Wiping out typos across the country

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; 2:49 PM

Tourists in Washington are always looking for something: monuments, the Mall, the president, their hotel. On a visit last week, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson were no different, except that they were seeking something smaller and more subtle, a prize that could win you favors from an English teacher but has no place on a traditional postcard.

"We are with the Typo Eradication Advancement League," Deck said to a surprised waiter at Bistro Bistro in Dupont Circle, presenting a business card. The 30-year-old in the Indiana Jones-style hat explained that he had noticed a missing 'p' in the "red snapper" written on the menu board outside. "It reads 'snaper,'???" he added helpfully.

The TEALsters offered to fix the mistake, using the correction kit that dangled from Deck's waist. The waiter graciously accepted the assistance, admitting that he himself had probably omitted the consonant, his focus wavering because he was fasting. He then asked whether Deck, the designated artist of the two, could "put some decoration" on the board as well. Chalk in hand, Deck plugged in the missing letter, then sketched a small fish beside the name of the dish. Another typo banished.

"Once you start, it's really hard to stop," said Deck of his multi-state typo pursuit. "It's in some part of my brain at all times, but it's not interfering with my enjoyment of places."

Two years ago, Deck heard the call of the road, a siren that strangely sounded like a stern grammarian. Groomed as an editor, he was sensitive to the literary mistakes that litter our nation's signs, menus and placards. Living in Somerville, Mass., he was constantly mocked by a sign that read, "No Tresspassing."

To redress these errors, he embarked on a 21/2-month-long, 33-state journey with a rotation of friends who would help him clean up the grammatical trash. One pal, Herson, joined him for two legs: Silver Spring to Los Angeles, and Madison, Wis., to Somerville. The two pals from Dartmouth College spun their experiences into the new book "The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time" (Crown, $23.99).

"Jeff wanted to see the country, and he needed a reason. He didn't want to be a hedonist," said Herson, 30, who again plays the sidekick during their 36-city book tour. "I confess that I was in it for the road trip, but his obsession grew on me."

For fixing mistakes, Deck carried with him a transparent satchel filled with Sharpie pens in multiple colors, Wite-Out, chalk and crayons. In many cases, they would stealthily fix the errors, but now they ask for permission. (Spoiler alert: The reason for their switch to lawfulness is a doozy, and comes later.)

"It's about beautifying the textual landscape," said Herson, picking up a piece of trash on Connecticut Avenue to illustrate the similarities between stray wrappers and typos.

As we strolled their old stomping grounds (Deck once worked at a now-defunct publishing house on 19th Street; Herson clocked in at the Borders at 18th and L streets), they stopped short outside a liquor store. A sheet of paper taped to the window spelled out "Spirt" - twice. The guys pointed out the mistake to the proprietress, offering to add the vowel. She demurred, saying that her husband would take care of it, then asked whether they laminated signs.

"That was a good reaction, but the real crowning glory is if we could have actually fixed it," said Deck, who has experienced responses ranging from sweet (the woman at a shoe store in Manchester, N.H., transformed an erroneous apostrophe into a sprinkling of stars) to gruff (a chef at an Albany, N.Y., fair rudely rejected their offer, then ignored them).

The book is an illuminating hybrid of travelogue, English usage textbook and sociological experiment. In Atlanta, for instance, Deck and Herson come across T-shirts of Barack Obama's (pre-election) image with the tag line, "He's black and Im Proud." The missing apostrophe sparks a lively conversation with the vendor that touches on politics and race. In New Orleans, they are charmed by Louisianans' warmth and spirit, and in Santa Fe, N.M., by the city's individuality.

"Typos are really an interesting lens to viewing a place," said Deck. "And typos really are universal. We all make mistakes."

Deck and Herson made one giant blunder, though not a grammatical one. At the Grand Canyon, on a supposed day off from hunting, they innocently altered a sign at the Desert View Watchtower. The culprits: "womens" and a missing comma. They swooped in with their markers and left. Months later, back in their respective homes, they heard from the National Park Service, which accused them of vandalizing federal property. They had to fly to Arizona, hire a lawyer and admit their guilt. For a year, they were banned from the national park system and from correcting any public signs. The harshest penalty, though, was having to "forfeit" their freedom of speech. TEAL temporarily capped its Sharpies.

"We feel really bad about that," Herson said about meddling with the 70-year-old plaque. "In the moment, we thought we were helping."

For Part II of the Great Typo Hunt (Washington is their fifth city), Deck and Herson have tempered their technique but are beefing up their ranks. In November, they plan to kick off a "50 typos in 50 states" challenge. "We're encouraging everyone to look for typos in their neighborhoods or certainly when they travel," said Deck, adding: "If you are in a restaurant, get served first. You never know what they might put in your food."

For our final foray, we ducked into Second Story Books on P Street. The signs outside were clean, as were the ones advising customers to seek assistance with oversize books. But in the Travel section, of all places, the experts narrowed in on "Carribean." They informed an employee, who promised to fix the mistake, which appeared in two places. Confident that the deed would be done, Deck and Herson left the store, their invisible capes blowing behind them.

For more information on the Great Typo Hunt: www.greattypohunt.com .

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