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What is the explanation for the following sentence being written as it is:

The newborn baby was discovered by passing cyclists on a day when temperatures surpassed 40 degrees Celsius.

The singular temperature sounds much better to me while temperatures sounds a little odd. There is only one temperature - it can be either high or low, rising to 30, 40, 50 degrees or decreasing to -20, -30, etc. In which context should one use temperatures?

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    Temperatures taken at different times of the day, or in different locations around town. When my son was about 13 years old he had to make an isobar chart (as part of his geography course) by fixing cheap thermometers to trees and other objects around a radius of about a mile from our home. I was amazed at the variations in our village microclimate. – WS2 Jun 19 '15 at 11:13
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    To be clear, the singular temperature only works here if preceded with the definite article: "...when the temperature surpassed...". – talrnu Jun 19 '15 at 15:09
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When you're talking about multiple readings of the thermometer: "With temperatures in the 90s this week, people should take precautions against heat exhaustion." 91° on Monday, 93° on Tuesday, 90° on Wednesday -- multiple readings, so temperatures plural.

(For those who speak Celsius, that's 32° - 37°.)

In your example, during the day of the cycling and baby-finding the temperature changed.

  • @LittleEva, our minds crossed in cyberspace. – deadrat Jun 19 '15 at 9:42
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News reports often use temperatures in place of temperature measurements, i.e. as a shorthand for official temperature measurements from an unspecified number of regional/national weather stations. The journalist clearly didn't have a report of the temperature at that specific place and time.

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A noun may have several distinct meanings in English language depending on the context. As a result, a noun can be plural or singular (and also countable or uncountable) depending on the intended meaning:

It is possible to use temperature as an uncountable, noun meaning 'degree/intesity of heat',

  • The temperatures in Paris and Berlin reached record heights yesterday.

When we use it countably, we think more of individual figures. When "temperature" means "a temperature reading/value" (also true for "pressure"), then it is countable.

  • The temperature dropped to minus one degrees.

Usage examples-

  • When the temperature cools, people settle outside to watch the great show of daily life as if it were a television series. (New York Times, Jun 19, 2015)
  • They hide themselves in the landing gear where they are exposed to the elements and have to endure plummeting temperatures. (The Guardian,Jun 19, 2015)
  • Suppose you added equal amounts of heat to equal masses of iron and aluminum. How do you think their temperatures would change? (wiki)
  • The newborn baby was discovered by passing cyclists on a day when the temperature surpassed 40 degrees Celsius. (OP)

Usage notes-

You can use temperature single or plural with preposition. ( temperature or temperatures of ). . The singular form is usually precededed by the definite article. (the temperature)

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I'd say that temperature is a single reading on a thermometer, but when you are referring to an overall weather in an area it is perfectly fine to use temperatures. In fact it makes more sense.

  • "The temperature" refers to the state of the air, while "a temperature" might be a measurement of that state. The former could be used just as sensibly as "temperatures", but you're right that the latter would make little sense. – talrnu Jun 19 '15 at 15:12

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