You'll spot them in status updates, blog posts, even New York Times articles. The Internet is filthy with typos, confusing countless readers each and every day. But instead of just groaning and reading on, a legion of spelling sticklers are using Twitter to try and sweep the web clean. A few of these typo vigilantes talked with us about what drives their copyediting urges, and the responses were as intense as they were varied — which makes sense, because those going over the Internet with a red pen do so for many different reasons.
Take @YourInAmerica. A hilarious account that's been getting lots of press, it sets out to expose the hypocrisy of xenophobes telling immigrants to learn English when they themselves don't know the difference between "your" and "you're." Some Twitter typo cops get their trollish kicks by playing up the "fascism" of their prescriptivism. And others, like @StealthMountain, do it for the LOLz. This account robotically corrects people who misspell "sneak peek" as "sneak peak." Its main timeline is predictable, but @StealthMountain's favorited Tweets, which collect abusive comebacks from the corrected parties, are amazing:
@stealthmountain no fuck you it was word play because I'm going to the top of a mountain tomorrow your grammar nazi bitch— Mike Leary (@Learys_Done) September 28, 2012
The common gripe from the typo hounds seems to be a growing frustration with how sloppy online writing has become. Curtis Gibby—the 31-year-old Utahan and Mormon father of four who mans the @badapostrophes handle—is a loyal Wired reader, but typos in the magazine's blog posts never cease to irk him. "This is a media property run by Conde Nast, and they can't get it together enough to keep a few bad apostrophes out of their stories?" he fumes over email. As someone who's been nitpicking copy since his days on a student newspaper, Gibby says, "I left journalism four years ago for greener pastures as a programmer, but I haven't ever gotten rid of the red-pen bug."
Gibby's corrections can leave a sting, but other typo spotters take a gentler approach. One account well known to Atlantic Wire writers who've committed a typo or two (or three) is @fiercek, the Twitter presence of a 29-year-old Virginian who says she's not out to shame anyone over a slip-up. As someone who's been scrutinized by her, I can confirm that @fiercek couldn't be nicer about calling writers out. "Each typo I find is, on some level, meant to be a compliment to the author and organization I’m talking to," she says. "When I find a typo, it means that I was interested enough in the topic to click on the link and actually read the content with enough attention to notice the error."
The woman behind @SnarkyGrammar, a New Yorker and mother of three who also asked not to be identified by name, says she isn't out for blood, either. "My snark is worse than my bite," she writes. She started her blog and accompanying Twitter handle as an irreverent grammar guide for teens, and says, "I'm not interested in embarrassing anyone." But some of their finds turn out embarrassing nonetheless. Perhaps the best typo @fiercek recently caught came from Pitchfork's take on the new Mountain Goats album. The reviewer meant to write "indulge" but added an extra 'd,' taking the as-of-yet-uncorrected sentence in an unintentionally gross direction:
Are you feeling lucky, curious types?
So what kind of person makes it their personal mission to copyedit the entire Internet? No, these Twitter police didn't turn out to be laid-off copy editors with way too much free time on their hands. They do all share an editorial background in one way or another, though (@fiercek proofreads an employee newsletter, Gibby used to post stories online for a local TV station, and @SnarkyGrammar has held writing and editing positions at various magazines).
Twitter offers the perfect platform for these part-time proofreaders. They like its immediacy, the way it lets them hold writers' feet to the fire. After all, most if not all modern journos have active Twitter accounts and constantly check their mentions. If a public Tweet about their gaffe turns up in that column, you better believe they'll notice. In Gibby's experience, most of them grudgingly appreciate the criticism. "Many writers seem slightly off-put that someone's calling them out, but happy enough to correct their error," he says. "On the other hand, one writer told me that I was being cruel and 'damaging [her] online profile.'"
We don't see it that way. As online newsrooms get more agile and lean, copyediting sometimes fall by the wayside. The news cycle has more speed and heft than ever before, but sometimes those strides come at the expense of spotless copy. So as long as these Twitter users want to call us out on the typos we fail to notice ourselves, we'll gladly take an extra set of eyes.