Phantom Editors and Writing ‘Mistakes’
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.