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The Word

Road trip

Two men, one car, 437 typos

By Jan Freeman
August 1, 2010

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Language nitpickers may recall the saga of college buddies Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, who two years ago set out on a road trip with a mission: They would cross America in search of misspelled signage, correcting plurals, relocating apostrophes, and adding commas as needed. Along the way, they would (of course) blog the progress of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, or TEAL, as they grandly dubbed themselves. Their quest was easy to grasp and hard not to like, and by the time they hit California — land of “Sweedish berries” and “hellicopter helmets” — they were getting air time on national TV.

The three-month odyssey ended with a whimper, though, when the guys returned to Deck’s Somerville home to face a summons from the National Park Service: A sign they had corrected at the Grand Canyon was, it seemed, a 1932 hand-painted artifact, its mispunctuation protected by federal law. Deck and Herson could have gotten away with it — but they had posted the damning evidence on their own blog. Fined, muzzled, mocked in the media, and given a year’s probation, they closed the incriminating website and hunkered down.

But in the same spirit of enterprise that launched the trip, Deck and Herson have now made lemonade from that sour experience. In their new book, “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time” (Crown, $23.99), they tell their side of the story: The arduous weeks on the road, the 437 typos spotted, the 236 corrected.

Yes, you could find 437 typos closer to home in a lot less time, just by reading newspapers and restaurant menus, without putting an ounce of CO2 into the atmosphere. But where’s the adventure in that? Deck, the instigator and narrator, understands that the idea of two Dartmouth grads setting forth to rid the world of “hooded sweatts” and “braclets” is comic at its core, and he wisely takes a mock-heroic tone: “Your/you’re confusion, comma and apostrophe abuse, transpositions and omissions....Each one on its own amounted to naught but a needle of irritation thrusting into my tender hide. But together they constituted a larger problem, a social ill that cried out for justice.”

And so begins the quest to right such wrongs, sometimes by stealth, where possible with cooperation from the perpetrators or their enablers. Sometimes it’s easy: In New Orleans, a mellow fellow at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville responds to news that his chalkboard says “Thrusday” with, “Sure, if it’s wrong, we can fix it.” But weeks later, in what must have been one of the more discouraging encounters, the clerk at an educational toy store in Hudson, Ohio, refuses the team’s offer to repair “in doors” and “year around fun”: “I would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign,” she tells them.

Even with such provocation, the daring duo manages to avoid the trap of self-righteousness. (For better and worse; after all, it’s righteous rage that gives a good rant, like Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” its tang.) Instead, between the pit stops and language face-offs, they offer a series of soul-searching digressions: Do we care about just spelling, or usage too? Are we Grammar Hippies or Grammar Hawks? Is the issue really clear communication, or are apostrophes just class markers? And above all, is this truly a Meaningful Enterprise?

Eventually, back in Massachusetts, they have their eureka moment as they observe a first-grade language drill in a Malden charter school: Education is the key! TEAL will “proactively enable the next generation of communicators” by helping to get phonics back into the education mainstream.

How much of this theorizing went on in real time, on the road, only the knights-errant know for sure (though I’ll note that both authors write fiction). But the result is a creditable buddy adventure — “Harold and Kumar Proofread America,” say, or “Dude, Where’s My Sharpie?” — only with G-rated language, as befits a quest to improve the nation’s literacy. (The swear-free account had me wondering, I admit: Did someone’s agent whisper “Disney movie”? Could be; for all the cold beer on tap, the team’s only brush with gross-out content is Herson’s violent disagreement with a fast-food burger.)

The tale’s major weakness, in fact, is the meager variety of typos. Of the top 10 errors the writers tabulated, five are apostrophe misuses — a broad hint that we might be better off just abolishing the apostrophe (as Deck himself suggests). Subject-verb agreement makes the list (“Lemons sure is tasty”), but all the others are plain misspellings (restaraunt), double-letter confusions (dinning room, desert/dessert), and unstressed vowel missteps (independance, definately).

So if a movie script should come to pass, the screenwriters will want to invent some more outrageous mistakes. We Americans, it turns out, just aren’t the wild and crazy spelling anarchists we’re made out to be.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).