From Kate's Writer's Crate…
Writers have tools for their craft: words, grammar, and punctuation. We study them, but few, if any, of us remember all the definitions and rules off the tops of our heads.
I don't claim to be a grammar or punctuation expert. When in doubt, I look up answers in The Chicago Manual of Style or at www.refdesk.com.
It's more of a challenge for me to take the time to look up definitions of words I think I know.
Being clear and precise are the signs of a professional so it's crucial to make sure you are using the correct words. This is why I have a dictionary in every writing spot in my home or my e-reader nearby. If I'm writing without a dictionary at hand or I don't want to interrupt my train of thought, I circle words to look up definitions later. Better to take the time to check than feel foolish once mistakes are published.
In following my own advice, I've been surprised at the exact definitions of words I thought I knew like prone. I thought it meant lying down, but the exact meaning, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, is lying face down or front turned toward the surface it rests on.
I'm not alone in my error. I recently read a mystery where a murder victim was found in a prone position but the blood stains were visible on the front of his shirt.
The wonderful part of this research endeavor is discovering how many words we have to describe exactly what we mean. Supine means lying on one's back. Prostrate means lying down in either position. Recumbent means lying down, but in a position of comfort or rest.
In another example, I thought baleful meant resentful, but it's a more intense word. It means harmful or malignant, portending evil.
Imagine how many clues you could scatter throughout mystery books in plain sight which readers would miss if they were not aware of the exact meanings of the words used.
I hate seeing misused words like flack (meaning the sound of the flapping of laundry on a line or a repetitive noise) instead of flak meaning antiaircraft artillery, bursting shells, or excessive abuse. The Webster's Third New International Dictionary does list flack as a variant of flak, but as the fourth listing so not common usage. The American Heritage Dictionary doesn't list flack.
As writers, we need to be careful. Mistakes can be embarrassing, humorous, or even deadly. I have read scenes where characters force brandy, coffee, or other liquids down the throats of unconscious people. The American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook by Kathleen A. Handal strongly warns not to do this.
Writers are people with responsibilities and power. Be well-defined and accurate. You may even save a life!