Mighty Red Pen

January 22, 2009

Baby, it’s cold outside

Filed under: Word wars — mighty red pen @ 8:04 pm
Tags: , , ,

So we in the Northeast have been in the grips of some kind of Arctic chill recently (served with a heaping platter of snow with an extra helping of, um, more snow), so this little tidbit from CRS struck me as quite topical.

He writes, “I have noticed the same awkward error being used all week.  This morning, I woke to find that my pet peeve had found its way into Facebook’s popular Flair application.”

And here’s the button to which he’s referring:


Just to keep things interesting, CRS continues, “Is it so brutally cold this year that such redundancy is justified, or does -20 below 0 really just mean 20 above?”

Rest assured that we at MRP are prepared to address many language oddities, including ones that require us to reach waaaaaay back and remember what little we can about the properties of negative numbers (although, quite frankly, this is really stretching my powers).

Okay, so here’s the deal: In essence, yes, it’s redundant to say -20° below zero. The minus part refers to below zero. What we want here is either 20° below zero or -20°.

And, if my memory serves me correctly, strictly speaking and in a mathematical sense, minus a minus makes a plus, so that would equal 20°. But anyone who has a stronger grasp of math is welcome to chime in about that part.

So let’s agree to avoid -20° below zero. But either way, it’s freaking freezing out.



  1. Well, as “below zero” is the description of the “place” where the number is, and -20 is below zero, I don’t see a problem there. In any kind of actual maths, common speech is avoided anyway as it always causes misunderstandings, no matter how carefully you put your words, so I wouldn’t give the “below zero” any “value” of its own. (I’m a maths student in his first semester.)

    Comment by Yakumo Fuji — January 22, 2009 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  2. yes, you’re right, -20 below zero would end up being 20. but i don’t think we have to be concerned that anyone will actually think we mean 20 above zero.

    Comment by beth — January 22, 2009 @ 11:08 pm | Reply

  3. I don’t think it’s a matter of missing the meaning, it’s just another annoying redundancy, like “added bonus”, “free gift”, “continue on”, or “irregardless”.

    “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
    “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.”
    “Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

    Comment by tk. — January 23, 2009 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

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