Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Did you know that argument actually went to the Supreme Court in 1893? (They determined that it was a fruit but would be classified as a vegetable for tariff purposes.)
Is that crawly thing a bug or an insect? Whadda ya mean it’s an arthropod? What the Hell is an arthropod?
Is the banana really an herb?
Okay my title is a bit misleading. Mostly this is about ‘Who Cares?’ But just to stay on your good side, here are the answers:
The true definition of bug, not the common use, is actually a classification. You know, phylum, genus, species… that kind of thing. So it can be very confusing about what is exactly a bug. A true bug, according to the Free Dictionary is “A wingless or four-winged insect of the order Hemiptera, especially of the suborder Heteroptera, including the bedbug, louse, and chinch bug, having mouthparts adapted for piercing and sucking.” Debbie Hadley does a great job discussing this in the About.com guide Bug or Insect? and points out that all bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs. And they are all arthropods. But not all arthropods are…you get the idea.
And tomatoes are fruits. Unless you are a merchant, I guess. Or anyone at the supermarket. Fruits are the part of the plant made from it’s ‘ovaries’, bearing seeds. Vegetables are edible parts of plants that are not fruit. Oxford dictionaries gives a good explanation here at Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable? I find the easiest way to remember is: If the plant wants you to eat it (to spread seeds, for example) it is a fruit. If the plant doesn’t want you to eat it (roots, leaves, stems) it is a vegetable.
Now to my original point. Who cares?
A banana is a fruit. But the plant it came off of is an herb.
Wise ass. See? Who cares?
Well, if you ever plan on having an audience of some sort, you should. Well, you should at least find out if your audience cares. If your audience doesn’t care, then it doesn’t matter. Go ahead and use the colloquialisms. In fact, you are probably better off using common terms. If you are writing a love story and the Hero is screaming for the Heroine to kill the bug, it might be funny to say a spider is not a bug, but it might be too much. Does it matter to those characters? Would they even know? Would they really talk about that?
If the (impossibly) giant bed bug attacking the world’s clam beds (just go with it) gets called an insect by your main character, who just happens to be the worlds greatest entomologist, that’s okay. No one will notice. And it’s true. But if it is a spider attacking, and the entomologist calls it an insect…. you’ll lose everyone who ever learned that arachnids are not insects. Which would be every Spider-Man fan who ever read a comic. No it’s not a big deal, but it kicks people out of your story when you get it wrong.
If you are writing about the worlds greatest chef, and she calls a tomato a fruit, what are you going to do? She would be right, but everyone would think she got it wrong. Have her lecture an apprentice, teach your audience.
Most times you can shirk off the technical details, but don’t ignore it completely. Mistakes reveal our ignorance, and people have a tendency not to forgive ignorance. You will lose any reader who knows about guns as soon as you talk about a double barreled machine gun. Unless you know enough to credibly convince them that someone actually made one and had a use for it. You’ll lose any medically trained reader when you put a pencil in a seizure victim’s mouth. Unless you are writing a period piece about a time when they still did that.
Anyway, my point is, for the most part, no one cares about the technical details, but if you find an audience that does, and you blow it, you’ll lose the audience that you found. Make sure you know enough to know what you don’t know, and then decide if you need to, or can, avoid it. Unless you are already well-versed in a subject, or are willing to become so, you might want to write around it.
Like many Science Fiction writers do with space travel. They either learn every thing about it so they can answer every nitpick, or they treat it like getting in a car and don’t explain anything. You lose some readers that way, the ones who really want you to get it right, but if you get it wrong, and say something like your spaceship runs on the unicorn poop that floats in space, you will loose all of your readers. Hmm… Maybe not. But you get my point.