Archive for Thursday, August 26, 2010

Word nerds: They’re out to rid the world of typos

Jeff Deck, 30, holds the door for Benjamin Herson, 30, two word nerds and earnest agents of TEAL — Typo Eradication Advancement League — as they enter a dry cleaning establishment on 19th Street in Philadelphia, to ask if they can remove the erroneous apostrophe in the name. The name of the dry cleaners should read Four Seasons Cleaners.

Jeff Deck, 30, holds the door for Benjamin Herson, 30, two word nerds and earnest agents of TEAL — Typo Eradication Advancement League — as they enter a dry cleaning establishment on 19th Street in Philadelphia, to ask if they can remove the erroneous apostrophe in the name. The name of the dry cleaners should read Four Seasons Cleaners.

August 26, 2010


Typo sleuth Jeff Deck holds his typo repair kit.

Typo sleuth Jeff Deck holds his typo repair kit.

— Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, two word nerds and earnest agents of TEAL — the Typo Eradication Advancement League — visited Philadelphia last week, and within 90 minutes Center City was the better for it, orthographically speaking.

On 19th Street, at the Four Seasons Cleaners, they noticed the word cleaner’s uncalled-for apostrophe on the door of the establishment.

With permission from owner Mee Kim, Deck used his fingernail to peel off the superfluous apostrophe, a feat that would have made him beam triumphantly if he were inclined to beam.

A few doors down, a sign in the window of All About Hair advertised “5 hairstylist.” Deck, carrying his trusty Typo Correction Kit (a makeup bag filled with correction fluid, permanent markers, chalk and Sharpies in various colors), offered to pluralize the word with an “s,” but hairstylist Rita Riccelli declined.

“Somebody told us it was spelled wrong, but I’d rather you come back when the boss is here,” Riccelli said. She promised to bring it to his attention.

On 18th Street, at the Wrap Shack kitchen and bar, among the specials on a chalkboard out front, Deck and Herson spotted “chicken caeser.”

“Would you mind if I fixed it?” Deck asked manager Juana Quiroz politely.

With a bemused smile, she consented, and she even offered some chalk. Deck carefully changed the last “e” to an “a.”

“Most people are hesitant to do something about typos,” he declared, looking satisfied, “but the world is more malleable than it might seem.”

Deck and Herson were in town Aug. 16 not only searching for typos but also promoting “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time.” (Crown Publishers, $23.99). It chronicles a 10-week road trip around America in the spring of 2008 during which Deck, Herson and other TEAL disciples attempted to rid America of typos, spellos, “prepostrophes” and other egregious mistakes, inconsistencies, transpositions, solecisms and symptoms of “the creeping menace of carelessness.”

Part classic road-trip narrative, buddy-love saga and state-of-the-nation survey, it’s also an adventure thriller for grammar fiends, travel porn for copy editors and other enforcers of linguistic propriety.

“I wanted to make some positive difference in the world,” says Deck, explaining his motivation for the trip. “How could I do that? What is my special skill? And the answer I came up with is, I could spot typos wherever I roamed. I’ve noticed them all my literate life.”

Deck, 30, of Portsmouth, N.H., recruited Herson, also 30, of Beaverton, Ore. They had met years earlier in a creative-writing class at Dartmouth College and later roomed together when they worked in Washington, D.C.

“When Jeff called and talked about a road trip, I didn’t totally process the typo part,” Herson recalls. “Then he started his blog entries and I realized he was serious — he really was hunting typos every day. At first, I was glad I could find and correct them as well, but it was the stuff underneath the typos that got me curious.”

To wit: Why are so many Americans prone to misspelling, so ignorant of basic rules of grammar and punctuation?

Examples were plentiful. The duo began their trip in New England and journeyed south, before heading west, then up the West Coast and across the upper Midwest back to New England.

On their first tour, they skipped Philadelphia but did stop in Lansdowne, where they saw, and corrected, signs in a supermarket offering “beefstake” tomatoes and “pomegranite” juice.

They fixed “bread puding” in Rockville, Md., “souveneir mugs” in Las Vegas, and “dillettante chocolate” in Seattle. Near Flagstaff, Ariz., they spotted a billboard urging “BRING YOUR CAMERA’S.” That was enough to impel them to exit the highway and turn around. After vaulting a barbed-wire fence and weaving between sagebrush and cactus, they reached the offending billboard, where Deck chalked out the apostrophe — “bigger than my hand,” Herson says.

On the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, as the TEALsters were whiting out the extraneous apostrophe in “palm reading’s” (”probably the most common type of mistake,” Herson says), two thugs approached and warned, “Walk away now or you won’t be able to walk again.”

“That’s the only time we were physically threatened,” Deck says. “Maybe they were part of some apostrophe-preserving gang.”

In Galveston, Texas, they encountered evidence of another phenomenon — “a sign that used to be correct but that someone had changed to make incorrect, usually in a profane way.” In this instance, someone had erased the initial “C” in Canal City.

The frequency of the phenomenon led the duo to posit the existence of FLAME — Fiendish League for Advancing Mistakes in English.

On the south rim of the Grand Canyon, they fixed two errors on an ordinary-seeming sign about artwork on a faux American Indian watchtower. The Park Service, which regarded the sign as historic, was not amused. The TEALsters were later summoned to court, charged with defacing federal property, and ordered to pay $3,000 in restitution. They were also banned from national parks for a year.

The experience ended the practice of “stealth corrections” and “covert alterations” and led to the formulation of the “Third Rule of Typo Hunting” (Don’t Be a Jerk) and such corollaries as Always Ask Permission and Be Courteous and Deferential.

All told, the TEALsters found 437 mistakes during their Great Typo Hunt and corrected 236.

“It’s a universal truth that everyone makes mistakes,” Deck says, “and there are mistakes everywhere you go in the United States.” No region was more mistake-prone than others, but neighborhoods with more independent businesses were “more likely to need typo-eradication assistance.”

One of the big surprises: “the richness of the conversations” provoked by TEAL’s mission.

“Everyone seemed to have a typo story,” Deck says. “A simple conversation about a misplaced apostrophe could open up whole other vistas of topics about the way people communicate, and relate to each other in the workplace.”

Tolerant of slang, lenient toward non-native users of English, determined to amend the error rather than shame the perpetrator, they tried to steer a middle course between the “grammar hawks” and “grammar hippies,” the prescriptivists and descriptivists. Telling patterns in spelling mistakes, particularly “double-letter issues” (”dinning” instead of “dining,” “shiping” instead of “shipping”), have convinced them of the virtue of phonics-based reading instruction.

The guerrilla grammarians of TEAL hope to inspire others to follow their lead. In the meantime: “Take a second look at your text,” Herson exhorts. Proofreading something you’re about to share with the world is a matter not only of clarity of communication but also common courtesy.

As Deck writes in the book: “To some extent, we are our own text — erroneous signs confer their blemishes on their very owners.”


fiddleback 7 years, 9 months ago

lack of commas, incorrect plural pronoun: ...his last line of defense, when he can't counter someone's argument, is to go after his/her spelling and grammar.

Chris Golledge 7 years, 9 months ago

Certainly not a hay day, a day celebrating when all the hay is brought in and the work is done.

denak 7 years, 9 months ago

They should have gone to CICI's on 23rd. On every single laminated sign on their wall by the cash register, there is some kind of typo or grammatical mistake.

I have pointed this out twice, and I know others have, but for some reason, they won't take the sign down or correct it.


somedude20 7 years, 9 months ago

if you are going to be critical of CiCi's I would start with the "food" they sling there. I know it is cheap but then again so is dog food

canyon_wren 7 years, 9 months ago

I would think that these mistakes (like the misuse of the apostrophe) are not truly TYPOS--typos are something you do by hitting the wrong key. There certainly are some hilarious examples of the wrong use of apostrophes now--everyone seems to use it for making a name plural. You see it a lot on door mats and mailboxes, like "The Smith's," etc. I always think, "The Smith's WHAT??"

gphawk89 7 years, 9 months ago

I've seen that one crop up more and more lately. Several large signs I see on my way to work at entrances to apartment complexes say things like "The Meadow's", "Country Ridge Villa's", etc. You'd think that someone being paid to create permanent public signage should be required to have a good handle on basic grammar and punctuation rules.

fiddleback 7 years, 9 months ago

I don't know how this got be so confusing for average folk- these same people can't be using apostrophes for EVERY plural, right? Are they just guessing when it's necessary? It must be the same dullards who switch it's and its, they're and their...
Yeah, canyon wren's right. these aren't "typos." That's just a euphemism to avoid calling these people the grammar flunkies that they truly are.

booyalab 7 years, 9 months ago

I hate typos. But I don't think the answer is going out and volunteering to fix them myself. They're too widespread. Instead, I think people should pay me vast sums of money to proofread everything they want to print.

Bill Lee 7 years, 9 months ago

Someone should also attack the terrible grammar on television. The typical defense of typos is, "everyone knows what we mean" or "it doesn't matter to most people." It does however matter to enough of us that spelling and grammar rules should be followed. If they are, EVERYONE will understand what in meant, and it won't be noticed by most people. My pet peeve is people don't understand when "me" should be used instead of "I." Too many think that "I" sounds more proper. It's as if they're afraid to ever use "me."

Chris Golledge 7 years, 9 months ago

How did these guys know that the establishment was named to identify the cleaners who worked in four seasons as opposed to belonging to a cleaner who works all year around?

As in Johnny's, the tavern that belongs to Johnny?

storm 7 years, 9 months ago

I'm in total agreement with this one - As Deck writes in the book: “To some extent, we are our own text — erroneous signs confer their blemishes on their very owners.”

examples - Cici's menu; Chipotle's menue with the consistent incorrect use of chili when they really mean chile, the fruit, and not beans and meat as in chili; and the Smith family who advertise to all who drive by, that they're really ignorant when their sign shows Smith's...but those are all tame compared to Walgreen's on 6th Street when they mis-spelled my name on the prescription bottle but assured me it was correct in their computer. Gee, do they measure drugs and dosage correctly, all the way through, thru, threw? I'm certain my paragraph has errors but at least I'm not advertising myself. Right or wrong, many potential customers won't go into an establishment that can't even take the time to be sure all wording is correct.

RoeDapple 7 years, 9 months ago

me an cuzin elroy wint too one those french restrunts you wanna see sum messt up spelin just try reedin sum dat chikkin skratch

gphawk89 7 years, 9 months ago

"Right or wrong, many potential customers won't go into an establishment that can't even take the time to be sure all wording is correct."

Along the same lines, I rarely contact or make an online purchase from a business whose website contains spelling or grammatical errors. If they don't care enough to have a professional-looking website for the whole world to see, am I going to be treated professionally during/after the purchase of their product or service? Probably not.

"I would fire an employee in my office if they cared more about a flipping typos then the bottom line."

Depending on your customer base, typos and the bottom line could be closely related. If your employee is writing contracts, technical documentation, or other legal documents, problems with spelling/grammar/punctuation can be killer. If you're selling "vegetable's" at a roadside stand, it probably doesn't matter.

7 years, 9 months ago

This is to funy. I'me totally luvin' these guys! Their the best!

Janet Lowther 7 years, 9 months ago

I've been threatening to create "The society for the preservation of English irregular verbs," since several irregular verbs I grew up with are almost gone, if not entirely out of the style book, so I'm definitely on the side of these guys.

iridebikesalot 7 years, 9 months ago

Har har! Where do I join ?! Just the other day I was in Cycleworks bike shop, there's a sign on the wall that says "Wear your helmet, let's not all become vegetable's" I'll wear a helmet everyday if it means I won't end up becoming a slave to a vegetable

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