Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson have not wasted their lives.
They fight a losing battle, an unyielding tide of misplaced apostrophes and poor spelling. But still, they fight. Why, you ask. Because, they say. Because, they must.
For the last three months, they have circled the nation in search of awkward grammar construction. They have ferreted out bad subject-verb agreements, and they have faced stone-faced opposition everywhere. They have shone a light on typos in public places, and they have traveled by a GPS-guided '97 Nissan Sentra, sleeping on the couches of college friends and sticking around just long enough to do right by the English language. Then it's on the road again, off to a new town with new typos.
Picture a pair of Kerouacs armed with Sharpies and erasers and righteous indignation—holding back a flood of mixed metaphors and spelling mistakes and extraneous punctuation so commonplace we rarely notice it anymore. But they are 28 and idealistic. Graduates of Dartmouth College, they are old friends with a schoolmarm's irritation at conspicuous errors, and despite their mild and somewhat nerdy exteriors, they have serious nerve. Deck lives outside Boston; Herson lives outside Washington. And together, they are TEAL—the Typo Eradication Advancement League—and they are between jobs.
So they approach a cafe, a shoe store, a visitors center.
They identify a typo on a sign, a label, a poster.
They point out the typo. They await the reaction.
This next part varies. They are greeted warmly (sometimes). They are told to go away (sometimes). They are gently blown off (usually). "We have not yet encountered fisticuffs," Herson said. But it's always a possibility. Often they make the needed alterations themselves, with compliance from a manager or supervisor. And when ignored, they have resorted to guerrilla tactics—slipping in a stray letter here, removing an errant comma there. They have found about 400 cringe-inducing examples of bad copy mistakes—on church signs and at Rockefeller Center, on sandwich boards and at the Grand Canyon.
That is, 400 examples they have brought to the attention of the powers that be. They have gone as far as correcting graffiti. Their tour ended this week.
Their route was circular. Deck began March 5 in Boston, drove to Virginia and picked up Herson; from there they worked their way clockwise around the country, from Atlanta to Texas to Seattle to Madison, with many stops in between. (Their blog is at jeffdeck.com/teal and will be updated regularly, typo trip or no typo trip.) They swung into Chicago in late April—the town that gave birth to their guiding light, "The Chicago Manual of Style." They headed straight for Wicker Park. They tend to hunt for typos in "high-density text locations," in spots with more independent businesses than chains—indies being generally less attentive to flagrant sins against grammar than corporate conglomerates.
Deck, who decided to launch the tour after spotting typos in his shower curtain (it was covered in math terms and equations), arrived wearing an Indiana Jones hat. He had a watchful manner and rarely seemed to blink. His foil, Herson, a kind of Ratzo Rizzo of proper usage, was jumpier, squirrelly, eager to push Deck whenever an encounter with a store employee got awkward (which was every time).
We started down Milwaukee Avenue.
Immediately, Herson spotted an offense—a second-floor awning outside a tarot shop that advertised "Energy Stone's." They climbed the stairs to the second floor and approached a middle-age woman with a quizzical expression. "We happened to notice the sign for energy stones," Deck said, "and there happens to be an extra apostrophe. 'Stone's' doesn't need the apostrophe."
"And?" she asked, her voice flat with annoyance.
"And we wanted to bring it to your attention," Deck said.
As they spoke, the woman's daughter stepped into the room and shouted: "Oh my God! I saw you guys on 'Good Morning America.' Tell me, tell me—what did we get wrong?" She sounded genuinely thrilled. (Actually, they were on "The Today Show.") Herson explained the typo on the awning. Deck said he understood that the mistake is out of the way and not easy to fix, but he asked them to promise that they would fix it—soon.
"Don't know if we can ..." the woman said.
Deck said they've heard that a lot.
Back on the street, Deck said poor use of the apostrophe was their most commonly encountered typo. "It's like a virus," he said. Herson agreed: "It really is contagious, I think. Especially the lack of them in possessives." (For instance, parking lot signs explaining that any unauthorized vehicles will be towed "at owners expense" have been particularly pervasive.)
They continued down Milwaukee.
A block later, they stopped. Outside a clothing store, Deck noticed the lack of an apostrophe in the window type—it read "Women's & Mens." They entered, and two clerks with white-blond hair perked up.
"Hi, we're driving around the country fixing typos," Deck explained, "and we noticed one side of your sign out front has an apostrophe and one doesn't for some reason. So we were wondering if you have a spare apostrophe we could stick in there. Or I could just do it."
"My, that's specific," the first clerk said.
"I'm not sure we keep spare apostrophes," the other said.
"Very observant," the first clerk said.
"Amazing, actually," the other said.
Deck reached behind him for the clear plastic pencil case attached to his camera strap. He asked if he could add the apostrophe, and the clerks huddled, then shrugged. Inside his case were dry erasers for white boards and Sharpies and different colored markers and chalk and bottles of Wite-Out and a few pens and a handful of crayons, because you never know. Deck crouched down in the window and carefully painted a matching apostrophe on the glass with a Wite-Out brush; then he stepped back.
"Thank you for making our window a better place," one clerk said.
"Thank you for letting us."
They continued on.
Their mission, Deck said, is to raise typo awareness—after each stop Deck has blogged about the goofs found and the typos corrected. "I've always noticed typos," he said, "and one day I just decided to take action. I thought it would be great to go national and see if there were patterns." He said he detects a general erosion of good grammar, from coast to coast, region to region. "If we can inspire enough people to carry Sharpies and help out, then we will be satisfied and happy."
Until recently, Deck did administrative work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Herson worked at Borders. But they had saved a little money, and so they set out. Of course they want a book deal—they've had interest, they say. But they are also sincere in their goal. Maybe too sincere. There's an element of performance art here—an invisible line between genuine and absurd that they approach with each fresh encounter. They press their faces close to even the most innocuous handwritten neighborhood leaflet and scan carefully. They don't smirk. But you detect one anyway, studiously smothered.
They entered a men's clothing store near Ashland Avenue. The large faded metal sign out front read "Mens Clothing." They swung open the door. An older man was resting his elbows on a shirt rack. They approached. Deck spoke. "We noticed your sign."
The man said nothing. Deck explained it needed an apostrophe. The man is Robert Marks, the manager. He is 60 years old and said he had been coming to this store (founded in 1914) since he was a child. (He said the sign is at least as old as he is.) He listened to them explain why the grammar on the sign was wrong. And then he shrugged, never changing his expression.
Deck asked if he had a ladder, so he could climb up and ...
"Don't worry about it," Marks said.
"We could jus ... "
"Leave it alone."
Outside, back on Milwaukee, I asked Deck if there wasn't charm to certain mistakes—that didn't his drive to eradicate honest goofs from the awnings and sandwich boards of every neighborhood mom and pop remove a little charm from the landscape. Isn't he unintentionally helping to hide the human hand in cities that are quickly succumbing to a slick numbing sameness? Is all of this really worth it?
"Well," he said, considering the point. "We worry there are cases when someone is trying to say something and they won't be taken seriously because their sign is riddled with mistakes. We don't want to see more chains. But a grocery store that can't spell grocery [as he encountered in California] makes you question the food they sell. I think charm can manifest in different ways."
Chicago, Deck would say later, had been nice—as nice as New Orleans. But at the time of the hunt, they fretted that their percentage of typos corrected to typos spotted was being thrown. They had been at around 50 percent, but again and again they encountered clerks who said the boss was not around, so no changes could be made. Deck and Herson looked pained.
Then they looked stricken. There, high above Milwaukee Avenue, was a sign for Milwaukee Furniture. And Milwaukee was spelled "Milwuakee." "Wow," Deck said sarcastically. "Wow. I mean, Milwaukee is far away and everything. I mean, isn't this Milwaukee Avenue too? Oh, I think they need to be told about this." Herson checked the opposite side of the sign—misspelled there too. They entered a store full of furniture but devoid of customers. Behind a metal desk covered in stapled receipts sat a large guy in a black T-shirt. He squinted as they approached.
"We couldn't help notice your sign," Deck said. "The one that juts over the sidewalk?"
"OK," the guy replied.
"The name of the store is misspelled."
"It's correct on the awning, but the letters are inversed on the sign," Deck said.
"And we were wondering if there was any way you could get it fixed," Deck replied.
"The manager is not here. Tomorrow."
"It's huge," Deck said. "Believe me, if we could fix that thing we would. If it were within our power."
"Could you let your boss know?" Herson asked.
The man smiled and looked toward the street. "I never noticed."
" 'Dining room' is spelled wrong too," Deck said. The store sign was a big enough goof that the mistakes he had spotted on the awning seemed small. But he couldn't help himself. "['Dining'] has too many letters," he told the man.
"I'll tell him."
"He'll change it?"
"I'll tell him."
"You guys should get a refund from your sign guys."
"I'll tell him."
They left. Herson started down the block—headed for a "matress" in need of a "t."
But Deck spun on his heels and turned back to the furniture shop and stared at the looming "Milwuakee." He'd learned a lot during this trip—walk away from a human powder keg, never bring up a typo on a menu until after you've finished eating your meal, our understanding of proper punctuation is shaky at best. And generally, people don't care.
He groaned and walked to the window. He pressed his forehead to the glass, then gently banged it against the pane. He stepped back and stared. "It's bigger than my head," he said, incredulous. "And you know it's not going to get fixed either."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun