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COLUMN: 'Get a life' or "Go for it'

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By Art Trujillo

Is there any cure for language purists of my ilk? Will I/we ever be able to relax, irrespective of the knowledge that somewhere in the world public signs with misspellings abound?

Being a newly dubbed strait-laced language cop, I get it back twice as hard as I give. I parade around commenting on other people’s typos, but when something I write, and by extension, something that appears in the Optic, has a glaring error, we catch it (the scorn, not the error).

How does it feel, Art?

A couple of examples:

In 2005, the Optic ran an article on the late Jesusita Aragon, the revered midwife whose hands-on efforts have helped populate Las Vegas. But a cringe-inducing misstatement got past us, and we stated that the elderly midwife “gave birth to 11,924 babies.”

Well, not even my maternal grandmother, Benerita Ortega Medina, who bore 16 children, could do what we claimed. In a later column, I made clear what we meant, as opposed to what we said. But even with that, I detected considerable pique from one caller who reminded me of our error — days after we’d explained it.

Back to signs:

Shortly after Managing Editor David Giuliani joined the Optic, he showed me the sign in our company parking space that reads, “Unauthorized vehicles will be towed at owners expense.” “Owners” lacked an apostrophe, and Giuliani and I debated on whether it should go before or after the “s.”

Since the sign refers to vehicles (plural), the rest of the warning should also be plural, and thus “owners’” ought to win. One rule for apostrophes is simply to write the complete word first, and then add the punctuation. So we inserted an apostrophe with a broad-tipped pen and got back to work.

Do Giuliani and I qualify for membership in TEAL? It stands for Typo Eradication Advancement League, whose aim is mainly to correct signs in public places.

An article e-mailed by my friend Miguel Mirabal, a former Highlands instructor and retired Memorial Middle School art teacher, details the quest of human spell-checkers, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, founders of TEAL, who arm themselves with Sharpies, erasers, adhesive tape and righteous indignation.

Their zeal to clean up the language in public places got them in trouble. And, because of a charge of vandalizing signs in the Grand Canyon, they were banned for a year from visiting any national park.

The article, by Eric Aasen of the Dallas Morning News, states that “spelling isn’t always high on our list” when it comes to mangled messages.

With considerable temerity, the founders of TEAL provided unsolicited grammatical help, in areas “littered with signs, posters, ads, menus — you name it — that are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.” These Apostles of the apostrophe say most errors involve the much-misunderstood apostrophe — either it’s inclusion when not called for, or the omission when its necessary.

As noble as their goals are, Deck and Herson have their critics, and whether by pressure or even inertia, their cross-country road trips to fix faulty signage have slowed down.

Feedback on a TEAL blog, for example, insists that however altruistic the cause may be, people have no right to tamper with what is not theirs.

Deck and Herson believe that “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.”

Somewhere between “get a life” and “go for it” run the sentiments of people on both sides of the issue. An unrepentant language cop, I align myself with the “go for it” cadre, always believing we ought to try to be as typo-free as possible, yet allowing for human error.

But in a Chicago Tribune article, Deck and Herson said most of their multiple efforts to fix errors in restaurants and other businesses generally were met with “whatever,” “Yeah, I’ll tell the boss about it one of these days” or “People can still understand it, can’t they?”

A few years ago, when I volunteered to place announcements on the Chamber of Commerce’s reader board near Grand and Mills, I put up the letters for the Santa Fe Dessert Chorale, scheduled to perform the next day at Ilfeld.

But that night, as I lay upon my cot, I kept wondering, “Did I misspell ‘chorale’?” It’s another word for choir or chorus. Traipsing back to the sign near midnight, equipped with telescoping pole and suction cup, I realized I had indeed used a word that’s pronounced exactly the same as “chorale,” but is spelled  “corral.”

It was an honest mistake. And I wasn’t horsing around and certainly didn’t mean to steer people wrong.

Now, if I can only borrow a step-ladder to help me explore spelling possibilities on the SERF theater marquee, or whatever strategy might be effective with the oft-cited RHS electronic billboard....

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.