Stop by Borders at T5 tomorrow between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. for a book signing by co-author of the new and witty, THE GREAT TYPO HUNT: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time, Jeff Deck.
See below for a Q&A with authors Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson.
How did you start traveling around the country correcting typos?
Jeff Deck: Everyone has the capacity to change the world in some way; it’s just that some people have slightly more useful specialties than others. I wanted to make a difference, but I was no scientist or politician or celebrity chef—just an editor with a pretty good eye for spotting typos. I decided to leave the cancer-curing and endangered-species-saving to someone else and concentrate on what I did best. Typos were everywhere; I could fix them. So I started the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), recruited Benjamin, and took my typo-hunting national.
The book takes on a lot of topics that you wouldn’t expect from a book on typos and grammar. How did issues like race and consumerism get in there?
Benjamin Herson: We bumbled along fixing typos and then would find ourselves in some awkward situation, and the awkwardness usually pointed to something deeper. Like the Obama shirt we saw in Atlanta: “He’s black and Im proud.” And it sinks in that we’re the only white people in the place, and we’re about to criticize a shirt about black pride. So: awkward. But the conversation we had with the shirt seller had this weird way of dancing around the awkwardness, and that got us thinking: in twenty-first century America, there were still strange taboos on what could be said. Having those kinds of conversations with people across the country turned out to be the most important part of the trip.
What’s the big deal about typos, anyway?
JD: Typos mess with the most important aspect of written communication: clarity. There were times when Benjamin and I honestly couldn’t tell what a sign was trying to say. Even if people can still understand the text, it’ll take them longer to read it with typos, and that’s wasting their time. In a world teeming with distractions, you only have a split second to catch and hold someone’s attention with a sign.
BH: Look closer and you’ll see that typos are a symptom of a larger problem. Taken as a whole, they can point to widespread misunderstanding about spelling and grammar, not to mention lagging education in language. Thirty million American adults are functionally illiterate; clearly our educational system has some catching up to do. Typos also have a negative effect on how people perceive you, making you seem careless or even incompetent. That’s especially not a good impression if you have something to sell.
So a typo is never just a typo?
JD: Language is bound up in every part of our lives. So when it goes awry, that indicates more than just a spelling and grammar problem. No typo exists in a vacuum. Behind every misplaced comma or junction error is a story—whether it be about education, carelessness, or socioeconomics and privilege. It’s important to understand why typos happen, and to be sympathetic about the situations that lead to them. Then you can figure out how to help prevent typos from appearing in the first place.
What are your favorite typo corrections?
JD: We found more than four hundred typos and corrected more than two hundred of them, so they couldn’t all make it into the book. But you will read of such exploits as the “Bring Your Camera’s” incident in the borderland desert, involving an apostrophe as big as Benjamin’s head. I’m a sucker for derring-do, so my favorite corrections tended to involve us climbing on things. Benjamin climbed onto the roof of my car in the rain in Fort Stockton, Texas, to switch an “E” and an “R” around in a sign. We also climbed to correct in Ohio and Indiana.
BH: My favorite corrections were when people responded to us in a positive way, rather than getting hostile or defensive about their mistakes. Like a tour office manager in New Orleans who let us change the a in “cemetary.” In Jeff’s hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire, a lady helped us out by changing an unnecessary apostrophe into a bunch of fireworks on her sign. Now that’s creativity!
Did the federal government really come after you for your typo-hunting?
JD: One of our corrections landed us in trouble with the law when we fixed something we shouldn’t have: an old sign at the Grand Canyon. The federal prosecutor’s office came up with the term “self-proclaimed grammar vigilantes” to describe us in their press release, which was repeated as truth by the media. That wasn’t quite right. We weren’t vigilantes going around trying to commit acts of grammatical aggression. We had a kinder, gentler approach to grammar that doesn’t blame anyone for mistakes, since everyone makes them.
So why did you “destroy” that “priceless historical artifact” at the Grand Canyon?
JD: Whoops. We actually had no idea that the sign at the Grand Canyon—an innocuous piece of fiberboard explaining the significance of the building but in no way indicating its own significance—had been made decades ago, much less that it was considered artwork. We would never have corrected it if we’d known.
BH: And we’re certainly not correcting anything these days without permission. We encourage all typo hunters to ask someone before they try to correct a typo. As far as the Grand Canyon typos—as of late June 2010, that sign remains on display with our corrections still in place (photo available upon request). Maybe the Park Service decided it didn’t look so bad after all.
JD: Though we are curious about what they did with the $3,000 they collected from us for the purpose of restoring the sign.
What’s next for the Typo Eradication Advancement League?
JD: Our first trip around the country wasn’t enough—we decided we had to take a second trip, refining our approach and opening TEAL up to others so that we could spread the gospel of editing. So we’ve folded a second typo hunt into our national book tour for THE GREAT TYPO HUNT.We’ll be blogging about our adventures along the way at http://www.GreatTypoHunt.com.
Trying to fix typos one at a time seems hopelessly quixotic.
BH: That’s why we’ve got a more education-centered mission this time around. We want to get a better method of teaching reading and spelling into more schools. Direct Instruction is a phonics-based program that has been shown repeatedly to improve children’s abilities with English and even, through being able to read better on their own, boost their self-esteem at the same time. So, more to come!