The Comma Bombers, better known as Jeff Michael Deck and Benjamin Douglas Herson, both 28, both English majors, both graduates of that hotbed of compassionate conservatism, Dartmouth College, were sentenced to a $3,000 fine and a year's probation by a federal judge last month for correcting an apostrophe on a historic handpainted sign at the Watch Tower, near Arizona's Grand Canyon.
The sign had been painted by the architect Mary Colter to introduce visitors to the Anasazi-style Watch Tower that she designed on the Canyon’s south rim in 1933.Interestingly, Colter had been a stickler for detail: she handpicked every stone and placed it in the structure to achieve the maximum impact.
But the vandals didn’t approve of Colter's attention to punctuation, so they fixed a misplaced apostrophe and added a missing comma with WiteOut and markers. The pair decided not to fix a misspelled emense, ostensibly because, as Deck wrote in his blog, although the word was a "perversity," they didn't want to "disfigure the sign any further."
Because the sign has historic value and is on a federally-protected site, these fighters in what some newspapers are calling the "war on error" were found guilty in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff of conspiracy to vandalize government property.
The two vandals had formed the "Typo Eradication Advancement League," or TEAL, and were on a right-wing nerds' version of a Kerouac road trip across America, with the goal of correcting mistakes on public signs.
According to the TEAL Manifesto,
This March through May, we, sworn members of TEAL, will be taking a road trip around the country to stamp out as many typos as we can find, in public signage and other venues where innocent eyes may be befouled by vile stains on the delicate fabric of our language. We do not blame, nor chastise, the authors of these typos. It is natural for mistakes to occur; everybody will slip now and again. But slowly 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 vigilance and a love of correctness can we achieve the beauty of a typo-free society.
Using language reminiscent of the Unabomber manifesto, these budding Alex P. Keatons began their voyage of discovery three miles north of the start of Rt. 66, in Chicago's hipster-ridden Wicker Park, where they unsuccessfully attempted to correct the sign outside Milwuakee (sic) Furniture. As the Chicago Tribune reported, they left town without incident. They weren't so lucky when they got to Arizona, and now they're banned from national parks for the duration of their sentence.
Long a neighborhood fixture in Chicago's ultra-hip Wicker Park, Milwuakee (sic) Furniture is located at 1336 N. Milwaukee Avenue.
This before-and-after shot shows TEAL vigilante in flagrante
Deck and Herson aren’t the only crusaders for proper English. Boston has Kate McCulley, its self-described "grammar vandal," who also records her deeds online:
This blog is a record of my campaign to eradicate grammar errors in public in Boston and elsewhere.
I carry a sheet of comma stickers and a Sharpie with me at all times, ready to fix each mistake. If an error glares at me, I'm there to destroy it.
One of McCulley's examples of incorrect punctuation prompts the question, "Students of what?"
And my own university town had an anonymous but compulsive proofreader who took it upon himself to jump unobserved onto the belt at the express checkout of a now-defunct campus supermarket and with a Magic Marker emended the item-limit sign from "8 items or less" by crossing out less and writing in what he felt was the correct form, "8 items or fewer."
And there are plenty of other language vigilantes eager to join the futile effort to put commas in their place.
In an act of public expiation, Jeff Deck wrote on the TEAL website, "It is absolutely egotistical for one to think that one can tell others how to spell."Try telling that to Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster, two lexicographers well known for their big egos.
Correcting other people's language errors has long been a hobby of those English majors who feel the need to compete with environmentalists, premeds and social work students in the "make the world a better place" sweepstakes.
Unfortunately, in terms of language, most people want to be correct, but they don't want to be corrected. In other words, you can correct all you want, so long as you don’t expect anyone to listen to you.
In the end, the effect of Deck and Herson's intrusion into other people’s language only qualifies them as runner ups for the coveted "I know something you don't know" award. Or should that be, runners up?
The Comma Bombers might have benefited from this advice: don’t drink and paint signs, either