Negative, Minus or Below?

Posted by Robb Ellis - bio |email

With all the talk of such cold weather in the country, I often show the temperature in International Falls for comparison. How people live in what must be a horrific existence from October through March, I'll never know, but that is beside the point.

So, during the Tuesday newscasts, Fran says someone asked her why I say "Negative 5" instead of "Minus 5".

Oh the infamous debate begins! It's one that is hotly-debated on various weather message boards.

Negative, Minus or Below?
There are pros and cons to using each, and varying opinions on when to use each. To be honest, its just semantics, and I believe that all are perfectly acceptable. In casual conversation I think everyone understands, regardless of which you say. Having said that, let's go over each.

When talking about -5 degrees I prefer to say "Negative 5 degrees." Perhaps it is because I have a math background, or perhaps it's just more common usage from the professors/teachers I learned from. It is describing a number that is not positive, it is negative, so it is an acceptable phrase.

There is a decent counter-argument to using "negative," however. Technically in physics temperature is the total kinetic energy of the molecules of a substance. Since that energy cannot be negative and can only be positive, using negative would be improper. By that same logic though, you'd have to exclude any temperature scale that uses negative numbers...and there is no way we are going to start using the Kelvin scales!

This is the more commonly used phrase when discussing low temperatures, but to me it sounds odd. There is a school of thought that "minus" refers to the mathematical operator such as 8 minus 5 equals 3 or 8-5=3. So, by this thinking, saying 'minus 5' doesn't make sense, because minus is an operator.

A quick check of Webster counters this though, and it specifically lists an example of "minus 15 degrees." So much for that theory.

Very often meteorologists will say 5 below zero or 5 below. It seems perfectly acceptable and you know exactly what someone means when they say it, but I don't like the idea of referencing a separate temperature to describe the temperature. Using this phrase does avoid the debate of Minus versus Negative, since that is the more slippery slope.

So what do you prefer? Minus 5, negative 5 or 5 below?