Deck, Jeff and Benjamin D. Herson. The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World One Correction at a Time. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010. [ISBN-13: 978-0-307-59108-1]
So what do you do if you want to change the world and your superpower is a knowledge of grammar? If you’re Jeff Deck, you climb in your car; kit yourself out with chalk, markers, correction fluid, and a cowboy hat; and offer to fix people’s typos from sea to shining sea.
I wondered when I first opened this book if I was going to be following the adventures of a prescriptivist finger wagger trying to regain an imagined golden era of English by chiding and correcting the harried sign makers of the retail world. That didn’t sound like a very fun book to me. So I was happy to find that my fears were unfounded. Luckily Jeff Deck’s editing background means that while he knows his style guides, spelling conventions and grammar rules, he also knows that the these styles and spellings and rules vary from one time and place to another. His goal from the outset is to correct only those errors that are clearly mistakes and leave other variations alone.
So he and a series of stalwart co-correctors travel thousands of kilometres, tracing a circuit around the United States and ultimately finding a total of 437 typos* and correcting 236 of them, some by stealth, some with enthusiastic help, and some while vaguely hostile shopkeepers look on.
Deck sets out with gusto, heading first south along the Atlantic coast before heading west as so many have before him. And, more than merely painting out an apostrophe here and adding an AWOL letter there, his mission raises questions and fires up conversations with his fellow correctors as well as the people they meet along the way. These conversations range from the value of clarity in writing to the social factors that stymy communication and on to the linguistic advantage corporate copy editors afford big businesses over smaller independent ones.
For, as their travels continue, Deck begins to see that good typo hunting can be found in reliable spaces…and they aren’t multinational retail outfits. Other patterns emerge, too, like the errors most often made, and the fact that they’re made in every state and province the correctors visit. This leads to discussions of why some particular areas of English are so tricky to keep straight (it’s/its) and what sort of educational approach might help. Deck’s encounters with poetry and historical writing demonstrate that style and provenance can and often should trump “correctness.”
As he travels up the Pacific coast and begins to head east across the northern states, Deck has moments of doubt. He wavers in his mission. Has he become too much of a grammar hawk (aka a prescriptivist) on this tour? Should he chill out a little? Transform himself into a grammar hippie (aka a descriptivist)? I was glad to see him negotiating these positions, since in practice most of us, whether we do it consciously or not, must find our places on the spectrum between these two ends. While he tries to decide which end of the spectrum he belongs on, Deck’s commitment to his mission falters. As the caravan of correction loses steam, the narrative loses some of its punch, too, making for less compelling reading. But somewhere between strict prescriptivism and a pure descriptivism that would leave him with no mission at all, Deck finds his stride and we’re all off to the races again. Deck returns to Somerville, Massachusetts with a full head of steam and big ideas about where he plans to go next.
All in all, Deck’s mission to change the world one correction at a time, a mission that could have become a crusade for lockstep marching in the Standard English parade, becomes instead a thoughtful review of why and when language rules matter. You can learn more about the Great Typo Hunt at http://greattypohunt.com.
*Deck recognizes that in the strictest dictionary sense a typo is an error of careless typography rather than an error of understanding, but he elects to use the term here to encompass both sorts of errors.