Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought

Return to the home page

Steve Dunham’s Editing Humor

By Laura Moyer

Laura Moyer’s Red Pen column appeared in slightly different form in the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star, May 14, 2012. Reproduced with permission.

Oh, how we trip over our own English language.

I get funny emails from Red Pen reader and fellow editor Steve Dunham.

He spots gaffes that slip by Free Lance–Star editors. Here are some of our mistakes that Dunham has pointed out:

A headline about tsunamis was atop a story about typhoons. A Dr. Donahue headline referred to “profused bleeding.” We mentioned a golfer from “Austrailia.” We referred to people “of African decent.”

We misused the word “dilemma” (it’s a choice between unpleasant options, not just a bland quandary). We placed a story about the Oklahoma statehouse under a “Region” header. (Well, Oklahoma is in a region. Just not ours.)

In February we ran a Titanic-related headline: “A century later, tragedy at sea is popular.”

Dunham wrote, “I knew people would like it if they just tried it.”

Thank goodness not all his emails are about our mistakes.

In a recent email, he mentioned an ad in a [Virginia Railway Express] “Commuter Update” with the all-caps headline, “COMMUTERS DON’T HAVE TIME FOR INCOMPETANCE!”

The ad, for a heating company, went on to refer to a heating and cooling “diagnosis dictionary.”

“I wish they would use the regular kind too,” Dunham wrote.

Then there was the time the Arlington Catholic Herald, usually well-edited, published an item mentioning New York City’s five “burrows.”

“That’s wrong,” Dunham wrote. “New York has way more than five tunnels.”

(It does, of course, have only five boroughs.)

In his professional life, Dunham has spotted some doozies.

Several years ago he was assigned to make an accurate transcript from a closed-captioned video of some hearings dealing with space. Among the phrases he discovered on the closed captions: “silly carbon” (Dunham imagined that to be a substance like Silly Putty, only black); “the photo register I watched them post” (the Federal Register and The Washington Post); and “using a rowboat for near-Earth missions.” Turns out that was a robot.

More recently, he writes, “I was editing a book with a lot of medical content, and I came across ‘in cases where all upper right to me is required.’ I figured it was a phonetic misrepresentation of some medical term but I couldn’t guess what.”

He puzzled over it and finally asked the author, a doctor, what was meant.

It was “in cases where a laparotomy is required.”

Dunham figured the doc must have dictated, and something got lost in transcription.

Because I didn’t want to embarrass Dunham, I checked with him to make sure it was OK to use his name and examples in this column.

He responded that it was all upper right with him.

Dunham’s website, Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought, has examples of his photography and humor writing, links to his published articles, and lessons about editing. Also, he really likes trains.