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Geography, the science dealing with the areal differentiation of the earth's surface, as shown in the character, arrangement, and interrelations over the world of such elements as climate, elevation, soil, vegetation, population, land use, industries, or states, and of the unit areas formed by the complex of these individual elements. -Dictionary.com

In this sentence is the word "unit" used as an adjective or a noun? What does unit area mean exactly, because in wiktionary the two adjective definitions of unit is as follows:

1) For each unit.

2) Having a size or magnitude of one.

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    It's a noun used as an adjective. It seems to mean "forming a unit" or "taken as a whole". Does that help? By the dictionary, this sense is closer to unitary i.word.com/idictionary/unitary – Brian Hitchcock Nov 8 '15 at 10:45
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Unit is a placeholder for all applicable units of surface. The phrase is used to indicate that the unit itself is irrelevant. It works together with all sorts of measurable entities.

In your example it means that it's not relevant for geography what actual units you employ to describe the size of areas. Take square miles, square kilometers, hectares, acres, it doesn't matter.

In retail, sales per unit area is a standard and usually the primary measurement of store success. The unit of area is usually square metres in the metric system or square feet in U.S. customary units. -Wikipedia

The same usage is employed when talking about generic physical forces.

force per unit area - the force applied to a unit area of surface; measured in pascals (SI unit) or in dynes (cgs unit) -TFD

  • Ah, the complications of English. In electricity bills (at least in the UK), a 'unit' is also used to mean a kilowatt-hour (see MoneyMattersToMe.co.uk). – Edwin Ashworth Sep 11 '16 at 12:38
  • @EdwinAshworth interesting; They just assume that the context clarifies the physical unit they actually use to charge money. – Helmar Sep 11 '16 at 12:46
  • It's been a well-known usage for decades. I'm surprised I can't find it in any British dictionaries (though I suspect OED will list it). Of course, 'units' is used unqualified when referring to alcohol intake and blood. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 11 '16 at 13:28
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It's a bit of a kludge, but what they mean is that an area can be analyzed as a unit because an area (unit of land) has a similar geology, climate, elevation, etc. The border of the unit may be irregular, but is determined by the shared geograpical features.

Here is an exerpt from a USFS mapping project that might help with the idomatic usage of "unit of land"

This feature class are polygon layers of map units called terrestrial ecological units (TEU). TEU are mapped units of land within which ecological structure, function, capabilities, responses, and management opportunities and limitations can be predicted (Cleland et al., 1997). TEU are developed by resource specialists through the integration of an ecosystem's elements, i.e.: soils, geology, geomorphology, climate and potential natural vegetation. At LT/LTP scales, these elements are used to describe and define ecological types (ET) that in turn are used to describe and define TEU (see the discussion of this in FSH 2090 for work done to date and, for new mapping projects, the draft TEUI Technical Guide, 1909.xx). TEU are mapped at different analysis scales in accordance with the National Hierarchical Framework of Ecological Units (Cleland et al., 1997), however the LT/LTP scale ecological units are managed on a single GIS coverage. Ecological units (terrestrial and aquatic) are the inventory targets in current Forest Service manual and budget direction.

http://www.fs.fed.us/r3/gis/sfe/teu_land_type_pl.htm

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