For many, a misspelled sign imploring “no tresspassing” or similar typos stand merely as minor annoyances – but for two friends, they’ve been a personal mission.
Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson – authors of “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time” – traveled America fixing hundreds of grammatical errors in public places, and were even arrested after correcting a Grand Canyon sign.
Deck and Herson embarked on another tour following the book’s release earlier this month.The two will visit Tampa’s Inkwood Books on Oct. 9.
The Oracle spoke with Deck about memorable mistakes and legal trouble from fixing punctuation.
The Oracle: How did you come up with the idea of the typo hunt?
Jeff Deck: Well, I was looking to make some sort of positive difference in the world. I first had to identify what it was that I personally could do, and the answer to that question was editing. I’ve been spotting typos pretty much all my literary life. So I decided to try (changing) the world through fixing typos, and created a whole campaign for doing so.
O: Do you remember the first typo that you encountered on your initial trip?
Jeff Deck: The very first typos that I fixed were actually just to prepare myself for going out into the world – on my own shower curtain in my bathroom. I fixed a couple of little mistakes in there as a way to prep myself. Later on, I hit the streets of Boston and found typos downtown in a clothing store’s basement.
They were having problems with their apostrophes. They had a big sign above the ceiling that said “mens,” but didn’t have the apostrophe. Below that they had “mens’ boxed ties,” but this time they had an apostrophe in the wrong place.
O: What was the worst, most egregious typo you found?
JD: There were a few – the one that immediately springs to mind was in Chicago. There was a furniture store on Milwaukee Avenue, so they decided to call themselves Milwaukee Furniture. The problem was that on their marquee announcing the name of the store outside, they had managed to misspell the name of their own store. They had Milwaukee spelled with a “ua” instead of an “au” in the middle. When we brought the typo up to them, they reacted very apathetically. It was kind of surprising, considering it’s the first thing you see of the store.
O: You mention that as you went along your trip, you found social problems within some typos – race relations or workplace problems. When did that become apparent to you?
JD: One of the most illuminating incidents was in Mobile, Ala., where we came across this candy stand with a sign that said, “Do not touch very hot.” They didn’t have any punctuation between the “do not touch” and the “very hot” part. We brought this up to the person who was working at the counter. She didn’t want to let us correct the mistake because she was afraid she was going to get in trouble with her boss. She actually pointed up at the ceiling and said, “The cameras are always watching.” It was really emblematic of this breakdown in communication that went beyond the surface of the language breakdown … This time it was the employer and employee not really talking on the same level, and not being able to communicate in a way that can … improve the impression of the business getting out there – the public’s faith in it. So there were a lot of typos like that, where the typo was just the surface and there was an interesting story behind it.
O: What happened with the Grand Canyon incident?
JD: I’ll begin by explaining that we’d actually gone out to the Grand Canyon to stay off typo-hunting and just enjoy the natural beauty of the place. So we went there with that intention, but then we were in this watchtower on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We came upon a sign that was pretty innocuous-looking – some yellow words scrawled on black fiberboard. It was a sign describing the artwork on the tower wall, and it had a couple of mistakes in it. It had an apostrophe that was in the wrong place. The apostrophe was after the “s” – a lot like that sign with the “mens’.” There was a comma missing from a list in the same paragraph.
So we thought, “Well, you know, the sign doesn’t look like any big deal, so it probably wouldn’t do any harm if we just go ahead and fix this apostrophe, and put in this comma.” We didn’t realize until a while later that the sign was actually about 70 years old, and the park service regarded it as having a historic and aesthetic value. If we’d known that, we certainly would’ve never touched it in the first place. So after the trip was done, the federal court in Arizona had us fly back out there.
We were ordered to pay $3,000 in restitutions and were banned from all national parks for a year. So it was a pretty heavy cost for a couple of punctuation marks. We now definitely have a very firm policy of always getting permission before fixing typos, and we encourage all typo hunters out there to do the same.
O: How have people responded on the book tour so far?
JD: So far, we’ve had some really great turnout at our readings. Particularly in Portsmouth and Boston. In Boston, we had upwards
of 35 people at the reading. We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with people who’ve read the book, completely identified with it because they have their own typo stories and things they’ve noted out there. We’ve been getting a very good set of feedback from people so far.
O: Any typos on the road that you have your eyes set on?
JD: Basically, we go after typos as we usually stumble along them along the way. There’s not any typos we have foreknowledge about. Certainly, we get a lot of people e-mailing us and saying, “Come to Mexico, Missouri and fix this typo.” We certainly can’t work all suggestions into our itinerary, but when ones do come up, we’re going to try and work them into the schedule.
O: What advice would you give to people interested in following your lead and becoming typo hunters?
JD: I think it’s very important for everyone to take a look at their type before putting it out. It’s really just a simple proofread can help prevent a lot of typos that end up out there. But usually one of our big pieces of advice for people who are interested in typo hunting themselves – we actually have five rules of typo hunting.
The first is always hunt with a buddy – it’s always good to have more than one pair of eyes out there on the sign landscape. No. 2 is be prepared. We recommend carrying around a typo correction kit with Sharpies, Wite-Out and dry erase markers and chalk. No.3 is to not be a jerk – you basically want to be as courteous as possible when approaching people about their mistakes. You’re going after the typo and trying to get the mistake fixed rather than passing any judgment or making anyone feel bad.
No. 4 is take a closer look – really, typo hunting is just a different way of viewing the environment around you, and you’d be surprised at how many typos will pop out at you when you’re aware of the text around you. The fifth one is one we definitely learned after the Grand Canyon incident, and that is to always get permission.