The Great Typo Hunt
An interview with the men who spent two and a half months on a cross-country mission to eliminate typos.
They're irritating, pop up everywhere, and we've all made them. They are typos.
And unless you were unfortunate enough to spell “SHCOOL” in giant white letters, as did a road crew in North Carolina last week, or neglected to doublecheck your resume before you hit send, probably the mistake didn't wreck your day.
But two authors, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, set off on a cross-country mission to wipe out as many misspellings and unfortunately positioned commas as they could in 2-1/2 months. Armed with a handy Correction Kit – including an array of Sharpies, chalk, and the “elixir of correction” (Wite-Out) – they spotted 437 typos and were able to fix 236 of them. (The corrections kit was not stocked with neon tubing, for one thing, and in other cases, people were adamant about letting the mistakes stand.)
The most frequent typos they ran into were misplaced apostrophes dangling erratically all over the American landscape, but there was no region of the country more error-prone than another. They found typos at museums – the Cartoon Art Museum in San Franscisco had so many that the artists' bios at times were reduced to gibberish – and churches (“Frances of Assissi” is apparently a little-known Spanish variant of the saint's name, or so a tour guide would have them believe). They even found typos at the Grand Canyon.
While their grammarian mission might seem like the most mild-mannered and quixotic of quests, Deck and Herson were argued with, lied to, asked to leave stores, and prosecuted by the US Park Service.
They've recorded their deeds in a new book, The Great Typo Hunt, that comes complete with breezy writing, mock superhero prologues, and a serious mission to return phonics and proofreading to places of honor.
For those who say that the occasional “Thrusday” or “restroom's” is no big deal, Deck and Herson would argue that the proliferation of typos in American places of business are symptomatic of something more than just a moment of carelessness.
“The thing about language is that it's something that we all share,” said Deck in a phone interview. “It touches on all aspects of life. When language goes wrong, it can tell us interesting things. The typos were just the surface. Underneath, there's a deeper issue of communication.”
“I think it's the same reason we see more pollution,” says Herson. “People see more of it on the landscape and get used to it.” Also, in today's world, “we're less comfortable walking over to Joe's Barber Shop and saying, 'Hey, you've got a typo on the sign.' ”
Deck cites as an example a candy counter in Mobile, Ala., where the store clerk was too afraid of her boss to let them fix a sign reading, “Caution: Do Not Touch Very Hot.” She kept looking at the ceiling, as if her boss were watching her through the security cameras.
“I think that's an illusion,” says Herson. “The idea that you'll get in trouble for making something better.”
Reading about someone altering apostrophes is not going to keep you going for 249 pages, and Deck and Herson get into deeper matters than turning “puding” into “pudding.” Besides the eternal lure of the open road, the book offers background into how Deck discovered his inner editor and roped two friends and his girlfriend into the typo hunt. The authors argue strongly for phonics and Direct Instruction in elementary schools and urge people to slow down and take a second look at their writing before tossing it out there to fend for itself. The best parts are the ground-level interactions that illustrate the nature of communication (both good and bad) in modern America.
“It certainly didn't start out as field science in sociology. It sort of turned into that. We would try, in each interaction, to convey through courtesy and good humor that we're not in this to make anyone feel bad or judge anyone. We're just trying to clean up the textual landscape,” says Deck. “When people became hostile or defensive, we would try to smooth things over. Being defensive when someone points out your mistake is a natural human reaction. But it's not actually the most productive response when fixing something.”
Herson and Deck were careful not to go after anyone who was learning English as a second language, and the Correction Kit did not come equipped with dunce caps or giant pointy fingers. “There's more than enough material to work with native speakers,” says Deck. “We focused on text put out in the public sphere, usually in businesses.
“There was no correcting the way people speak or any private communication,” adds Herson. “No rapping anyone on the knuckles.”
“There's already enough vitriol out there in the world of grammar gurus,” says Deck. “We're trying to be the more hopeful alternative.”
Besides the errant apostrophe on a sign at the Grand Canyon that landed them in hot water with the US government, the most painful moment for the duo came at a learning store in Ohio that advertised “Year Around Fun” and said children could “Play In Doors” (an impossibility unless you are a character in “Monsters, Inc.”).
When Deck and Herson asked if they could fix her sign, the store manager got out a dictionary and tried to argue that the dot dividing “indoors” into two syllables meant it was two separate words. When another employee confirmed the mistakes, she announced she “would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign.” (Some of us might argue that a misspelled sign is, by its nature, “tacky looking,” but nevertheless.)
“That was the most painful one for me personally,” says Herson. “In that instance, there was nothing we could do.”
“It was just the educational aspect of the store that made that one particularly painful,” agrees Deck. “It was the fact that they carried important reference sources like dictionaries, but then she didn't actually know how to use it herself.”
Then there was a recent book signing at a store in Boston's Logan Airport. “A girl wanted to come in, and her mother said, 'Oh no, Honey. They only sell books in there,' ” says Herson, himself a bookseller for the past eight years.
“As she was dragging her away, the girl was saying, 'But I like books,' ” Deck adds.
While on tour, Deck and Herson will be scouring the textual landscape for typos once again. If you find and correct any particularly notable typos, feel free to let them know at firstname.lastname@example.org. There's one important contest rule: “ Always ask first,” says Herson.
They'll be featuring some of the best ones they get on their blog, and once they've received entries from all 50 states, they'll start handing out prizes.
And if you spot any of the little devils lurking in this article, feel free to comment below.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.