Why I’m Not Proud of You For Correcting Other People’s Typos

Cover for The Great Typo HuntAfter the title of the blog, the number one Google search that brings people to this site is some variant of the question:  “Is there a name for people who correct other people’s grammar?”  Well, in a professional setting, we call them copy editors.  When they are correcting your adverb usage at cocktail parties, we call them douchebags.  When they are traveling the United States correcting typographical errors on signs, I guess we can now call them published authors. When I first saw the Salon interview of Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, authors of The Great Typo Hunt, I had every intention of reading the book in its entirety and reviewing it for this blog, but all signs are pointing to that not happening anytime soon.  I do, however, have thoughts about said interview, the project itself, and the blog on which it is based, so I am going to comment generally here and delve into the finer points once my schedule clears up a bit.

In the wake of this post (which remains the top post on this blog more than two months later–go figure), I think I’ve been labeled by some as a kind of devil-may-care descriptivist when it comes to language.  I am a descriptivist, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the spelling and grammar rules we have agreed upon as a linguistic group aren’t worth anything.  They help us understand one another, and I do actually think it is worthwhile to strive for fluency (which is NOT the same thing as grammatical correctness), especially if your livelihood depends on written communication.  Avoiding typos and improper usage (as well as needlessly tortured sentence structures and opaque jargon) bespeaks professionalism and pride in one’s work.  I have worked as a copy editor before and am actually pretty damn good at it.

But I am led to ask the following question:  why would anyone take a cross-country trip for the sole purpose correcting typos when they are not being paid to do so?  Furthermore, why are so many people ready to give these guys medals for doing so?  Why is it that some feel that usage errors are a Huge Social Problem in need of fixing, and why do some also seem to feel that they are a kind of personal affront?  Let’s take the precipitating event of Deck’s project, described here by the Salon interviewer:

In November of 2007, Jeff Deck encountered a sign that would change his life. He had just returned from his five-year college reunion at Dartmouth College, embarrassed by his lack of accomplishment in life, when, walking near his apartment in Somerville, Mass., he encountered a sign that had already stopped him in his tracks multiple times: “Private Property: No Tresspassing.” The extra “s” in the sign had, as he puts it, long been “a needle of irritation” — but now something had changed: He felt the urgent need to correct it.

There is, needless to say, a lot going on there, and the interviewer seems to have cannily hinted at the insecurities that may have informed Deck and Herson’s epic journey:  the sense that degrees in the arts and humanities (Deck was a creative writing major) have  lost their relevance, the reality that even elite educations do not guarantee work that is both remunerative and soul satisfying, and, perhaps, the usual quarter-life crisis, the late twenties malaise that sets in when one realizes that one has not yet Made a Difference or even come close to achieving what one set out to do senior year in college.

At bottom, though, I think the impulse to correct proceeds from Rule-Follower Angst:  you have done everything (or everything that counts) right and have not been rewarded in the way you expected.  The wicked still prosper.  Out there, people are breaking the rules and getting away with it. On some level, the correcting impulse is about Being Right and making sure that people know it, and as snotty as this paragraph is, I sort of understand it.  But I also understand that this sort of behavior tends to drive people away, and for good reason.  And as the interviewer rather amusingly notes, there are often problematic privilege differentials at work:

It can seem pretty condescending to be correcting typos, in particular when a lot of the people responsible for them are probably immigrants still learning English.

I think the capacity for cruelty is just too much when you’re going after people writing in English as their second language — my French would be lucky if it were at that level of semi-comprehensibility — so we tried to stay away from those. But even with that aside, socioeconomics are definitely a factor to consider and we had to be sensitive to that.

Especially given that you’re two white guys with university education.

Heh.  To their credit, Deck and Herson seem to be sensitive to their positionality and to the educational deficiencies that wanton mis-spellings and eggcorns can betray.  It’s just that when it comes to their assessment of how exactly the educational system is failing some people, they seem to be rather aggressively missing the point:

Over the past several decades, there’s been a definite move away from phonics-based education in spelling and grammar — which ties the sight and sound of words very closely together — toward what’s sometimes called the “whole word method,” which is based more on the sight of words. With phonics you learn to sound out the parts of each word and then put them together, instead of the guesswork that’s involved in the “whole word” approach.

There was an interesting book that my co-author Benjamin discovered as we were on our typo hunt, called “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” from around 1955. The author talked about some of the most common types of errors out there, like double-letter confusion: “timming” instead of “timing,” and “shiping” instead of “shipping.” It had this whole list of common typos, and a lot of them were the same ones we saw on this trip.

T-shirt that reads:  Hookt on Fonix Werkt Fer Me!There’s a lot of fail in these two paragraphs.  First of all, I guess both authors were living under a rock for the duration of the 90’s and never saw the T-shirt to the left.  Actually, that’s a cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist.  In fact, there is substantial evidence that an education that includes Phonetic Awareness Instruction is more effective at teaching children to read and spell than education that excludes it.  The problem is that Deck and Herson have deputized a book from 1955 into their argument.  Their answer suggests that Rudolf Flesch’s observations in Why Johnny Can’t Read were completely ignored at mid-century, when in fact that text was very successful.  Phonics did re-enter the standard curriculum and wasn’t really challenged until the “whole language” approach was introduced in the 1980’s.  Even then, phonics has never dropped out of elementary school curricula entirely, as this has been a contentious subject in pedagogical and linguistic circles ever since, with a comprehensive review of studies on the subject only having been conducted at the beginning of this decade.  In other words, Deck and Herson have no way of knowing if the people who committed the typos they traveled the country to correct were taught via phonics or whole language or some combination of methods.  In fact, there is a fair chance (given the chronology), that most people over the age of 30 were never touched by the whole word catastrophe that Deck and Herson point to as the root cause of our language woes.

There’s no denying that there are vast deficiencies in our educational system, but in order to get at those, we have to go past the phonics debate and look at the structural relationship between poverty and illiteracy, the deterioration of schools in poor neighborhoods, state and local governments that continue to drain money from public education, the shortage of qualified teachers, and other ways in which class, race, and geography function as barriers to education and functional literacy.  Deck and Herson address some of that, but when you look at the problem in that way, running around the country correcting typos on signs seems pitifully ineffectual as a means of correcting or even bringing attention to the problem.  It’s treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease.  It’s hacking away at the tip of the iceberg or whatever tortured metaphor you please.  Worse, it’s a self-serving stunt.

So no, guys, I’m not proud of you for correcting other people’s typos.  If the goal was get yourself published, then congrats, but in terms of addressing any larger problem, it’s pretty sad.

Addendum:  I’ve been skimming through the online preview of the book, and some of the prose is just, well…I’ll let you see for yourself:

I discussed my cross-country typo-hunting notion with barely anyone, cradling it close and secret lest the scrutiny of others burn mortal wounds into its gossamer body.

Yikes.  I don’t think I have another Lionel Tiger dissection in me right now, but let’s hit the high points:  “notion” seems to be in keeping with the affected, overwrought diction that infects everything I’ve read so far.  “Cradling it close and secret” is just flat-out awkward, and, come to think of it, should read “closeLY and secretLY” (not that the correction would improve it all that much).  And the metaphor at the end there made me die a little bit inside.

Addendum 2:  Deck and Herson once got arrested for correcting typos on defacing a historical artifact in Grand Canyon National Park.  Way to go.

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