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“Mainly dry for most”: compulsive hedging language in weather forecasting

One thing is certain about the British weather: its uncertainty.

That uncertainty will only increase over time as the polar ice melts, sea levels rise, the jetstream gets further disrupted, and one-in-a-thousand-year events start to occur annually.

Pity then the intrepid British forecasters whose every word is hung onto nightly by farmers, fishermen, event organisers, sportspeople, families and dog walkers – and insurers.

Coming up with the right scenario from hundreds of computer-modelled scenarios is hard enough in itself. Finding the right language to describe the selected outcome – to deliver with airy reassurance, grim precision or obvious glee – is even harder.

So it’s hardly surprising that forecasters are inclined to be not very definitive in their predictions. The risk to reputation is one thing. More than thirty years on people still chuckle at poor Michael Fish and his quote, inevitably taken out of context, from the afternoon of 15th October 1987.

The economic risk to the farmers and fishermen is another thing. The weather matters meaningfully to many. Livelihoods and even lives are at stake: best to not get it wrong.

Still, couldn’t the forecasters be a bit less – well – vague?

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“A window onto the world”

In his book A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century the American scientist and linguist Steven Pinker talks about classic style.

This is something which sounds as if it should be very well-known and familiar. Yet it is not. Few have heard of it outside linguistic and academic circles. It’s just a convenient label for an approach to academic and business writing that is at once direct, conversational, original, colourful and clear.

What’s not to like about that? Well, precisely. Although few people have heard of classic style, more should have.

Classic style was actually invented not by Pinker but by academics Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in their book Clear and Simple as the Truth. Still, Pinker is probably its most famous proponent, and the summary chapter in his book features some basic motifs and some dos and don’ts. He describes classic style as:

a window onto the world … an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.

Among the motifs are some familiar ideas: for example taking care with (though not eliminating) the passive voice; watching out for clichés and mixed metaphors; and favouring first and second person pronouns (I, you, we) over third person (he, she, it, they). The idea of classic style is to hold an equal, mutually respectful conversation with your reader, to avert their gaze simply and clearly to something that you understand but they don’t yet.

What has this got to do with the language of weather forecasting?

In places

To answer that let’s start by examining some random content from the very top of the BBC weather website:

UK Summary: Northern areas will remain cloudy with some rain. Dry in the south with a few sunny spells.
Today: Northern areas of the UK look set to be cloudy and rather wet with outbreaks of rain. In the south, it will be mainly dry with some sunny spells, but generally a good deal of cloud around.
Tonight: Tonight, it will remain largely cloudy in northern areas with outbreaks of rain. In the south, there will be clear spells along with a few showers in central England and Wales.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/weather (extracted 9th July 2019, 11.20 am)

You don’t need to have lived in the UK long to know that this is a typical set of predictions for the middle of our summer. It is Wimbledon after all.

But how helpful is it? Let’s put a mischievous interpretive spin on this forecast and try to work out what will happen.

It may rain.
But it may not.
It may be cloudy.
But we don’t know how long for.
The sun may come out.
But I wouldn’t count on it.
Even if it does, don’t expect it to last.
But you might see it in places.
In truth we have no clue whatsoever what is going to happen.
Just look out of the window: you’ll get a better idea.
Best take a brolly, just in case.

Image: BBC TV screenshot 9th July 2019

Compulsive hedging language

Back to Pinker’s summary of classic style. Another of the motifs that helps you to write clear, purposeful, conversational, colourful prose is avoiding the use of compulsive hedging language. Pinker cites a long list of words and phrases you’ll find, often in academic writing, which have the effect of a hedge. These words distance the author from anything in their exposition that is unsavoury, controversial or dubious. Pinker’s examples include almost, apparently, fairly, in part, nearly, rather, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of and to some extent.

Once you start down this route it is horribly easy to find words like this littering your text at every turn. Pinker himself introduces the whole topic with the observation that “many writers cushion their prose with wads of fluff implying that they are not willing to stand behind what they are saying”. He goes on to add that even intensifiers like very, highly and extremely have the paradoxical effect of sometimes operating as hedges, fuzzing up a writer’s prose and undermining their intent.

Here and there

And so it is with the weather. Included in British forecasters’ verbal armoury are lots of weather-specific words which imply uncertainty in their very meaning (for example scattered, spells, showers, outbreaks, light (adj.), broken, hazy, and fair).

That’s not to mention more generic words which are actively designed to hedge: mostly, mainly, in the main, in places, largely, generally, occasional(ly), often, may, might, could, should, expect, possibly, a bit, likely, unlikely, uncertain. You will probably come up with more.

Even the most steadfast and reliable presenters do it. That nice Nick Miller on the BBC this week said something like: “for most of us tomorrow should be mainly dry”. Sorry Nick: a bit too much qualification there to really help me with my decisions.

At the other end of the subtlety spectrum, meanwhile, is Tomasz Schafernaker who – let’s give him credit – at least openly admits he hasn’t got much idea what’s going to happen. A bit of rain possibly, perhaps some brightness, bits and pieces here and there, unsure about the timing, lots of uncertainty in the forecast. So, keep watching here or go to the BBC Weather website, where you’ll find lots more of the same guff.

[I hope that having read this far you’re starting to appreciate this is not exactly a serious blog. So these are not exact quotes from poor Tomasz, who seems a likeable guy and a better meteorologist than I suggest here. In truth they all do a difficult job well. Nick and Tomasz included.]

Image by Anastasia Yilmaz on Unsplash

A fairer outlook

The point is to raise your awareness of the frequency of these qualifying or hedging words, as a writer and a reader.

As a reader, you can’t do much about them, except perhaps question the writer’s intent and integrity if their volume or intensity feels excessive.

If you’re a writer, assuming you’re aware of the hedging words, you might consider whether they’re really necessary or could instead be replaced by vocabulary that is more concrete, definitive, enlightening, visual, certain and original, in line with the philosophy of classic style.

Or as a weather forecaster, you have little choice, amid the subtle vagaries of the British climate, but to carry on hedging. Until we’re roasting in perpetual desert – when we’ll all have lost our jobs anyway – and there will be no viewers left to criticise the forecasts.