Short review: tl;dr
Jeff Deck, an Ivy-league-educated middle-class white man, goes around the country to correct typos in everything from store signs to t-shirts to whatever else he comes across. He enlists friends (including his Ivy-league-educated co-author Benjamin D. Herson) who do not check him on his privilege, but rather enable him on his path to be as petty as possible. Deck and his friends learn little to nothing about language before, during or after their excursion. What could be a profound journey of discovery turns out to be nothing more than an aimless adventure of assholery. File this one under “Language books not worth reading”. Hunter S. Thompson would be pissed to know that these asshats stole the title of one of his books.
Super long and angry review:
The Great Typo Hunt (2010, Broadway Books) starts with this sentence: “On a fine June weekend in 2007, in the verdant reaches of northern New Hampshire, I decided to change the world.”
And my eyeballs groaned right out of my head. But that was only the start of my issues with this book.
A major problematic theme running through The Great Typo Hunt is Privilege. The authors, Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson, do not think they should learn anything about language before they drive around the country defacing private property. Early in the book, Deck describes his motivation by saying “Determination seemed to be the factor that elevated an ordinary destiny into a life of impact” (p. 4). No information needed! Just determination (Narrator’s voice: And privilege).
On the next page (p. 5), typos are described as a “social ill” (which they’re not) and we’re given a short list of the “countless” typos, such as Not an enterance. NYC pizza and Pasta at it’s best! Cappuchino! Pistashio! and Get palm reading’s here!, that Deck says are “sins against intelligibility.” Hold up. All of these examples are completely intelligible! Kinda ironic that Deck doesn’t know how to use the word “intelligible.”
But to truly understand how bad this book is, we need to read a longer passage:
“Plenty of people had made much hay of ridiculing spelling and grammatical errors on late-night shows and in humor books and on websites weighted with snark. But: Who among them had ever bothered with actual corrective action? So far as I knew, not a soul. A lambent vision descended upon me, like the living wheels revealed unto Ezekiel. In it, I saw myself armed with Wite-Out and black marker, waging a campaign of holy destruction on spelling and grammatical mistakes. The picture widened to describe not just my neighborhood, not just the Boston area or even the august span of the Bay State, but the entire nation.
There was my answer – typo hunting was the good that I, Jeff Deck, was uniquely suited to visit upon society.
I would change the world, one typo correction at a time.” (pp. 5-6)
And thus an asshole is born.
Hey man you know, I’m really ok
So Deck decides that he’ll have to leave his job at MIT because he just can’t take a long enough vacation to correct random typos around the US. You know how it is. Wait, you don’t? Well maybe you should try some of that sweet privilege Deck is working with. When his girlfriend Jane asks him why typos are a problem, he tells her “It’s the creeping menace of carelessness!” (p. 21) Fuck that noise. This book is the creeping menace of assholeness. By this dude’s reasoning, we’re all so careless next to Chaucer’s language that we’re dead. But of course we’re not dead and nor is English. Chaucer dead tho. His language dead too.
After 24 pages, our antagonist finally fixes a typo… and it’s on his shower curtain. For fuck’s sake, the first 24 pages of this book are a typo. Get to the point, man. Later, he sees a sign in a store that says “MENS” and nearly has a conniption. Maybe that’s why his brain doesn’t have a problem with children (which has a double plural), or moose (which has an unmarked plural form), or peoples, or… wait, maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Because for this jabroni, grammar = apostrophes (p. 27).
[Narrator’s voice: We’re only 30 pages into this book. It’s probably going to get better.]
[Ron Howard’s voice: It’s not.]
Where we at? This dude (or these dudes? There are two names on the cover but the story is told from Deck’s point of view so…?) has/have been planning this trip for months and they haven’t read anything about typos – no studies, no linguistic research, nothing. Where do typos come from? Why are they made? Do they matter? The authors of this book don’t know and don’t care. So far they’ve mentioned two language books – Strunk & White (which is garbage) and the Chicago Manual of Style (which only applies to people following that particular style of writing!). That’s called entitlement, folks. Two dudebros who went to an Ivy League school are about to drive around the country to tell people that they’re wrong. Should these dudebros do any research into the topic that they’re so sure about, but not professionally trained in? Of course not. Besides, it’s not like one of them works at MIT and the other works at A GODDAMN BOOKSTORE.
Actually, that’s exactly where the authors worked. But where are they supposed to find research WHEN IT’S PRACTICALLY FALLING INTO THEIR FACES?
And so they hit the road. In Atlanta, they find a woman selling t-shirts, one of which shows a picture of President Barack Obama and says “He’s Black And Im Proud” [there’s a picture of it in the book]. Out anti-heroes briefly question their privilege here… and then push that aside to tell the woman how wrong she is. Notice: their problem with the words on the shirt is Im missing an apostrophe, not with all of the words being capitalized. The reason for that is because they can’t even apply the standards they seem to be upholding. (p. 53)
But Deck’s reason for telling this woman to correct the shirts in her store is because they are trying to improve communication. Why don’t they learn the rules of the language varieties they don’t know, such as African American English? Why do they expect and insist that some black shopkeeper in Atlanta must learn the rules of their preferred variety? Oh right… Privilege.
Later, we learn that they think their mission is “not about elevating one style guide over the other.” (p. 84) Mmhmm. Is their mission about critically considering the sociolinguistics involved in language standardization and language policies? No. Is their mission about being capable of considering language beyond what is written in a couple of style guides for standard written American English? Also no. Those last two thoughts go unsaid and unconsidered in this book.
But wait! Somewhere in the south, they stop at a bookstore… and they buy sci-fi books. Goddammit. Did they look for linguistics or language books? No, of course they didn’t.
I should note here that the authors were also running a blog while they traveled around the country. Two of their changes riled people up. People thought their changes were incorrect. Deck says:
Both this incident and the affair of the Locker struck me as examples of a peculiar kind of blindness or, perhaps more accurately, nearsightedness: fixating upon one stately elm while missing the proverbial forest behind it. For the style-guide naifs, and the AP-style devotees, their tree was assumptions about language convention that they never thought to question. (p. 86)
He almost had a revelation there. So close.
The pen in my hand will tell you the same
But the seed has been planted. The main(?) author Deck has started to see that he’s correcting people who make their own signs, rather than large companies who can hire teams of people to review the signs that go out to many places across the world. And he wants to root for the little guy over the evil conglomerates. He writes:
I had to face the fact that my mission could be a mistake. It’d been impossible to know when I started out [Ed.’s note: No, it hadn’t.], but the standards I graded on were flunking the wrong people. The soulless, concrete wastelands of strip malls and big-box stores that sold all the same stuff, I gave a clean bill of grammatical health, and then I came to these places, these living bastions of independent thought and color and energy, and I corrected them [emphasis his]. […] ‘What if I’m an agent of the very homogenization I despise, waltzing into town and demanding that everyone stick to our rigid grammatical standard, helping corporate agents claim these idylls by “cleaning up” the language like a new high-rise “cleans up” the area by evicting the poorer tenants?’ (pp. 94-95)
Yes! He’s finally getting it! Typos don’t fucking matter and he’s been a jerk…
No wait. He didn’t get it. Right after this epiphany, he goes to a church, finds some typos and decides he’s on a goddamn mission from God. I’m not kidding:
The questions and doubts plaguing my mind when I’d entered that building had been scrubbed away by the vinegary solution of St. Frances of Assissi. […] Let this [cowboy hat] be a symbol, I thought, of the inarguable importance of the mission, a continual reminder to me of my realizations in Santa Fe. (p. 97-98)
In San Francisco, our author harasses a museum employee about some typos, and is given the name of the curator of the exhibit. This is what he does:
So I set my readers on him. My minions [italics dickheads’, not mine], cropping up in ever-greater numbers each day on the TEAL blog. I’m not sure how many people harassed this poor caretaker through beseeching e-mails and phone calls, but from the reports that readers sent me, I’m guessing that the guy had a full in-box. The curator popped up on the blog a couple of days later saying that he’d had the signs corrected and begging that I call off the TEAL devotees, who apparently were still inundating him with “vitriolic and speculative” messages. I did, satisfied that justice had been wrought. When certain factions online questioned my judgment in loosing the pack in the first place, Josh [some other privileged DB who joined the author’s travels] stepped in – acting as my second in comment-section duels, on my blog and elsewhere – and vigorously defended me. (pp. 131-132)
Fuck you. He’s a “poor caretaker” because of you.
On page 139 we’re given the author’s “Mission statement”. He has wrapped his travels in the guise of an organization. The statement reads (in part):
[S]lowly the once-unassailable foundations of spelling are crumbling, and the time has come for the crisis to be addressed. We believe that only through working together with a vigilance and a love of correctness can we achieve the beauty of a typo-free society.
As we’ve seen, they clearly don’t know shit about the “foundations of spelling,” which are almost as weak as wet crackers and about as old as the internet. Deck tries to blame the problems that this statement had wrought on hyperbole, but I’m not having it. It sounds more like asking for forgiveness later.
But when I’m in my car, don’t give me no crap
As he travels through the north of the US, Deck is joined by his girlfriend, Jane. And oh what a relief it is. Jane asks him about how spelling is arbitrary (because she knows what’s up), and he says “we all have to agree on one of the versions. For clarity.” (p. 149) Then we get this bit of reality check from Jane (the actual hero of the story):
She gave me a doubtful look. “Clarity. Uh-huh. Would anyone not get that Issac was supposed to be Isaac? Would it affect their comprehension of that sign? I know that stuff will always bug you, because you know how the dictionary would spell it. But as long as everybody basically understands each other, then dang, what’s the problem?” She patted my leg to take the edge off dang, which was strong language for her. “When you’re writing the code for a computer program, you can potentially make a few different kinds of errors. Run-time errors will cause bad glitches or freezes, and compilation errors prevent the program from running in the first place. Logic errors, on the other hand, aren’t as bad – they can at least get through the compiler. You’ll get some funky results, but… I feel like these typos are little logic errors. Not enough to crash the program. If people started walking into walls when they saw a typo, going bonk, bonk, bonk –”
I wanted Jane to take the wheel. Alas, it was not to be.
Later, Deck comes across a poem with what he thinks is a typo. But he doesn’t mark it up with his marker. And Jane says “I’m glad you didn’t say anything! It’s a poem […] In poetry, language belongs to the poet. Would you go through e.e. cummings’s poems and add capitalization? Like Emily Dickenson’s old editor, removing all the dashes from her poems?” (p. 155)
Jane, I hope you find what you deserve out of life. You the real MVP of this book.
‘Cause the slightest thing and I just might snap
The second author of the book, Benjamin D. Herson, shows up again at the end of the trip and this time he’s brought some grammar books. This seems promising, but is he still hardcore on correcting typos? Yep. Because the “grammar” books he found are probably just like the one he’s in.
The thing is, so far in this book – in the authors’ journey – they’ve only corrected errors that they understand; phrases in which they understood exactly what the writing said and what was meant and how to change it to follow Standard English norms. You could do this with any non-standard language (assuming you understood what was meant). I wonder what they would do with BIN. In none of their examples so far, did the typo writer not know how to construct a sentence. However, the authors say “There’s a huge difference between using sentence fragments like Hemingway, for effect, and using them erratically and inelegantly because you don’t know how to construct a sentence.” (p. 165) What’s that? It’s ok for old dead white dudes to write sentence fragments, but it’s not ok for other people? Oh hi, Privilege! I didn’t see you there. You remember your old pals, Dipshit-dee and Dipshit-doo.
The authors only mention Hemingway, while they are seemingly oblivious to George Bernard Shaw, who didn’t use apostrophes and won the goddang Nobel Prize in Literature. Did the authors go through every copy of Pygmalion that they could find and insert apostrophes? Of course not. They picked on shopkeepers instead.
The book eventually turns to the idea that writers must present their message “with the greatest possible clarity” to readers (p. 171). This is nonsense. Writers are under no such obligation. Go tell this drivel to James Joyce or Anthony Burgess or literally any poet. And why keep harping on about literature? The authors are driving around and correcting road signs and store signs – these are nothing like novels, so maybe they shouldn’t be compared. (And, again, they’ve understood every single sign that had a mistake.)
The authors eventually stumble upon the idea that language is tied to identity (p. 202), but it’s too little too late to save this book. They could’ve learned this stuff from an introductory linguistics book – or really from just thinking about language for a minute.
When I go driving, I stay in my lane
Late in the book (much too late), we learn that the authors got served a summons for vandalizing a sign at a national park (they wrote on a sign to fix a typo). Uncle Sam is coming to rescue me! Justice will be served! This book was written from jail! Yeah… I wish. What do the authors do? They hire a lawyer: a lawyer one who was trained and certified, not someone who felt there was something wrong with how the law was being practiced in the US and decided to drive around the country offering their service free of charge. Nope. Our authors could afford to hire a lawyer (Hello, Privilege, my old friend…)
The courtroom drama (or the description of it) is actually really good. These dipshits took pictures of themselves defacing government property. And they’re all butthurt that they’re getting in trouble. They’re like “Aw how could the government be so mean to us silver spoon white boys?” And I’m like “Eat it, suckers.”
The government wanted jail time (and so did I), but the authors’ lawyer – the only lawyer they could find to represent them because multiple lawyers turned them down – is able to get them off with only a fine. Deck is appreciative, Herson is a dick:
I thanked our lawyer and shook hands with her. Her hand drifted toward Benjamin, but then dropped. He pointedly had not thanked her. He did not shake her hand. Once she’d walked away, he said, “Where’s a customer feedback card when you need one? I want my money back. (p. 227)
Hey Ben, Fuu-huuuck you.
But guess what? Herson was planning on hiking the Appalachian Trail and now he can’t because he got banned from national parks for a year. For being an asshole.
But getting cut off, it makes me insane
In the last part of the book, we’re presented with some teaching method and supposed to believe the authors know what they’re talking about. I suppose they might, but they just wrote 230 pages reminding me that they spent over a year fighting a “problem” they don’t understand, so I’m going to remain skeptical on this one. Apparently they read a book and visited a classroom though, so by all means, give me your Expert Opinion™.
Then there’s a reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point at the very end (p. 244). I suppose it’s fitting that this book ends by mentioning another slinger of horseshit.
The underlying problem with this book is that these two jabronis need to go around being “jive-ass arrogant punks” (p. 172) to people in order to learn what they could have read in a book. And still they fuck it up. None of what they’ve done has been about clarity as the typos they’ve corrected have all been in phrases that were already perfectly clear. Here’s their approach:
Back at college, Benjamin had reorganized the whole first chapter of his thesis, cutting it up into pieces and shuffling them around on his floor, until he’d gotten all his information into a logical flow that helped his argument. My thesis adviser had sent me back through every chapter I wrote to cut the excess fat, redundant sentences and words that didn’t add anything new. (pp. 171-172)
T-shirts and restaurant menus don’t need to be as clear as term papers. They don’t need to be anything like term papers. But our two buffoons can’t recognize that. And so we have this waste of paper of a book.