A Man, A Plan And A Sharpie: 'The Great Typo Hunt' Incensed by a "no tresspassing" sign, Jeff Deck launched a cross-country trip to right grammatical wrongs. He enlisted a friend, Benjamin D. Herson, and together they erased errant quotation marks, rectified misspellings and cut unnecessary possessive apostrophes. The Great Typo Hunt is the story of their crusade.
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A Man, A Plan And A Sharpie: 'The Great Typo Hunt'

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A Man, A Plan And A Sharpie: 'The Great Typo Hunt'

A Man, A Plan And A Sharpie: 'The Great Typo Hunt'

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TONY COX, host:

It is not unusual to find a misspelled word on a sign in a store window, or to notice an apostrophe is missing on a billboard - irritating perhaps, but not at all rare. Now, most of us, seeing the word Thursday misspelled on a cafe chalkboard, would shake our heads, possibly mutter something about the state of education in America and continue on our way.

But what else would you do? Would you walk inside and ask the manager or owner if you might just swap the misplaced U and the R and turn Thrusday, T-H-R-U-S-D-A-Y, back into the correctly spelled Thursday, T-H-U-R-S-D-A-Y? Well, Jeff Deck did just that.

On a cross-country trip with his buddy Benjamin Herson, they identified ask permission to fix more than 400 homonym mix ups, wandering commas and plain, old typos. His new book coauthored with Herson is "The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time." Jeff Deck joins us from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire. Jeff, nice to talk with you.

Mr. JEFF DECK (Author, "The Great Typo Hunt"): Hello, Tony. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

COX: Before we get to the questions about your adventures around America with your dry eraser and whatever else you used to clean things up, Wite-Out I suppose, we want to hear your story - you meaning the audience - about a typo that just drove you crazy. What was it? Did you do anything about it? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address: talk@npr.org. And to join the conversation, again, go to our website: npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Okay, Jeff, so what was it - or maybe there was a single typo, I'm assuming, that just set you off and you said, I must cross America and right these wrongs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: Yeah. Actually, I wanted to make some sort of positive difference in the world, especially after had I gone to my five-year college reunion, and I talked with a lot of classmates who had gone on to do really amazing things. And I thought, well, what can I do? What is my special power? What can I bring the bear on helping the nation or the world?

And so I was walking in my neighborhood in Somerville, Massachusetts not long afterwards. And I came across a sign that said: no trespassing. It had two S's in the tres part of the word. So it was: no tress-passing. And I had passed this sign a bunch of times before. And it finally occurred to me that I could do something about that sign and about so many other signs like that across the nation. And that was really the germ of the idea that became "The Great Typo Hunt."

COX: How many typos did you correct? And how long did it take you to do it?

Mr. DECK: Well, it was a two-and-a-half month journey around the whole perimeter of the United States. And it took - really, it took a lot of exploration and a lot of just driving around and popping into towns and cities. And we ended up finding over 400 typos. It was about 437. And of those, we were able to correct a little over half of them.

COX: So there's a reason, then, that you weren't able to correct the other half, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: What's the reason?

Mr. DECK: There were plenty of reasons. And sometimes, the typo was just out of reach. Sometimes I just didn't have the materials in my typo correction kit to handle the typo correction. Sometimes, we would ask permission from somebody and they would turn us down or they'd be apathetic about it or they'd say, oh, we'll fix that one later. And we'd really have to take their word on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: What was in that typo correction kit? What did you have?

Mr. DECK: It contained a few different colors of Sharpies. The black Sharpie was the most important, but also a nice rainbow array of other Sharpies, because you never know what kind of typos and kind of - what kind of medium you're going to encounter as you're going along. And Wite-Out was another important part and dry erase markers, chalk, crayons, pens - you name it.

COX: All right. So let's pretend that you - I have a store, and I have big sign in front of my store and there's a typo. Maybe I want to say the word - since it's Monday, I want to say the word Monday and I've left the A off. And it looks like Mondy instead of Monday. So you come in to my place. And so, what do you say to me?

Mr. DECK: Well, I would be as courteous as possible. I'd say, hello, there. I was just passing by, and I happened to notice that there is an A missing out of Monday. Everyone makes mistakes. And I was just wondering if I could help you fix this one.

COX: And I say, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Then what happens?

Mr. DECK: I might try to press my case a little bit. I might mention that I was part of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, and, you know, was not trying to make any judgment, was just going after the mistake itself and trying to help improve the general impression that the store was giving off.

COX: Now, did you have a situation ever on your travels where you made a change, even though the owner or whomever did not want you to do that?

Mr. DECK: There weren't any changes that we made where we had asked somebody and they said no and we just said, oh, well, forget what you're thinking and we change it anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: In those cases, we would just move on. And I'm sorry to say that we did, from time to time, not very often, but every once in a while, resort to stealth corrections, which is a policy that we since revised to always get permission. But there were times where, if no one was looking, we would just go ahead and fix the mistake ourselves.

COX: The sleuths that you are. Here's an email that I want to share with you. It comes from a professor, of course, Ann Marie(ph). I think it I think she's in calling us from New York, or writing to us from New York. Here's what she says. Mm, the best was the student that wanted to use, quote, compilation, C-O-M-P-I-L-A-T-I-O-N, but used copulation, C-O-P-U-L-A-T-I-O-N, in her master's thesis. Oh, my. That's a pretty funny one. Do you have some funny ones, too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: You know, I just, the other day, I heard a very variation on that copulation one. I don't know. It sounds a little too good to be true. I'm beginning to think these stories are apocryphal sometimes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: But...

COX: You know, did you find a certain part of the country, that you found more mistakes than elsewhere, or more interesting ones?

Mr. DECK: We weren't sure what we were going to find out as we were heading out. And we had a lot of people come up to us and say, oh, I bet you're going to find a lot more typos in such-and-such a region. And what it turned out to be was that everyone really does make mistakes. That turned out to be very true. And we would find them wherever we went. And the division was more about the type of neighborhood that you were in in whatever town or city. The independent neighborhoods, a lot of independent businesses would be a little more in need of typo eradication assistance than those that had been taken over by chain stores, which would get all their signs from, like, the corporate level.

COX: You know, here's another email, and I this is an example, I'm imagining, Jeff, of a situation where had you encountered this one in Berkeley, California, you may not have been able to do anything about it. This comes from Don in San Ramon. Apparently, the road crew stenciled this letter by letter, and put stop ahead on the pavement. Stop ahead spelled, S-T-O-P A-H-A-E-D. If you had seen that one, I guess, you're little your Sharpie wouldn't have been of much value there, would it?

Mr. DECK: That would have been a very difficult one to correct, and I might have been so distracted by that typo that I might not have stopped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: What was the most common mistake that you encountered, if there was any?

Mr. DECK: By far, apostrophe mistakes were the most common. There are really a bunch of ways in which the apostrophe can go wrong. Sometimes people get confused about when to leave it out, when to put it in. I would say the most common iteration of that is the extraneous apostrophe, like, that appears in portal words that shouldn't be there. Like for example, in Idaho, we came across a sign that said: rest room's - and it was rest room, apostrophe S, when they were just talking more than one rest room. And - but we definitely found the inverse almost as often, where you really needed the apostrophe, and it wasn't there.

COX: Absolutely. If you're just joining us, this is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox. We are talking about typos. And we are talking with Jeff Deck, the author co-author, actually, of The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time. We'd like to hear about your typo story. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. The email address is: talk@npr.org.

And it's about time for us to take a call, Jeff. This is Elizabeth from Rock Hill, South Carolina. Hello, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hello.

COX: Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. You're on the air.

ELIZABETH: Thank you. My least favorite type of typo that I see a lot is intentional typos, like cutesy stuff, like Kwik Mart with a K, W, for quick, or kiddy kollege for daycare, and there's that K for kid and then a K for college. Did you encounter a lot of that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: We definitely saw those everywhere we went. It's a common sort of marketing spin that people put on the names of their stores. But we didn't try to correct any of those. I mean, we would have the spent the whole trip going around every Dunkin' Donuts in America in trying to insert the U-G-H in doughnut.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: It was really about figuring out which things were intentional and which were not. And particularly, when it comes to the brand name of something or a store name, we'd just say, all right. You've got some creative license here, and we're going to look more at your individual signs for your products and see if there is something that is impeding communication.

COX: Elizabeth, thank you for that call. Here's another email, and then we'll go to another caller. This one these are really kind of funny, actually. This is from Alexandria. She writes: I once had a story published that wrote, crab dip with a P instead of a B so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: She said, I thought it was pretty funny, thankfully. Those are this is really interesting. But, you know, one of the things in your book, which I read all the way through, and I thought, you know, approaching people to get them to make a correction, you first have to inform them that, you know, you've made a mistake. And that is a difficult and awkward kind of situation, isn't it?

Mr. DECK: Oh, definitely. I mean, the natural human reaction is to get defensive and say, oh, well, what are you trying to say about me? Are you judging me? And so, we had to tread very carefully in a lot of instances and to come at it from that angle of, all right, well, everyone makes mistakes and, you know, we certainly have, on plenty of occasions. And we're just we're focusing on this particular mistake and are just trying to help this particular person fix it, and try to make that as smooth and un-awkward as possible, which was hard to actually accomplish. But, yeah.

COX: Well, you write about this - one situation that happened to you in Atlanta at the Underground, where you saw a sign with Obama, President Obama, on it. I guess he was a candidate at that time. What happened? Tell us that story.

Mr. DECK: Oh, sure. Yeah. We were in Atlanta, and we were in this Underground shopping center. And we came across an Obama T-shirt that someone had made that said: He's black, and Im proud - instead of I'm proud. They left out the apostrophe. And we hesitated, and we thought, oh, man, we're just about the only two white guys in here. Are we really going to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: ...criticize this shirt that's sort of about black pride? And it's about a black candidate, and we're going to be talking to a black T-shirt seller. And ultimately, we decided that - to not bring it up would be sort of racist in itself, and that it was important to just continue having these conversations with people no matter what the situation was.

And our conversation with this particular shirt seller was very interesting, because it revealed a lot of other communication problems besides just that surface communication problem of typos. There were just taboo topics that we couldn't quite get to that we always had to dance around. And I think that typos can really lead you into some interesting situations of communication failures that are not strictly spelling and grammar.

COX: Absolutely. Here's another email, then we'll go to take another call. This comes from Buck. Buck says, the best typo ever at a cheap motel on the outskirts of my small Kentucky hometown, the marquee should have read: reasonable rates. The E was missing from rates, leaving the sign to read, reasonable rats. Of course, no one changed it for months. He says, I'm not kidding. Now, that's a pretty funny one. Let's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Let's go to Ken in Southport, North Carolina. Hello, Ken. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. How are you?

KEN (Caller): Hey. I'm doing good. How are you doing?

COX: Well, we're doing great. What's your story?

KEN: Actually, I have more of a question of whether they ran into anybody who misspelled words purposely just to draw people into the store. I knew a store once that did that.

COX: Oh, that's interesting. Thank you, Ken, for that. Did you run across that, Jeff?

Mr. DECK: You know, that would be a very interesting sales strategy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: ...because it would depend on the kinds of typos the people were - would be intentionally making in those situations. I mean, maybe if they were going after an audience for their product that would be specifically sticklers, I could see it making sense. But most of the time, the typos that we found were not something that the people inside the store actually knew about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Here's a tweet, another one. They're coming in, and they're - many of them are really curiously interesting. This one is from acousticross. Once received a resume saying candidate had a history of forgoing strong business relationships. I don't think that's what he meant. Obviously, he meant to say forging, spelled it wrong, put it on the resume. Probably didn't get that job, you think, Jeff?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECK: Well, yeah. I mean, and that's one of the big problems about typos is that they cannot only impede communication, but they can impede the very message they are trying to give out to someone. I mean, particularly in a piece of formal writing, in something like a resume. If it's got a whole lot of typos in it, then whether it's fair or not, people are going to draw conclusions from that about your general attention to detail and the amount of care that you put into things.

COX: Well, now, here's another one. This comes from Portland. I'm a northern - I'm in Northern Nebraska. I saw a giant billboard advertising, quote, "24-hour toe service." How do you think tow was spelled? T-O-E - yes, not T-O-W - then listed towing services, 24 hours. I laughed and wondered - Tanya from Portland. Thank you very much for that one.

Here's another one. This one comes from Arizona, from Mary in Flagstaff. She writes: Just to comment about the typo problems, a sign on a local restaurant that read, today's special dessert: pear compost. Oh, my. There's a million of these, and you've got...

Mr. DECK: Ooh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: ...a whole bunch of it in your book. Here's another one, Jean(ph) from New York: Hi. Years ago, I lived in Columbus, Ohio. I guess I was kind of an East Coast snob, because I didn't want my infant daughter to develop a Midwest twang when she learned to talk. I soon learned how ingrained the twang was. One day, while strolling with my daughter, I saw a handwritten sign in a small grocery store window advertising braed, B-R-A-E-D, $1.29 a loaf. Jean, thank you, for that one.

One more from San Francisco, then I'm going to ask you another question. On a lazy Sunday morning, my boyfriend and I, both wordsmiths, came upon a sign at an old closed auto plant. The offending apostrophe glared, just daring us. Little did I know that he kept a big, bold, black Sharpie in his car for the sole purpose of making corrections. I was impressed.

This isn't your girlfriend, is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Yeah. I know, she went with you.

Mr. DECK: It doesn't sound like it.

COX: Oh.

Mr. DECK: Yeah, my girlfriend did come along for about a week's worth of the trip, but...

COX: Oh, that's funny. You see, some other people do the same thing. When you finished all of this, what did you think? And we've got to say good-bye to you because our time is over. But really briefly, did you think it was worth it?

Mr. DECK: Oh, sure, definitely. I mean, I definitely came to some larger conclusions after the trip, and one of them was that, one typo at a time - while having eradicated a lot of typos around the nation - just wasn't going to be efficient enough and we needed to broaden our message a little bit. And so that's how we got to some of the conclusions we came to in the book about spreading awareness of always taking a second look at your text before you put it out into the world. And...

COX: That's a good thought to keep, actually. Jeff, thank you very much. Jeff Deck is a two-time junior high spelling bee winner, of course.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, following the death of 10 aid workers, we'll look at the civilian cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

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