930 “The San Francisco Examiner” of California printed the following version: 10

When you argue with a fool be sure he isn’t similarly occupied.

In 1937 a newspaper in Nebraska published the following joke: 11

Never argue with a fool, an exchange advises. But if you must, the safest way is to carry on the debate with yourself.

In 1938 a newspaper in Fremont, Ohio printed another instance: 12

Never argue with a fool in public lest the public not know which is which.

In 1943 “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” by Evan Esar published the following adage under the topic “argue”: 13

When you argue with a fool, be sure he isn’t similarly engaged.

In 1951 the “Duncannon Record” published another variant: 14

It isn’t smart to argue with a fool; listeners can’t tell which is which.

In 1954 a newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi published an instance of the saying with the word “bystanders”: 15

Never argue with a fool. Bystanders can’t tell which is which.

In 1966 an instance that almost matched the title of this article appeared in a newspaper in New Oxford, Pennsylvania without attribution: 16

Don’t argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

In 1998 a message containing a collection of statements fitting the topic “Fools” was posted to the alt.quotations newsgroup of the Usenet discussion system. Three contiguous statements are shown below. The ascription Mark Twain is supposed to be paired with the statement above it, but some inattentive readers may have assumed that Twain crafted the statement below his name. This is known as a textual proximity error: 17

With the whole world full of fools, there is none who thinks himself one, or even suspects it.

Let us be thankful for the fools. But for them the rest of us could not succeed…
Mark Twain

When you’re arguing with a fool, make sure he isn’t doing the same thing.

In 1999 a message posted to the rec.audio.tubes newsgroup of Usenet ascribed a version of the saying to Mark Twain: 18

Mark Twain said it best: Never argue with an idiot. You’ll never convince the idiot that you’re correct, and bystanders won’t be able to tell who’s who.

In 2012 a columnist in a Howell, Michigan newspaper credited Twain with the saying in the title of this article: 19

“Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.” – Mark Twain

In conclusion, the core idea of the quotation under examination appeared as a biblical proverb. The popular saying that has been incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain is part of a large diverse family of statements that began to appear by 1878. Initial occurrences were printed without attributions.

Image Notes: Illustration of two fools embracing from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Dave Hill and John Tanaka whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Hill pointed to Proverbs 26:4 and also noted several ascriptions.)

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched February 19, 2019) link
  2. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search)
  3. Website: BibleHub, Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5, Translation: New American Standard Bible. (Accessed BibleHub.com on February 18, 2019) link
  4. 1878 May 20, The Rochester Evening Express, Happy Thoughts, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Rochester, New York. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1878 May 22, Lyon County Times, All Sorts of Items, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Silver City, Nevada. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1878 May 28, The Daily Graphic, Graphicalities, Quote Page 2, (Page 618), Column 4, New York, New York. (Old Fulton)
  7. 1886 May 29, The Leicester Chronicle & Leicestershire Mercury, Section: Supplement, Varieties, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Leicester, Leicestershire, England. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1896 February 28, Lykens Register, Words of Wisdom, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Lykens, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1930 March 14, The Daily Argus-Leader, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1930 November 17, The San Francisco Examiner, Isn’t It So?, Quote Page 12, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1937 November 8, The Lincoln Star, Seen By The Nebraska Press: Norfolk Daily News, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1938 August 17, The Fremont Messenger, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Fremont, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Topic: Argue, Quote Page 15, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1951 November 21, Duncannon Record, (Filler item), Quote Page 5, Column 5, Duncannon, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1954 November 14, The Clarion-Ledger, Section 4, Mississippi Notebook by Tom Ethridge, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Jackson, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1966 March 31, The New Oxford Item, Quotes and Unquotes by The Editor, Quote Page 4, Column 3, New Oxford, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1998 December 7, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.quotations, From: (Jason Q.) @mindless.com, Subject: Fools, (Google Groups Search; Accessed February 16, 2019) link
  18. 1999 February 26, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.audio.tubes, From: (DHenth1332) @aol.com, Subject: Re: modifying the rat charter, (Google Groups Search; Accessed February 16, 2019)
  19. 2012 January 1, Livingston County Daily Press and Argus, Section: Opinion, Ruminations about quotations by Rich Perlberg, Quote Page 6A, Column 3, Howell, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)