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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: The Elements and Style

Path through snowy trees

It’s the time of year when heeding weather reports is a good idea: setting out with meagre insulation can be foolhardy. (News flash: “Hypothermia Blamed When Editor Vanishes.”)

I glean data from all sources and sally forth properly kitted, but meteorological claptrap can be irritating.

Path through snowy treesA local CBC station announces that temperatures overnight will go down to minus three with frost. This is vital intelligence only for those who left school before Anders Celsius was born.

Warmer or colder temperatures also grate on my ears, but such phrases seem entrenched. In fact, temperature is a number and can only be higher or lower, not warmer or colder. I’m certain that weather reporters who stick with this pleonasm would never utter cheaper price or faster speed.

The same CBC announcer also tells listeners there will be clouds in the sky. By definition these visible puffs of vapour are in the sky; if the vapour envelops us at ground level, we have mist or fog. Unfamiliarity with the nature of clouds can be blamed for the colloquial partly cloudy in place of simply cloudy, although I’ve pretty well quit my battle against it. When I was a boy my father, an armchair editor, would curse every time it was broadcast. Why?

When the vapour we see as clouds blankets the sky, it is clouded over or overcast. Hence cloudy means partly overcast. And partly cloudy? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. Every time I try to explain this in a seminar my audience remains unconvinced. So partly cloudy it is!

Like so many writers, weather reporters lack trust in the ability of words to do their job and append more in an apparently sincere effort to help us understand. Hence we hear about shower or thunderstorm activity and all-time record highs; we receive advance forecasts, the current temperature right now and weather conditions. Such help can be the enemy of style.

Weather was likely part of humankind’s first dialogues, but its depiction remains a work in progress. I can wait no longer. I’m safely dressed and off on my walk!


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