Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0: Weather Words

Every Wednesday, Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0 features handy tips to enhance all of our writing, from daily emails to articles to books. After all, everyone needs to write, right?


Since I live in Chicagoland, a place that can experience all four seasons in one week, I thought these first few days of spring in the northern hemisphere would be a perfect time to discuss weather words. I kid you not. Today's temperature is 38°. Friday, it's supposed to be in the low-70s.

The Associated Press Stylebook 2016 has an excellent section that bases its definitions on those used by the National Weather Service. Here’s a sampling of some weather words, what they mean, and when to use them.


A snowstorm is officially a blizzard if it has wind speeds of 35 mph or more, plus considerable falling and/or blowing snow with visibility of less than one-quarter mile for three or more hours. 

Cyclone, funnel cloud, tornado, water spout

A cyclone is a storm that has “strong winds rotating with a moving center of low atmospheric pressure.” A tornado is defined as a “violent, rotating column of air forming a pendant, usually from a cumulonimbus cloud, and touching the ground.” So a cyclone doesn’t touch ground, while a tornado does.

A funnel cloud is also a violent, rotating column of air, but it also does not touch the ground. 

A water spout is a tornado over water. 


AP states a derecho is a “widespread and usually fast-moving, straight-line windstorm” that is usually “more than hundreds of miles long and more than 100 miles across.”

Dust devil

A dust devil is a small, rapidly rotating wind that is made visible by the dust, dirt, or debris it picks up. 

Gale, high wind

A gale is sustained winds within the range of 39 to 54 mph, while high wind describes sustained winds of over 40 mph for more than one hour or winds gusting at 58 mph or more regardless of how long they last.

Hurricane, typhoon

Both hurricanes and typhoons are “tropical cyclones in which the minimum sustained surface wind is 74 mph or more.” They are called hurricanes east of the international date line and typhoons west of it. In the Indian Ocean and near Australia, they are known as cyclones. 


AP states a microburst is a mass of cooled air that rushes downward out of a thunderstorm, hits the ground, and rushes outward in all directions. Peak winds last less than five minutes and are less than 2.5 miles wide.


The term monsoon refers to “a regular season of heavy rain and wind for a particular region, such as India or the Arizona/ New Mexico area.” 


Storms that either exit or move north along the US East Coast and produce winds that blow from the northeast. Most of the time, it’s used to describe a large snowstorm that travels up the East Coast.

Tidal wave, tsunami

Tidal waves and tsunamis are not the same thing. Tidal wave refers to a large wave created by rising tide in a funnel-shaped inlet. 

A tsunami is much worse. It’s a seismic sea wave caused by an underwater disturbance, like an earthquake or volcano. Tsunamis cause massive death and destruction.

Tornado watch, tornado warning

Easy to mix up, a tornado watch means there is the possibility of a tornado within the next several hours. A tornado warning alerts the public that there definitely is a tornado in the area.

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These five books are on my desk at all times. Maybe they'll help you as well.

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style


A professional writer/editor for almost 30 years, Karen Wojcik Berner's wide and varied experience includes such topics as grammar, blog content, book reviews, corporate communications, the arts, paint and coatings, real estate, the fire service, writing and literature, research, and publishing. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women's Fiction Writers, Naperville Magazine, and Fresh Fiction. She also is the author of three contemporary women's fiction novels and is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. For more information on Karen, please visit www.karenberner.com.


This list made me think of Chrys Fey because she writes weather related crime stories. :)
You're right, Kelly. Definitely a Chrys thing.
Mel Parish said…
Very useful post, Karen, Thanks.
You're welcome, Mel. Thanks for stopping by.

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