If you're the kind of person who winces inwardly at the BUSSES ONLY sign at the South Campus bus loop or the directions to the "Childrens' Psychiatric Clinic" at Millard Fillmore Hospital," you'll recognize the impulse behind "The Great Typo Hunt."
Which is this: America is riddled with typographical errors, and someone has to do something about it.
That would be authors Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson, recent Dartmouth graduates who work respectively in a bookstore (Herson) and as an associate editor of Rocks & Minerals magazine (Deck).
They turned a cross-country road trip into a chronicle of their efforts to spot and correct mistakes in business signs, T-shirts, historical markers, concert banners and all sorts of other places where the simple clarity of the English language gets corrupted by laziness, guesswork, poor education and, worst of all, people who just don't care where the apostrophe goes. The horror.
The titled "typo" is misleading.
Only a few of the mistakes the authors corrected are actual typographical errors, such as "Milwuakee Hotel." Most are punctuation errors ("Bring Your Camera's), semantic thickets ("No Refund or No Exchange on Any Seasonal or Sale Item"), honest misspellings ("bread puding") and just plain stupidities ("Year Around Fun! Play In Doors & Out").
Where they place themselves in harm's way is their insistence on fixing the mistakes they find, with a supply of markers, correction fluid and press-on letters. Typically they point out the error to the proprietor or some hapless teenage clerk, and are met with either "Gosh, I never even noticed that; go ahead and fix it" or some variant of "Go to hell."
The worst of it, they say, was in Albany, where at the Tulip Festival they are challenged by a tattooed brute who insists that "renown" is an adjective and a seller of "Bon Appetite" plaques who cackles, in response to the authors' spelling challenge, "Well, people are still buying it!"
Their vigilantism even gets them into a little dramatic trouble after they correct a historical sign at the Grand Canyon.
For that civic improvement they get hauled into federal court, and worse, it turns out that one of their corrections (fixing "emense" to immense) simply bollixed up a historical spelling that was left that way on purpose.
Deck and Herson claim not to be sharper-than-you know-it-all smarty-pantses, but their book is shot through with arch meta-rococo flourishes, and you can't help but think they consider themselves on a higher plane.
Which is why it's comforting to see that they're not immune to confusions of their own, such as an appeal to "old time's sake" (for the sake of old time?) and the one almost everybody misses, the difference between "disinterested" and "uninterested." Grammar watchers, they say, fall into two camps: the by-the-book Hawks, determined to hold back the tide of looseness, laxness and libertinism, and the cultural relativist Hippies, who argue that language is a tool, not an idol, and that spelling and grammatical rules change over time anyway, so why sweat the small stuff?
But even uber-Hawks can't hold back the tide of error, and truth be told, sometimes it's more fun that way. Case in point: the crawl on MSNBC recently in which an oily politician asserts that the charges against him are "vile and viscous." Sometimes the wrong is just about right.
A review should honor the spirit of the book, and so the less said about "Short Cuts," the better.
This is a survey course in "minimalist communication," a rich vein that here gets only a surface exploration.
So much of our discourse has become epigrammatic: the 140-character haikus of Twitter, the enervated abbrevs of text messaging. And the authors raise a number of communication forms that should be fascinating: the ransom note, the deathbed pronouncements, the self-presentation of a voicemail message. Any of these would merit a lively chapter in itself.
Instead the authors, perhaps falling victim to too much research (their bibliography runs to 23 pages), tackle a thousand subjects and do justice to none of them. In the end, "Short Cuts" does too much with too little.
The Rev. Scott Thomas is senior minister of Amherst Community Church (United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ) in Snyder and author of "Live the Gift: Stories."
>The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time
By Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson
269 pages, $23.99
>Short Cuts: A Guide to Oaths, Ring Tones, Ransom Notes, Famous Last Words, and Other Forms of Minimalist Communication
By Alexander Humez, Nicholas Humez and Rob Flynn
Oxford University Press296 pages, $19.95