Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"The Great Typo Hunt: Two friends changing the world, one correction at a time" by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

The signs of the times are missing apostrophes. The world needed a hero, but how would an editor with no off-switch answer the call? For Jeff Deck, the writing was literally on the wall: NO TRESSPASSING. In that moment, his greater purpose became clear. Dark hordes of typos had descended upon civilization...and only he could wield the marker to defeat them.

Recruiting his friend Benjamin and other valiant companions, he created the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL). Armed with markers, chalk, and correction fluid, they circumnavigated America, righting the glaring errors displayed in grocery stores, museums, malls, restaurants, mini-golf courses, beaches, and even a national park. Jeff and Benjamin championed the cause of clear communication, blogging about their adventures transforming horor into horror, it's into its, and coconunut into coconut.

But at the Grand Canyon, they took one correction too far: fixing the bad grammar in a fake Native American watchtower. The government charged them with defacing federal property and summoned them to court - with a typo-ridden complaint that claimed that they had violated "criminal statues." Now the press turned these paragons of punctuation into "grammar vigilantes," airing errors about their errant errand.

The radiant dream of TEAL would not fade, though. Beneath all those misspelled words and mislaid apostrophes, Jeff and Benjamin unearthed deeper dilemmas about education, race, history, and how we communicate. Ultimately, their typo-hunting journey tells a larger story not just of proper punctuation but of the power of language and literacy - and the importance of always taking a second look.

As someone who now has a small gig proofreading for a small publisher, I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. If you are a self-proclaimed "grammar nazi," then this book is for you. If you've ever looked at a sign in public and shaken your head at a horrible misspelling, this book is for you. If you're one of those people that know the difference between its/it's, your/you're, to/too/two, etc, this book is for you.

Besides all the great typos Deck found (and trust me, there are some real doozies in here) and the fun travel adventures (who hasn't had some sort of disaster happen on a road trip?), there's quite a bit of philosophy here, too. For example, after the blog has been up and running for a little while, Deck and Benjamin land in Galveston, where they correct "Davy Jones Locker" with an apostrophe and an additional "s": "Davy Jones's Locker". No sooner do they post the pics of their success than the proverbial grammar poo hits the fan. Several comments show up blasting the pair for the additional "s", claiming that it's not necessary according to AP style, and that "everyone" knows that. Which made our heroes discuss which style, exactly, they were using when performing their feats of grammatical daring. (While Deck has done some AP-type editing, he prefers to refer back to his Chicago Manual of Style days.) As Deck himself points out, which style guideline you follow depends on what you do for a living: journalists refer to the AP Style Guide (obviously preferred by readers of his blog, too), while scholars would flip through an MLA Handbook. But if you're a medical writer, you're going to pull out your trustworthy APA Guide. And finally, if you're an author (fiction and non-fiction both), you're going to be intimately familiar with the tome that is The Chicago Manual of Style.

In the end, Deck puts it quite nicely. To all those that are concerned about the "right" or "wrong" way to correct an error, he says this: "The point is that any correction, regardless of the stylebook, is better than leaving the thing wrong."

It was also very interesting to read about people's reactions to the errors. At first, TEAL attempts a lot of "stealth" corrections, trying to leave the written world a better place but without taking any credit for it. Then Deck and his partners (especially Benjamin) start asking to change the errors, sometimes with great results, but more often finding attitude. Several retail-type employees simply refer to the fact that "they" didn't make the signs, and "they" don't have the authority to do anything about it. Other retail jockeys have an apathetic attitude of "whatever" - so the corrections happen. The authors also discovered that while people understood that there were errors in the signage, they were often loathe to have it "corrected" for fear it would look...well, "tacky" is a good word to use here, I think. Which really surprised our grammar sticklers, as they thought the tackier sign would be the one that was misspelled. To each his own, I suppose. But it did make for good conversations about how people take criticism, any criticism, even if it's not really directed at them.

As I said in the beginning of this review, I loved this book. Highly recommended to all. And people - let's watch the grammar out there!

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