Typo hunters in Wichita

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Sept. 27, 2010.

Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson at Watermark Books

Typo hunters Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson stopped in Wichita on Monday night on their book tour for “The Great Typo Hunt.” The book chronicles their cross-country odyssey of correction a couple of years ago, which included several hundred typos spotted, a few hundred typos fixed, and one federal court case. Before their lively reading to a packed house at Watermark Books — including a quiz that determined who the “Grammar Hawks” and the “Grammar Hippies” are, and a list of the five worst typo-caused disasters in history — they had time for a little chat.

The pair said they haven’t been actively hunting typos as much on the book tour because they’re focusing more on touting the importance of proofreading — heading typos off at the pass, as it were. That, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t find any here in Wichita. (Billboard on Kellogg that says “Lets” instead of “Let’s,” this means you.)

As prizes for audience members, Jeff and Benjamin brought slimmed-down typo-correction kits, b103_0162ut they also had one of the originals with them (at lower right in the photo). The kits contain Sharpies, Wite-Out, pens, chalk, dry-erase markers and crayons, which they said they didn’t use much but felt they should include anyway. When asked which typos were the easiest to fix with these implements, they said anything with chalk. They added that signs with movable sliding letters are easy to fix, but are often high up and thus not easily accessible. Any typos high up are tricky to fix, they said, and some — like ones in neon signs — are just impossible. ”Some of them you just have to let go,” Benjamin said.

On the permission rather than the physical side — they usually ask for permission before attempting a fix — Jeff and Benjamin found that anything not meant to be permanent, easily smudged with thumb or tissue, was easier to get the green light to change. But they ran into resistance surprisingly often: People don’t want to fix a mistake; they don’t want to take the trouble; they don’t want to admit they’re wrong. “The whole idea of the [correction] kit,” Benjamin said, “was to make easier for them to say yes” to a fix, since he and Jeff, not the owners/caretakers of erroneous signage, would be doing the actual fixing work (free, much to the delight of a “lemonaid” seller).

We spent a while discussing apostrophes, Nos. 1 and 2 in the Top 10 list of mistakes they found: Absent where you need one (Youve got to try this), and present where you don’t (Zucchini’s $1). Jeff and Benjamin aren’t ready to give up the fight, but realize that it may be a long haul. They identified three problems. First, the rules aren’t consistent: “Jane’s” is possessive while “it’s” is not; we celebrate Mother’s Day but Presidents’ Day and Veterans Day. Second, the distinctions aren’t being taught effectively, so people don’t know the rules. And third, “errors are contagious”: People see mistakes everywhere, and, lacking what Benjamin called “apostrophic confidence,” repeat the errors they see instead of realizing they’re errors.

Education is the key, they affirmed, and ended their presentation later with a challenge for the audience/test of the system: If each of us wrote one e-mail to the proprietors of the Kellogg billboard with the absent apostrophe, would they change it? We’ll see.