If all you knew about the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL) was its name, you might conjure a group of retired English teachers, and a few of their librarian friends, circa 1960, alternately talking and knitting on the front porch over tea and scones, fretting about that new sign erected downtown—the one by the Department of Transportation. How could anyone think “parallel” is spelled “paralel”? What are we going to do about the insidious decline of our written language, they wonder, outraged in a way that only learned ladies of a certain age can manage.
That’s what you might think.
In fact, TEAL wasn’t born until 2008, decades after written language began its inexorable downward spiral, leaving years of written errors—on signs, restaurant menus, in bathrooms, department stores, historic markers, and anywhere else letters are strung together to communicate something—for founders Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson to correct. In a culture dominated by texting, tweeting, and emailing—media that have accelerated the decline of spelling, grammar, and word use—it seems unlikely that a pair of twenty-somethings would be the orthographic heroes of our time, bounding across the country in a car named Callie to fix our collective mistakes.
Evidently, a guy can edit the esteemed Rocks & Minerals periodical, which Deck did, for only so long before feeling that his creative-writing degree might find more use in another calling. “My qualifications for the job rested mainly on my ability to ferret out spelling and grammatical mistakes in text,” he writes. “I found that I was a natural, spotting typos with idiot-savant-esque regularity.” The job mostly involved “checking that fluorite was spelled with the u before the o, and that the names of Norse gods had the òs that they required.”
When Deck left that D.C.-based magazine to return to his New England home, he took another dead-end job as an administration assistant at MIT. At a college reunion, he was left in utter wonder at how meaningless his “career” seemed, especially compared to his those of peers.
Then he came upon a “No Tresspassing” sign.
“The glare from the extra s seemed to mock me,” he writes. “Sure, others before me had recognized that there was a problem afoot in modern English. Plenty of people had made much hay of ridiculing spelling and grammatical errors on late-night shows and in humor books and on websites weighted with snark. But: Who among them had ever bothered with actual corrective action? So far as I knew, not a soul. A lambent vision descended upon me, like the living wheels revealed unto Ezekiel. In it, I saw myself armed with Wite-Out and black marker, waging a campaign of holy destruction on spelling and grammatical mistakes.”
Or, to put “mistakes” another way, as the TEAL mission statement does, “vile stains on the delicate fabric of our language.”
Deck enlisted his college buddy Benjamin Herson, who worked (and works) in a book store—along with other friends and his girlfriend, who joined the pair at different times—and set off, armed with a typo-eradication toolkit, a tent, and a mission to find misplaced apostrophes, misspellings, and agreement and homophone errors, among others.
What ensued were several months of hilarious encounters, an unfortunate case of food poisoning, a brief insurgency within TEAL’s small ranks, some profound thoughts about the way we all communicate, and—not to be a mystery-killer here—what may or may not amount to criminal charges for vandalism. The project had them covering more than 12,000 miles and identifying 400 typos, 237 of which the duo corrected with Wite-Out, chalk, markers, dry erasers, vinyl letters—anything to get the job done.
Though The Great Typo Hunt is entertainment—funny, witty, delightfully youthful, and chock full of the kind of sentences any good writer would be proud to claim—it also has a studious side. Deck and Herson demonstrate a thorough knowledge of American history and of the history of grammar too. (Or is that “, too”?)
As a geek bonus, the authors have included an appendix entitled “A Field Guide to Typo Avoidance.”
Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson will discuss The Great Typo Hunt at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville on October 15 at 7 p.m.