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?

As I write this week’s Editing for Grammarphobes, gusts of wind shake russet leaves from their branches, and I’m reminded winter cannot be far behind for Chicagoland. Today we’re talking about weather terms—what they mean and how to use them. Some of these might seem familiar, but they are actually specifically defined in the United States by the National Weather Service and are misused on a regular basis.

First off, let’s start with the term, weatherman, which is sexist and outdated. The Associated Press Stylebook (AP) states that the preferred term is weather forecaster.

Here are more weather words for you to consider.


Obviously, a blizzard is an intense snowstorm, but before weather forecasters use that actual term, the National Weather Service categorizes it as “having wind speeds of 35 mph or more and considerable falling and/or blowing snow with visibility of less than one-quarter mile for three or more hours,” according to AP.

Derecho, Derechos

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

Dew Point vs. Relative Humidity

Legendary Chicago weather forecaster, Tom Skilling, from WGN-TV, also answers questions in his column in the Chicago Tribune. A few years ago, he wrote about the difference between dew point and relative humidity.

In the Trib’s  “Ask Tom,” on September 6, 2016, he wrote the following explanation.

Dew point is the temperature at which the air is saturated at 100 percent relative humidity [literally the temperature at which dew droplets would form]. It is dependent on only the amount of moisture in the air. Relative humidity is the percent of saturation at a given temperature. It depends on moisture content and temperature.”

Since dew point is more of a concrete number, it’s easier to measure. As a general rule, a dew point of above 65 feels sticky and uncomfortable.


Gales are extreme winds that measure within the 39 to 45 mph range, according to AP.

Heavy Snow

Although it seems the term, heavy snow, is bandied about haphazardly, AP states it actually should only be used for a snowfall “accumulating to four inches or more in depth in 12 hours or six inches or more in 24 hours.”

High Wind

Sustained winds of 40 mph or greater that last one hour or longer are termed high winds, or winds of 58 mph or greater regardless of how long they last.


We are accustomed to hearing the term, monsoon season, but did you know it doesn’t always refer to just rain? AP states it is “a regular season of heavy rain and wind for a particular region, such as India, Arizona, and New Mexico.” It has a seasonal warm wind that is created by a difference in temperature between land and a nearby ocean. Since monsoons reverse direction with the seasons, there also are dry phases of monsoons.”

Polar Vortex

In Chicago, we hear a lot about the Polar Vortex, the huge, circular upper-air weather pattern in the Arctic region that envelops the North Pole. AP states that it keeps some of the coldest air up near the North Pole, but sometimes the vortex can break free of the jet stream and move south.

Sleet vs. Hail

Generally, “sleet is solid grains of ice formed by freezing raindrops or the refreezing of largely melted snowflakes before reaching the ground,” according to AP.  It goes onto note that hail, on the other hand, is “showery precipitation in the form of irregular pellets or balls of ice more than five millimeters in diameter falling from a cumulonimbus cloud.”

Tidal Wave vs. Tsunami

A tidal wave is not a tsunami. In fact, tidal wave doesn’t seem to be the appropriate word for anything I can find. The term for a large wave created by rising tide in a funnel-shaped inlet is tidal bore, according to AP and the National Weather Service.

“A tsunami is a seismic sea wave caused by an underwater disturbance, such as an earthquake, landslide, or volcano,” AP states.

Tornado Warning vs. Tornado Watch

The National Weather Service issues a tornado warning to literally warn the public of an existing tornado. A tornado watch alerts of a potential tornado.

Wind Chill Factor or Windchill Factor?

Depending on which style you are using, the word is either split up with no hyphen or run together. AP splits it into wind chill with no hyphen when it’s a modifier, while Merriam-Webster runs the word together as windchill. Either way, it means “a calculation that describes the combined effect of the wind and cold temperatures on exposed skin,” according to Merriam-Webster online. The higher the wind, the lower the wind chill.

For more weather terms, see the U.S. federal weather glossary.

EFG Digest
Love all the grammar tips, but don’t have time to check the blog every week? Subscribe to EFG Digest, a monthly recap of all of my Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0 blog posts delivered to your inbox in one convenient newsletter. Click here to sign up.


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

The Associated Press Stylebook, 2017 edition

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition
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 the Bibliophiles series, contemporary fiction with a sprinkling of the classics, and is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association. For more information on Karen, please visit


I'd like to remove the word "snow" from my vocabulary.
Mel Parish said…
Thanks, Karen, this has proved to be really useful. I was just debating whether to use the term mist or fog in my latest novel. Your link to the glossary enabled me to discover that fog is usually much more hazardous than mist so that's obviously the way to go!

Popular posts from this blog

What To Do With 'W'

Editing for Grammarphobes 2.0: Single Quotation Marks Within Double Quotes: Where Does the Period Go?

Five Fun Facts About Ralph Waldo Emerson