The Great Typo Hunt

Two friends, one summer, 400 error-ridden signs

It’s undoubtedly a small subset of people who could be described as “grammar vigilantes,” and it’s an even smaller slice of the population who would find themselves called into court to answer for related crimes.

Such was the situation that two grammar-loving friends, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, found themselves. The pair were hauled into an Arizona court in 2008 and eventually pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of conspiracy to vandalize government property. Their offense? They used a Sharpie and some Wite-Out to correct a couple of typos on a sign at the Grand Canyon. Turns out the poorly written sign was considered something of a landmark by the National Parks Department.

That fix was one of many they made during an almost three-month road trip around the United States that saw them correct typos in signage. They call themselves the Typo Eradication Advancement League and their trip was The Great Typo Hunt. Now their journey and reflections on the state of writing and editing are collected in a new book, The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time.

“I’d always noticed typos growing up and maybe even earlier than I should have as a little kid,” says Deck, who has worked as an editor. “I’ve got this typo radar that’s sort of built into my head so I thought, ‘Why not get out there and try to fix some of these typos.’”

After embarking on the road trip, Deck was soon joined by Herson, an avid reader and bookstore worker.

When it comes to the press, the pair are still trying to make some corrections. As noted above, many media reports said they were “self-described grammar vigilantes.” Not so, according to Deck.

“There was a lot of misreporting at that time, some of which started with the press release from the prosecutor that said that we had described ourselves as ‘grammar vigilantes,’ which is something we never said,” Deck says. “Then a lot of news outlets, including Keith Olbermann, ran with that. He called us worst person in the world.”

My personal favorite misreport from that fateful summer is from The Arizona Republic. Its story led with the words “Two self-anointed ‘grammar vigilantes’ … ” and came replete with a grainy picture of a scowling, cowboy hat-wearing Herson. It cast the pair as a pair of pedantic wild west outlaws, except they pack Typo Correction Kits—an assemblage of different-colored Sharpies, Wite-Out, dry-erase markers, chalk, pens, and crayons—instead of six-shooters. (There is in fact a self-described American grammar vandal: her name is Kate McCulley and she blogs here.)

Deck and Herson’s work is not focused on errors in the press, but their brushes with notoriety have made them victims of media mistakes many times over. Herson sounds resigned to his fate when recounting the different ways his last name has been spelled over the past couple of years.

“Oh my God, I didn’t realize I had such a difficult name,” he says. “… Salon wrote a great, wonderful article after an interview with Jeff but in the same paragraph they got my name right and wrong.”

As it turns out, the Salon article remains uncorrected: the third paragraph refers to Herson and, later, “Henson.” Apparently, this was one typo the pair couldn’t manage to fix.

They were much more successful during their road trip, identifying over 400 typos and managing to get over 50 percent of them fixed. After their experience in Arizona, which resulted in a fine of just over $3,000, an apology and them being banned from national parks for one year, they adopted the stance that, “TEAL neither participates in nor condones the stealth typo correction. Always ask for permission to correct a typo.”

Deck previously established this set of rules for their endeavor:

We would attack only errors in the public domain. Personal correspondence wasn’t and shouldn’t be our business.

We would not beat up on non-native speakers of English.

We only cared about text, which remains in place for all to see. We had no desire to correct people’s speech.

And finally, our guiding principle:

We would not be jerks. There are plenty of people who mock others for their mistakes. We wanted the errors eradicated, but it was not our place to pass judgment on those who had made them.

The book has been getting a lot of attention from the press—watch the pair on the Today show—and that’s inevitably leading to more errors about who they are and what they do. It’s fitting because their book includes a chapter about mistakes in the media. I asked Deck if his work as a typo hunter had left him with advice to offer journalists.

“My advice to journalists at large is to not throw the copy editor overboard, which seems to be happening,” he says. “But if the copy editors have been let go, I think it’s important for journalists to have some kind of training in being their own copy editors and being able to step back from their text before they file—to read through and check things against notes and reputable sources. Just build in a little time to make sure the text is in good shape.”

And beware of calling someone a self-described grammar vigilante if they haven’t actually described themselves that way.

Correction of the Week

“IN A report yesterday, Body Found in Marina Glen, we incorrectly stated that police discovered the body of King William’s Town teacher Themba Malgas. In fact it was the body of Simphiwe Malgas. Themba is Simphiwe’s father and is alive. We regret the error.” – Daily Dispatch (South Africa)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.