A journey through the world of typos
If a sign in front of a store mistakenly uses “it’s’’ instead of “its,’’ is the error a big deal? Is it a symptom of grammatical ignorance, or is it just an insignificant typo? Some may be bothered by the mistake, while others might not notice or care.
The protagonists of “The Great Typo Hunt’’ notice, and definitely care. In March 2008, Jeff Deck, an editor with a keen eye for typos and other errors, set off from Somerville with a mission: to correct typos across the country, wherever he might see them. The book, which is funny and original, is written by Deck and Benjamin D. Herson, Deck’s companion for much of the journey. (The story is narrated exclusively from Deck’s perspective.)
The idea came about after Deck attended his five-year college reunion, where he was forced to ask himself what impact his life was having on the bigger world. Later, after seeing a sign misspelled as “no tresspassing,’’ he eventually decides to “change the world, one typo correction at a time.’’
The book follows a classic American narrative: a journey across the country and then home again. But instead of travelers looking for a better life, these two men are looking for typos. One of the first mistakes Deck spots is in a Filene’s Basement in Boston, where he chafes at a sign reading “Mens’ Boxed Ties.’’ (That mistake remains uncorrected.) In a diner in Maryland, they change the word “puding’’ on a chalkboard to “pudding.’’ In New Orleans, they change the word “cemetary’’ to “cemetery.’’ Some of the mistakes they spot go unfixed, others are corrected with permission, and some are “stealth corrections,’’ done on the sly. Photos of some of the typos and corrections are included in the book.
Each chapter begins with a short summary written in mock-heroic language; the book intentionally and ironically mimics the conventions of the classic hero’s journey. One source of tension in the narrative is Deck’s doubt over the purpose of the journey. Is it, in fact, important to correct written mistakes? And what makes something correct, anyway?
The book slows, yet deepens and becomes richer, when Deck ruminates on these questions. He asks: “If English is ever-changing and ever-mutating, if no pure form exists and never existed in the first place, then what was I doing?’’ These existential doubts about the nature of the journey are frequently interwoven with fruitful debates about the roots and evolution of English, and whether what is correct in English should be viewed through a “prescriptivist’’ or “descriptivist’’ lens. (There are fun discussions about grammatical conventions and about style, such as how to make a word ending in “s’’ possessive.) All of these propel the book from just a straightforward travel narrative to one that probes earnestly into how we learn, communicate verbally and in writing, and interact.
Occasionally, Deck’s frustrations with a few people he encounters during the mission results in snarkiness on the page. A low point is when he asks his readers, who were following him on a blog he was writing (he refers to them as his “minions’’), to beseech an individual to fix some mistake-riddled signs in a museum. The narrator becomes less likable at that moment.
It is also clear, though, that both Deck and Herson approached the journey with an eye toward improving writing in a thoughtful and polite way. The task is “about going after the errors themselves,’’ Deck explains, and this they do with moderation, good spirit, and humor. (Although one stealth correction results in some trouble with the law.)
The book, where editor meets road trip, is entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking, and one that any lover of language, travel — or both — will probably enjoy.
Rob Verger, a former instructor at Columbia University, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.