"Grammar vigilantes" brought to justice

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According to Dennis Wagner, "Typo vigilantes answer to letter of the law", The Arizona Republic, 8/22/2008:

Two self-anointed "grammar vigilantes" who toured the nation removing typos from public signs have been banned from national parks after vandalizing a historic marker at the Grand Canyon.

Jeff Michael Deck, 28, of Somerville, Mass., and Benjamin Douglas Herson, 28, of Virginia Beach, Va., pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff after damaging a rare, hand-painted sign in Grand Canyon National Park. They were sentenced to a year's probation, during which they cannot enter any national park, and were ordered to pay restitution.

We discussed Deck and friends in "Angry linguistic mobs with torches", 4/16/2008.

The sign that Deck and Herson defaced was originally created by Mary Colter. I haven't been able to find a picture of the sign, either before or after defacing, or even a specific account of what was on it. [Update: thanks to Kyle in the comments below, a version from Flickr is shown above — click on the thumbnail to see a larger version, or go to the original location for an even larger one.]

The charge to repair the sign was $3,035.

There appears to be no truth to the rumor that Lynne Truss was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.

[Hat tip: Ralph Hickok]


  1. Oskar Sigvardsson said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    From the article:

    'After correcting a misplaced apostrophe and comma, Deck reported, he was aghast to discover what he described as a made-up word: "emense."

    "I was reluctant to disfigure the sign any further, so we had to let the other typo stand. Still, I think I shall be haunted by that perversity."'

    Poor guy.

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:40 am

    I think this is the sign: the What to See in the Watchtower plaque at the Desert View Watchtower, since it features the phrase "an emense westward view of the Grand Canyon".

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:49 am

    P.S. I suspected, but didn't know until checking the OED and Google Books, that "emense" is a fairly common archaic – and perhaps even current in some circles – variant on "immense".

  4. Maria said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    The misplaced apostrophe may be "symbol of the womens' secret society".

  5. Orbis P. said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

    Ray, I wonder how accurate the transcription of the sign is (the sign itself being too small to read for me). I.e., is "numberous" really there, or a transcription error?

    All in all, I wouldn't correct historical artifacts because their flaws are part of their charm. But correcting commerical products? Why not? It's only vandalism if you break something, not if you fix it. ;)

  6. Kyle said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

    There's nice big photo of that plaque (which does indeed have an oddly-placed apostrophe and the word "emense") on Flickr: Watchtower Plaque. It definitely says "numerous", not "numberous".

  7. Ruth E. Thaler-Carter said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

    The "Leave a Comment" form asks for my "URI." Does it mean "URL" or is that just an initialism with which I'm unfamiliar?

    [(myl) There's this nifty new-fangled invention called "Google", and if you ask it about URI, the second link is the Wikipedia entry, and the third one is the w3.org explanation.]

    Anyhow: I would have take a photo of the sign, marked up what appeared to be typos, and sent a note about it to the park office, offering to provide proofreading services for future signs (and newsletters, etc.). I've wielded a marker on a few signs in my day, but I would never mark up a park sign, no matter how egregious the errors it contains. And for most of the signs I have marked up, I've talked to a manager or owner beforehand.

    Rochester Ruth

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    Thanks, Kyle (I forgot Flickr as a possibility). "Numberous" is an interesting one; I couldn't see that it wasn't on the sign, but (again going by the OED and Google Books) it's a long-running variant, of "numerous". Personally, I find the punctuation a bit naff in places. I know this reaction has been deunked and ridiculed, but I still find the inverted commas on "SNAKE LEGEND" and "REFLECTOSCOPES" grate because I read them as flags for irony.

  9. Bobbie said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

    I was (sort of ) in favor of the grammar vigilantes until they made this move. The entire watchtower is an artist's representation of Hopi culture. So, in essence, they were disturbing a piece of artwork (even if they didn't think it was.) Does this mean that grammar vigilantes have the right to alter spelling and grammar on other works of art? I hope not! I can't think of any examples right now, but I am sure that there are plenty of other works of art with words which may be considered to be be spelled incorrectly….

  10. Robin Jeff and Little Ben Running Through the Forest « Mighty Red Pen said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

    […] Thanks to this post at Language Log, you can see the sign in question here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Typo […]

  11. TootsNYC said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    I'd stick a Post-It Note on a sign like this, but nothing more. (I'm too lazy to write any letters; and besides, my point would be to amuse anyone who came after me who got the change, not to make a permanent change. More 'whoops! look at this goof!' than 'you morons, you!')

    I *have* used a ballpoint pen to correct an apostrophe on vulgar graffitti in the Times Street subway tunnel, and on an advertising poster in the 23rd Street subway stop.

    But to write all over something that is clearly so permanent?

    There's a level of animosity and arrogance there that's out of control.

  12. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

    From the AP: "The TEAL [Typo Eradication Advancement League] Web site now has only this message — 'Statement on the signage of our National Parks and public lands to come' — without a period."

    See for yourself here.

  13. Karen said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

    This cheers me immensely. (Or emensely, possibly.)

  14. Dick Margulis said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 4:46 pm


    Why would 'Statement on the signage of our National Parks and public lands to come' require a period?

  15. Spectre-7 said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

    Dick Margulis: Why would 'Statement on the signage of our National Parks and public lands to come' require a period?

    Perhaps because it's a sentence, which is traditionally terminated by a period or other similar mark in English. I suppose it could have an exclamation point, but that seems to give it a somewhat ominous tone, and a question mark would call their own statement into doubt.

    Actually, I think it's perfectly fine without one, but then I'm not the type of person to waltz about marking up other people's signs.

  16. Ray Girvan said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

    I have to say, I'm mildly swung in favour of Deck & Herson by the repeated adulatory focus on Colter's "attention to detail". When that kind of claim is made, you don't want to see typos on signs she wrote.

  17. Dick Margulis said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 10:02 pm


    Hmm. "X to come" is a perfectly understandable utterance and perhaps it's an example of something a linguist would call a sentence (not being a linguist, I couldn't say). But it's an example of what an editor would call a fragment. There are times when a period is an appropriate delimiter for a fragment, as in dialogue. And there's nothing wrong with having a period after a fragment in, say a list that consists of fragments, if that's the style in use. But an isolated fragment labeling a blank page can't be said to require a delimiter of any sort, as far as I can see.

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

    I suppose all those unterminated newspaper headlines really grate on BZ

  19. Randy Alexander said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

    'Statement on the signage of our National Parks and public lands to come' doesn't so clearly require a period because it's not so clearly a sentence. It's "headlinese" so the determinative "a" at the beginning is taken out, and the main verb "is" is also taken out.

    @ Dick Margulis: BZ didn't necessarily imply that he thinks the above string requires a period; he was just reporting what AP said in the article.

  20. george said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

    ee cummings better watch out.

  21. Dick Margulis said,

    August 23, 2008 @ 5:27 am

    Randy Alexander,

    Thanks very much for pointing that out. I don't know how I missed that obvious fact. Apologies to BZ. I should have read more carefully.

  22. Karen said,

    August 23, 2008 @ 8:53 am

    I dunno. Would you be justified in correcting the placement of horses' legs in paintings? A piece of paper taped on a vending machine or a menu in a window are radically different (even from each other, I'd argue) from this sort of sign.

  23. John said,

    August 23, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

    My local paper changed the spelling in their headline on this story to, "Grammer vigilantes…"


  24. Typo Police Corrected - Ideas Blog - NYTimes.com said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 5:56 am

    […] Language | Extremism in the defense of literacy is no dice, a court rules: two members of the Typo Eradication Advancement League — "grammar vigilantes" who travel around removing typos from public signs — pleaded guilty to defacing a landmark, 60-year-old Grand Canyon sign painted by the architect Mary Colter. [Arizona Republic, Language Log] […]

  25. Steve said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 7:02 am

    The poor dears must have been so traumatised by 'emense' that they didn't get as far as noticing the split infinitive in the last line.

  26. Steve said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 7:03 am

    Sorry, penultimate line.

  27. Vigilante typo fixers hit a nerve - Words to the Wise: Language and the Journal Sentinel said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 7:16 am

    […] Dartmouth who took it upon themselves to correct a 73-year-old sign in Grand Canyon National Park. Language Log, John McIntyre in Baltimore and Jan Freeman in Boston have also weighed in, and their […]

  28. Lynn said,

    April 28, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    They charged 3K to remove some white-out? Incredible.

  29. Fulford fulminates – pfui. « Sesquiotica said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    […] effectiveness of communication. Punctuation ranting leads to truly a**hole-ish behaviour like this: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=522. Come on, perspective, please! Language exists for connecting people; if in our focus on language […]

  30. Why I’m Not Proud of You For Correcting Other People’s Typos « Shitty First Drafts said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:12 am

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

  31. Janice Byer said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    Didn't even notice the apostrophe for being distracted by the prior incomplete sentence and missing period aka misplaced capital and missing semi-colon.

    I wholly agree with my fellows above, who feel it shouldn't be defaced but nonetheless is cringe-worthy. The problem for me is not that it's wrong, per se, but that a stone carving deserves the same kind of careful attention to detail and double checking for accuracy that all permanent construction warrants.

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