Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hunting Typos to Save the World

Nom, nom, nom. Punctuation is critical. It can spare granny's life!

My appreciation for written language began as a youngster in Spelling class. I loved spelling, mostly because it came naturally to me.

My appreciation for language further developed in junior high, when I learned to map sentences in Ms. Limbos's Language Arts class. I discovered that as complicated as the English language may be, it's quite formulaic.

My obsession with editing began with a job I had in high school, working for a local publishing company. My task was to review and correct the answers in the back of a math book. Yes, I got paid to do math.

The job blossomed into eight years of editing for a few educational publishing companies -- Scott Foresman, Addison-Wesley, and Prentice Hall. When I later became a tax accountant, I used my editorial skills at CCH, a publishing company that provided information services to lawyers and accountants.

As much as I hate to admit it, I judge people based on their written language. While an occasional spelling error here or a slip-up of an apostrophe there is acceptable, it's very difficult for me to develop respect for someone whose emails or PowerPoint presentations are littered with errors.

My arch nemesis, both in written and verbal language, is subject/verb disagreement. An example of this is:
These dogs is barking.
I hear it all the time, and it really hurts my hearing organs.

I usually correct my friends when they say or write something with subject/verb disagreement; I want them, for my own selfish purposes, to sound intelligent. When, however, I'm around someone for whom it would be hugely disrepectful to correct, I force myself to keep my lips tightly sealed.

Over the years, my pickiness has earned me the nickname "Grammar Nazi," which I consider to be a flattering take on Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi." I just finished reading a book, though, that has made it quite clear that there are at last two other individuals in the world who are deserving of this honorable designation. This book is:

It only took a quick read of the book's title to know that I now have two new best friends. Yes, Jeff and Benjamin, the authors of "The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time," are my new BFFs. Together we share a love of adventure and a deep appreciation for typo-free writing.

I found this book while randomly perusing the 100s and 300s in the nonfiction section of my local library branch. I figured I'd probably enjoy any book residing in this section of the Dewey Decimal neighborhood, as I recognized a few nearby titles that I had befriended in earlier times.

This book taught me two new terms:
  1. Orthography (n): the conventional spelling system of a language
  2. Cacography (n): bad handwriting or spelling
Alright, I confess: these weren't the only two terms I learned. This book frequently challenged my vocabulary. As I read, I held "The Great Typo Hunt" in one hand and Webster's bestseller in the other. What can I say? My vocabulary sucks!

Vocabulary expansion aside, this book is, by far, the most entertaining book I've read in quite awhile. The story goes like this:

Jeff is an editor who is seeking purpose in life. With the sight of the following sign, Jeff's purpose becomes crystal clear:


Jeff decides to circumnavigate the United States identifying and correcting typos. Jeff creates the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL) and recruits his good friend, Benjamin, to accompany him on the voyage.

Along their nearly 12,000 mile road trip, Jeff and Benjamin hunt for typos, saving the world by performing "vowel surgeries" and "returning apostrophes to their rightful places." Armed with a Typo Correction Kit (consisting of tools such as Wite-Out and dry-erase markers), Jeff and Benjamin identify 437 typos, but for various reasons, correct only 236 of those typos. As Jeff states, "We hit an obstacle or two along the way, of course, like when we caught a typo in neon and I didn't have any spare glass tubing handy for the rechanneling of inert gases."

While visiting the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, Jeff and Benjamin find instances of Francis spelled as "Frances" and Assisi spelled as "Assissi." (The latter spelling is quite crass for a church!) How can there be misspellings within a church's own confines? That's like me spelling my own name as "Sara"!

ABC, NBC, and a whole slew of other media outlets catch wind of The Great Typo Hunt, and so Jeff and Benjamin become overnight celebrities. Here is BBC's clip about Jeff and his mission to eradicate typos:

Unfortunately, Jeff and Benjamin also catch the attention of the federal government, who has learned via TEAL's blog of a "correction" made to a historic sign at the Grand Canyon. The United States of America summons Jeff and Benjamin to court for defacing federal property. No adventure is complete without an appearance in a federal courtroom!

Jeff points out numerous typos in the federal court documents, which, for example, state that the two men had violated certain "criminal statues." In my opinion, Jeff and Benjamin should have been excused from the legal proceedings merely by demonstrating that even the federal government is careless with language.

At the end of the book, Jeff goes back to the sign that inspired his voyage. He applies Wite-Out to the extra "S" in the "NO TRESSPASSING" sign, and declares "Tresses shall hence forth be freely passed."

This book is extremely well written. However, if you're not thoroughly versed in grammar and spelling rules, you may not appreciate the wit that is inherent within the typos. Even then, depending on whether you are a zealot of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), or the Chicago Manual of Style (CMA), you may have strong preferences as to whether the typos identified by Jeff and Benjamin are truly typos in your eyes.

As noted in my Day #35: It's Not About the Bike blog entry, I learned that my bike adventure this summer was less about the bike and more about the wonderful people I met along my journey. Jeff and Benjamin came to a similar realization. The Great Typo Hunt wasn't about fixing the typos; it was about understanding the power of language and literacy in the way that people communicate with one another.


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