In the winter of 2008, copy editor Jeff Deck packed his so-called Typo Correction Kit and set out on a cross-country trip, intending to fulfill his destiny by righting glaring errors displayed on signage nationwide. Joined by pal Benjamin Herson and other members of the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), Deck and friends used Sharpies, dry-erase markers, chalk, paste-on letters, and Wite-Out to correct mistakes wherever they encountered them.
All went swimmingly until a fateful encounter in the Arizona desert, when Deck—Cowboy hat on his head, camera strap across his chest, and Correction Kit dangling at his side (think Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)—drew a writing utensil from its holster and aimed at the wrong sign. By correcting a historical marker within Grand Canyon National Park and posting a picture of their handiwork (the smoking gun!) on the TEAL Web site, Deck and Herson became the target of law enforcement, ultimately hauled into federal court in Flagstaff and charged with vandalizing government property. Ironically, the Complaint was filled with typos (“criminal statues” instead of criminal statutes, “resitution” for restitution, and “vandlaizing” for vandalizing), as was their plea agreement.
But fortune favors the bold, and in the two years since, Deck and Herson, both 30, went on to produce “The Great Typo Hunt” (Crown Publishing), which not only recounts their adventures, but hints at broader aspirations. “TEAL was created to focus on issues of clarity in communication, specifically typos in text, but we are branching out into larger issues like editing awareness and education,” offered Herson in a recent exchange with Failure.
Curious about their run-in with the law, I phoned Deck to inquire about the case of United States of America v. Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, the origins of TEAL, and whether or not there are any errors in the first edition of “The Great Typo Hunt.”
Tell me about the sign that inspired TEAL?
I had just come from my five-year [Dartmouth] college reunion where I had talked to a lot of classmates doing great things and making a difference in the world. I wanted to do the same thing myself, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. A short time later when I was back in my neighborhood in Somerville, Massachusetts, I saw a sign that read “No Tresspassing” [sic]. I had worked at a couple places as an editor [Rocks & Minerals, for instance] and had been noticing typos my whole life. I figured it could be the angle at which I would go about this whole world-bettering thing. I started to plan out a national campaign—a two-and-a-half-month trip around the country—to hunt down typos wherever we could find them.
Were you worried that you wouldn’t find enough typos to make the trip worthwhile?
That was my mom’s worry. She said, “Are you sure you’re going to be able to find at least one typo every day?”
How many typos did you find?
A total of 437, and we corrected a little over half of them.
Why were you unable to fix many of the errors you found?
There are a lot of obstacles in typo eradication. Sometimes there is no one around to ask if you can fix something or not. Sometimes typos are physically out of reach. And sometimes when you bring the error to the attention of the people responsible their reaction is not the best. Sometimes they claim they will fix it, and you have to take their word for it.
What tools did you use to correct the typos?
I had my trusty Typo Correction Kit, with Sharpies and Wite-Out, dry-erase markers, pens, and crayons. I try to keep it on me at all times, because you never know when you are going to find a choice typo.
Tell me about your run-in with the Feds.
We had gone to the Grand Canyon and found ourselves at a watchtower on the South Rim, where we came across this innocuous looking sign that had a couple mistakes on it—an apostrophe in the wrong place and a missing comma. We moved the apostrophe and added the comma and didn’t realize until much later that the sign was [a hand-painted Mary Colter sign from 1932]. We got a federal summons from the Park Service after we completed our trip, and had to fly to Arizona to appear in federal court, where we were sentenced to pay three-thousand dollars in restitution and were banned from all National Parks for a year. We have a firm policy now of always getting permission before fixing a typo, and we encourage all typo hunters to do the same.
Have there been any errors on your blog—or in the book—which readers have gleefully pointed out?
Every once in a while we’ll make an error on the blog and someone will point it out. Standard operating procedure is to thank them and fix it as quickly as we can.
As far as typos in the book, I think it’s pretty clean, but we did hear from someone just the other day who found the first official typo. It’s in a footnote; we got the name of a book wrong. We’re sending this person a free copy of the new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.
At one point you questioned whether you were having an impact on the world. Do you feel more fulfilled than you did two years ago?
Yeah, through the mission we raised a lot of awareness about typos and wiped out a lot of specimens. But writing the book we realized that going after typos one at a time is very inefficient, which is why we are encouraging others to become agents of typo hunting. It’s easy to carry around a Sharpie and be there when your services are required. There’s a whole army out there waiting for marching orders.