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I have read in some dictionaries that, when referring to the weather, the “–” sign is spoken as “minus” — for example “minus 10 degrees”.

Is “negative 10 degrees” also common and interchangeable with "minus"?

  • This question isn't specific enough. I assume you just mean weather. It's used colloquially enough that I would say it is correct if your intent is to communicate the temperature. If your intent is to use proper terminology on a weather paper, perhaps you should stick to the professional minus. – BleepBloopOverflow Jan 20 '16 at 2:01
  • Note that "negative ten degrees" would be even more idiomatic than "minus ten degrees" if specifying, eg, the angle of the dive plane of an submarine. – Hot Licks Jan 20 '16 at 3:18
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    @Azor-Ahai Nonetheless, that is the common, standard way of saying it when referring to temperatures. Personally, I've never heard anyone describing the temperature with ‘negative X’, though I'm sure some people do say it that way. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 23 '17 at 8:30
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    @Azor-Ahai No specific sources as such, no—just my own experience with people from all over the English-speaking world. There could well be pockets where negative is more common, I've just never experienced one. This weatherman prefers negative, but does say that most people use minus; while this mathematician both agrees that most use minus and argues that's what it should be mathematically, anyway. Couldn't find anyone saying that most people say negative. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 23 '17 at 8:49
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    I live in a part of the US where the temperature pretty regularly dips below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and I've heard both minus X (degrees) and negative X (degrees). However, the most common usage is X below (zero). – 1006a Mar 1 '17 at 22:28
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Not common, but yes, interchangeable.

To my ear, "negative X degrees" is normal, and "minus X degrees" is a bit affected. However, Janus Bahs Jacquet is of the opinion that "minus X degrees" is normal worldwide.

I'm inclined to trust him. I have very little experience with sub-0 Farenheit temperatures. Seattle has literally never gone below 0 F. I lived in Vancouver where it hit negative Celsius temperatures maybe once or twice, so I'm by no means an expert.

I'm leaving out Google Ngram below because the question specifically requests "spoken as," which Google Ngram doesn't index at all. The Corpus of Contemporary American English and British National Corpus do have entries (in theory) for transcribed spoken English.

Newspaper Usage

However, my hypothesis of regional variation isn't correct though. The Vancouver Sun and the Seattle Times both prefer "minus."

Although both do infrequently use "negative X degrees," the Sun once in an AP wire about Iowa and one about Kam Chancellor's hands:

I'm forced to conclude "minus" is indeed the standard, and "negative" an acceptable variation.

Corpus of Contemporary American English

The CCAE has tokens from both written and spoken English. It has 140 hits for MINUS * DEGREES, from 2 to 459, in both numbers and words. On the other hand, it has only 13 hits for NEGATIVE * DEGREES. At some point, I'd like to map the hits to see if there are areal tendencies.

I can't link to the search directly, but here's a link to the COCA home page to look it up for yourself: http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/.

British National Corpus

Like the CCAE, the BNC has entries from ``a wide range of genres (e.g. spoken, fiction, magazines, newspapers, and academic).'' It has 15 hits for MINUS * DEGREES and none at all for NEGATIVE * DEGREES indicating "negative" is at least an Americanism.

Conclusion

"Minus" is indeed what most North Americans and all Brits say. That said, "negative" is not wrong, and unlike a word like "inflammable," you're unlikely to be misunderstood if you use. I don't see any reason to recommend against "negative," although if you're unsure, you could prefer "minus."

Maybe someone can weigh in whether it's correct in a technical context to say "negative" over "minus."

  • I think this is too subjective. I assume COCA analyses written English, whereas, the question is about spoken English. A better analysis would be radio weather reports (I assume TV just shows the figures). Subjectively as someone living in Britain, I have never in all my life heard "negative 10" in the context of the weather. I have only encountered it in an IT course I did in a mathematical context. (Nor did I encounter it when I lived in Chicago for three years.) – David Feb 24 '17 at 22:25
  • @David COCA includes transcripts of speech. For example, some of the first examples of "negative 50 degrees" are a transcript of an NPR interview. – Azor Ahai Feb 24 '17 at 22:26
  • @David Interestingly, the British National Corpus doesn't have any hits for "negative * degrees." I'll add that to my answer tonight. – Azor Ahai Feb 24 '17 at 22:29
  • OK. But the sample size seems small. I do wonder about these things. Ngram, for example is useful, but it only does books, so its coverage is often less relevant for the scientific literature. – David Feb 24 '17 at 22:30
  • @David Unfortunately, using Google Ngram would mean leaving out speech entirely. – Azor Ahai Feb 24 '17 at 22:35
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Thinking about a number line or scale, any number below zero can be referred to as "negative" OR "minus". So mathematically and conceptually either works.

But conventionally, in reference to temperatures, "negative" doesn't get used. I also speak Swedish, and in that language it's the same - "minus" is always used for weather and temperature, never "negative".

  • Swedish isn't really relevant—both because it's not English, but also because ‘negative’ is never used with any kind of number in Swedish, it's ‘minus’ in all contexts (not counting describing a number as being ‘a negative number’). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 23 '17 at 8:32
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"Negative 10 degrees" is just as easy to understand as "minus 10 degrees". Temperature is odd though, particularly since there are different systems to relay the same information (Celsius & Fahrenheit). Regardless, when speaking about the weather, you're referring to a number relative to a fixed value (0 degrees).

As such, I'm inclined to say both are equally correct. "Negative" tells the listener the value is positional (in relation to a fixed point on a spectrum) in nature, as does "minus".

  • Although I agree with you, using the word negative brings to my mind the uncomfotable notion of a negative absolute temperature, which is impossible. – Bobbi Bennett Jan 20 '16 at 2:10
  • @BobbiBennett Yeah, I actually thought about that for a moment, but the same could be said if "minus" were used. Up to the speaker to use it correctly given the context. – Jared Andrews Jan 20 '16 at 2:21
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I often hear "negative" being used to described temperature from American English speakers, whereas "minus" is normally used by English speakers from the UK.

  • Well, the view from Chicago is actually "minus ten wind chill." That's -23 centigrade. Good thing I don't live further north. – Stu W Jan 20 '16 at 4:36
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I'm a math student. I say that "negative 10 degrees" is more correct because negative is the sign of the number and thus properly a modifier in English, but minus is an arithmetic operator, which strictly speaking takes two operands: "zero minus 10". Of course, even in upper-level math class we'll pronounce the integer -10 as "minus ten" but I consider this informal/slang, and we would not say this in a class on number systems, axioms of arithmetic, etc. where the distinction is important.

  • There's nothing colloquial or slangy about using ‘minus’ for temperatures. Maths doesn't really have anything to do with that—it's just idiomacy. To my ear, using ‘negative’ about degrees sounds a lot more colloquial and slangy than ‘minus’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 23 '17 at 8:37
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It's pronounced as "negative" X degrees in all numbering systems from integers, mathematics, physics to meteorology (which is a mathematical science, BTW).

Journalistic slang appeals to the lowest common denominator (i.e. lowest IQ) and hence people who are poor in mathematics and can't understand concepts of positivity and negativity but are very literalist, reading it as (plus or minus) for these operands, tend to read it as "minus" like babies or children, hence "minus" is now commonly used.

The correct term is "negative" as you are on a "negative scale of Celsius centigrades" and not in a "minus scale".

For the same reasons, we say "plus sizes" in casual circumstances instead of "extraordinarily large sizes" because the current Simple English movement and commercial media journalism appeals to the lowest common denominator (including children, who have not yet been exposed to complex mathematical concepts). In order to avoid children being injured, as they are taught + is plus, and - is minus, the weatherman says MINUS.

However, the correct term for official reports and diplomats, and when in discussion with people of power and importance, is "negative".

This is because MINUS is an OPERAND, and not a scale.

Conversely, you cannot read 1 - 1 = 0 as "One Negative One Equals Zero". The correct term here is MINUS (operand). However, when reading

Read (-10 degrees C) - (4 degrees C) as (negative ten degrees celsius MINUS four degrees celsius).

If you were to read it as (Minus Ten Degrees Celsius Minus Four Degrees Celsius) it will not make any sense, because the negativity in scale and operands have now both been confused in "minus".

The fact that most people do it, or don't feel like it is correct, or "doesn't think it suits their ear" doesn't make it correct.

The correct terms is NEGATIVE when describing a number as representing the negative scale in Celsius centigrade.

The Celsius Centigrade is based on the qualities of pure water in relation to heat. 0 C is when water freezes into ice, and 100 is when it turns into steam from water. There are 100 markings between hence CENTI - GRADE (centi stands for 100), grade stands for the markings.

To use Celsius concept to describe the cold, the concept of NEGATIVITY is applied, hence -5 degrees Celsius is read as NEGATIVE FIVE DEGREES CELSIUS and NOT MINUS.

However, due to UK's SPEAK PLAIN ENGLISH MOVEMENT, most people tend to read it as MINUS as most British and Americans fail the international mathematics test for high school students, hence the financial crises of today.

Many Americans and Brits confused a negative number on their mortgage sheet as a positive balance on house equity and keep spending until they are unpleasantly evicted in a bank foreclosure.

This is because they do not understand that the "minus" sign actually means that they are in negativity financially speaking (i.e. in debt). Most simple minded thinks that there is nothing different just a sign of - in front and read it as MINUS. They do not even bother subtracting to get any answers.

To prevent this, we should encourage everyone to use the term "NEGATIVE" and read it as "MINUS" only when discussing the sign as an OPERAND to SUBTRACT temperature differences from readings.

We have to do this with kids as well at an early age to prevent oversimplification and future generations of bankrupt and dispossessed adults.

protected by tchrist Dec 9 '17 at 1:33

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