Skip to content

Phantom Editors and Writing ‘Mistakes’

6 March, 2009

Do you correct textual errors you find when you read books? If so, be sure that what you’ve done is . . . well, correct.

I occasionally correct errors in Wikipedia and in books, such as dates and people’s names. Sometimes I correct typos, although I’m not a member of the super-vigilant typo-police. I usually correct a typo only if it’s in a library book and is misleading. For example, a novel by Colleen McCullough has a scene set in a royal court, where a man is being whipped. The whipping  is described as a ‘kindly act’.  Whaaat? It is a typo; the correct word is  ‘kingly’.

Recently I borrowed a library copy of The Writing Class, an enjoyable whodunit by US writer, Jincy Willett.  A previous reader, whom I will call the Phantom Editor,  had inserted three ‘corrections’.  Are they right, or not?

Interestingly, after I published this post, the author herself responded. I have incorporated Jincy’s comments in the material below.

(If you want to know more about Jincy, go to her website.)

Akimbo: Correct–or not?

. . .[S]ince all they had to tell the police was that some unidentified joker had claimed that another unidentified man was dead, the police wouldn’t be inclined to race to the beach, blue lights and sirens akimbo.

The Phantom Editor questioned the word ‘akimbo’.

The term originates from words meaning sharply bent and crooked. Anything akimbo is bendable. The word often refers to human limbs, such as arms or legs akimbo.

Can blue lights be akimbo? Maybe, as a figurative description of wavering (bent)  flashes of blue illuminating the scene. But I am not confident that the word should be used to describe a sound, in this case, the sirens. I agree with Phantom Editor on this one.

JINCY: “Akimbo” was used in a deliberately off way. We’re in Amy’s p.o.v. throughout (that is, 3rd person, single p.o.v., with the exception of the Sniper material), and this is the sort of deliberate odd word choice that she would make (I hope); it was intended to be droll, because Amy is.

Between you and I: Correct or not?

Carla, a member of the writing class, tells Amy, her writing teacher:
‘Everybody understood that piece but me! Between you and I,’ she had whispered, ‘I was just winging it.’

Phantom Editor had pencilled in:  ‘between you and me’.
The correction makes the phrase grammatically correct. But fictional characters, like people in real life, may not use grammatically correct speech. Maybe Carla is someone who always uses the phrase ‘between you and I’. Many people do. An editor would check with the author and also examine how the character talks throughout the story.

JINCY:  Carla uses the wrong pronoun case in dialogue, and again this was deliberate on my part, although I can’t remember why, except that I always notice when people do this.

Careen: Correct or not?

At first all she could make out was a small car entering the far end of the lot at an unsafe speed, at least for speech bumps, and sure enough it hit three of them, bottoming out each time . . . with an attendent rattle that sounded like a dislodged oil pan, and still it careened forward, coming straight for Amy.

Phantom Editor changed careened to careered. Is this right? This one is tricky. What you pick depends on 1) the culture the story is set in, 2) the writer’s cultural background, and 3) the editor’s decision to stick to old or changed rules of usage. It also helps to know both words’ origins:

  • Careen originally referred to turning a ship on its side to clean or  repair it,  or making a ship keel over. The term originates from an old word that means keel.
  • Career originally referred to moving over a course, such as the rider’s ‘lane’ in a jousting tournament. The term originates from words meaning street or road.

Now it gets confusing, depending on your cultural background.

  • British: The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd Ed).
    For the Brits, the words are quite different:
    careen =  leaning or tilting. E.g., If you’re drunk, you might careen down the corridor, lurching from side to side.
    career = speeding. E.g, you might want to get away from a crime scene, so you hop in a car and career straight down the street.

    According to this British source, Americans never use career as a verb. Instead they use  careen to describe rushing along AND rushing along with  ‘unsteady motion’. T

  • American: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and The American Heritage Book of English Usage
    These American sources state that Americans DO use both terms:
    careen = swaying from side to side, lurching. But also: speeding AND sometimes also wavering or lurching.
    career = speeding.
  • Australian. Macquarie Dictionary Online. This source adds even more information:
    Careen refers only to cars.
    careen = vehicles speeding in an uncontrolled way—but they may also be swaying from side to side.
    career = speeding — but the term is obsolete, so is seldom used.

In their blog,  Grammarphobia, Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman agree that using the verb career is old-fashioned. Now most people do not distinguish between the two words. Americans opt for careen, and even when career is the correct choice, they think it ‘looks odd’. 

In the example from Jincy’s book, we know these facts: 1) the car is traveling at a high speed,  and 2) the author and setting is American. I would go against the Phantom Editor here and say that careen is correct.

JINCY: And “careen,” as you discover, is fine in context. I do remember looking it up to verify.


The Phantom Editor’s work—plus Jincy’s explanations of her writerly choices—underline how valuable it is for writers to find a skilled editor. Look for one who keeps up-to-date with linguistic change and does not meddle unnecessarily with the characters’ voices.

Advertisements
4 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 April, 2009 3:30 pm

    I looked up the use of ‘You and I’ because I thought this was the correct grammatical expression. In old grammar books it is given as the correct form but later grammar books suggest it is used in formal situations. Nowadays ‘between you and me’ is considered correct. Language changes!
    There may also be differences in the use of this expression in different areas.

    Like

    • Marsha permalink
      19 April, 2009 7:57 am

      Good reminder about language changing. The 19th century grammarians, who laid down the grammar rules according to how Latin is structured, made English grammar much more difficult to understand.

      There’s some debate about whether ‘between you and I’ is simply an old construction that has never died out or whether it continues because people hyper-correct, i.e., they learn a grammar rule but apply it in the wrong situation.

      President Obama has been criticised for using the ‘I’ construction incorrectly:
      Correct use as subject of sentence: Michelle and I attended the ball.
      Correct use as object of sentence: The Queen welcomed Michelle and me.
      Obama’s incorrect use as object of sentence: The Queen welcomed Michelle and I.

      The use of ‘I’ as object of the sentence is widespread. Is it wrong or acceptable? It depends on if it is used in speech or writing.
      * In speech, the ‘I’ as object may be common in some regions and socio-economic strata, as you pointed out.
      * In informal writing, it may also be acceptable. Fiction writers often rely on grammatical constructions to show a character’s education, socio-economic background, or regional background.
      * In formal writing, it still is less acceptable.

      Like

  2. 7 March, 2009 12:50 pm

    There are in fact a number of errors that slipped through into the first printing, but the ones discussed here, though interesting, would not have been improved through editing. “Akimbo” was used in a deliberately off way. We’re in Amy’s p.o.v. throughout (that is, 3rd person, single p.o.v., with the exception of the Sniper material), and this is the sort of deliberate odd word choice that she would make (I hope); it was intended to be droll, because Amy is. Carla uses the wrong pronoun case in dialogue, and again this was deliberate on my part, although I can’t remember why, except that I always notice when people do this. And “careen,” as you discover, is fine in context. I do remember looking it up to verify.

    This is such an interesting topic! Even though I don’t agree with these particular editing choices, I could certainly have used a phantom editor in the preparation and proofing of the ms. Copy editing isn’t what it once was, and, try as I might, I always miss all sorts of stuff when I proof my own work.

    Like

    • Marsha permalink
      7 March, 2009 1:26 pm

      Hi Jincy, Thanks so much for explaining why you choose the word ‘akimbo’. I sided with the Phantom Editor mainly because I thought about Amy as a writing teacher who might be a stickler for the way some words are used. As for the Phantom Editor’s other two mark-ups, a pet peeve of mine concerns people who wrongly ‘correct’ something in a book. They’re a small step above the apostrophe people who correct signs with red pens.

      I enjoyed your novel immensely. The characters who signed up for Amy’s writing class were so realistic in terms of their interests, fears and plans. And Amy, as the main character, was thoughtfully developed, a flawed and rather sad character who is pushed to confront her demons, and in doing so comes good. Presenting helpful material about writing was a plus, and doing this as a dialogue between students and teacher made a pleasant change from the pontificating author in the how-to books about fiction writing. That you could do all this and incorporate a satisfying murder mystery as well is incredible. I’m planning to discuss your novel in a future blog entry. Cheers, Marsha

      Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: