October 21, 2010


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Fixing our mistakes
Please, God, don't let me misspell anything in this article

By Lisa Parsons

Correcting people’s grammar and spelling can be dicey. You don’t want to offend, but you don’t want to leave them standing there with spinach between their teeth. That spinach might even cause cavities. On the other hand, who asked you?

No one asked Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, but that hasn’t stopped them. They set out across the country to locate and correct public writing errors. Their efforts have gotten national attention, but to us they are hometown boys — Deck is a native of Manchester, and both are Dartmouth grads. They documented their project in The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time (2010, Crown Publishing, 269 pages).

Reading The Great Typo Hunt, one gets the feeling they mainly set out across the country so that they’d have something to do in this down economy and some prospect of income from book sales. What else do you do with a creative writing degree after you’ve “burned a few years” as an editor, like Deck?

But though the book milks the whole thing rather heavily, lord knows there are some horrific typos out there making us look collectively stupid or careless, and we should address them. So when Deck writes, of his girlfriend, “No one else had ever cut such a finely limned cookie on the dried batter of my heart,” I am thinking “Forget the misspelled street signs and go write bad sonnets,” but I am still glad he’s doing the Typo Hunt.

Jeff Deck now resides in Portsmouth, but the groundwork for this book took him across the U.S. and the book tour has taken him around again, to Philly, D.C., Chicago, Omaha, Pasadena, Dallas, Tampa, Nashville … and back home to Manchester on Oct. 26 and then Hanover for a grand finale on Oct. 28. There have been interviews with Al Roker, ABC News, NPR and Canadian radio; write-ups in Salon, New Yorker magazine and many newspapers.

And behind it all? In the book’s Acknowledgements, Jeff Deck thanks “Mr. Joe Sullivan of West High School … for sparking my interest in writing in the first place.”

The book is both travelogue and argument. It is overarchingly a series of anecdotes describing how Deck and Herson found and corrected (or didn’t) typos, hundreds of them. Like the time they tried and failed to persuade a store clerk to let them add punctuation to a “DO NOT TOUCH VERY HOT!” sign. Threaded through the anecdotes are ongoing debates the authors have with each other and themselves about the point of the whole endeavor, why it matters, and the best ways to handle grammatical mistakes.

The anecdote that gets the quickest attention is the one from the Grand Canyon, where they fixed a sign and then found out they’d tampered with historic property. They were fined about $3,000 and banned from national parks for a year. After that they started asking permission before changing any signs.

But the anecdotes that’ll interest us the most are the ones from right here in New Hampshire and specifically Manchester, where their Typo Hunt wound down in May 2008. They went into a local cafe and tried to get a worker to fix a misspelling of “Gorgonzola.” It didn’t go well.

The Great Typo Hunt is not just about punctuation; it can spark complex discussion about some big things, like manners, civility, misunderstanding and self-presentation. And if it should happen to move you to proofread the signs in your neighborhood, so much the better.

100 Words Almost Everyone Mixes Up or Mangles, from the Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries, 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 118 pages.

While you’re at it with the typos, you might be interested in this latest entry in the “100 Words…” series from the people at American Heritage Dictionaries. (For a more basic list, read 100 Words Almost Everyone Confuses and Misuses, from 2004, which covers discreet vs. discrete, affect vs. effect, and adverse vs. averse.)

It’s a small paperback, easy to page through. You can focus on the etymologies and detailed explanations, or zero in on the facts, like that “phase” is a noun meaning a stage of development and “faze” is a verb meaning to disconcert. Please also study up on jibe vs. jive, before this one totally gets away from us, if it hasn’t already.

My other favorites: adopted vs. adoptive; pore vs. pour; tenet vs. tenant; shined vs. shone (she shined her shoes while the moon shone), and a particularly adorable entry on the words “old,” “older” and “elderly.”

Adherence not actually meaning adhesion, I hadn’t even thought about that one. If you adhere to your principles, that’s adherence, but if your wallpaper adheres to your walls, that’s adhesion.

This particular book is not exactly a must-have, but some of its content is, and for the going price of $6 or so it’s fine if you’re in the market.

Meet the authors of The Great Typo Hunt
• Tuesday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Manchester (Note: Certificates of Attendance (one hour) will be offered to New Hampshire educators who attend.)

• Thursday, Oct. 28, at 6 p.m. at Dartmouth Bookstore, 33 South Main St. in Hanover