A golden conundrum

Precipitation doesn't just mean rain

Tonight the Met Office is to receive a Golden Bull award for using the phrase ‘probability of precipitation’ in forecasts on our new website. The Plain English Campaign, who judge the awards, say it’s poor communication and have questioned why we don’t just say a ‘chance of rain’ instead. It’s a fair point to raise as we’re always looking at the best way of communicating our forecasts, but the answer is straightforward – weather isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be and precipitation is a prime example.

Precipitation is a word used for any water that comes out of the sky – it includes rain, drizzle, hail, sleet, snow and even a few other less common weather features like diamond-dust, snow grains and graupel. It’s a catch-all term that’s really useful for meteorologists and it’s used by other forecasters around the world, such as in the USA and Canada – but apparently it’s a word that’s not very appealing to some others.

The difficulty is that when water does come out of the sky, it can fall in different forms from one place to another. The same weather system could produce snow, sleet and rain across even quite a relatively small area. For that reason, we can’t just say what the ‘chance of rain’ is because it could be misleading. So we need to find a way of getting that complexity across in a simple way. We could put ‘chance of rain, hail, sleet and snow’, but it’s a bit of a mouthful, or maybe ‘chance of water coming out of the sky’?

We’re keen to hear if anyone has ideas about a better way to say it? Let us know on our Facebook page or you can find out more about the science of probability of precipitation.

This entry was posted in Met Office in the Media and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A golden conundrum

  1. Surely this is something that’s covered in Geography at secondary school – therefore not above the heads of most of the population. Keep being precise – lots of us appreciate your efforts and understand (a little!) the complexities of forecasting, how difficult it is and what a great job the MO does!

  2. Mick Penning says:

    Precipitation is fine with me. When I first became aware of the word, puzzled -I looked it up.. and hey presto! …simple. It fits the job perfectly. That’s what words are for.
    Normally, I think the Plain English Campaign provide a good service, but in this regard I don’t think they’ve thought it through.

  3. I heard this and thought it was wrong – the Met Offie is using plain english: perhaps add a foot note to all pages whch use the words probability and precipitation which contains a link to the OED or another page of explanation.

  4. ‘Probability of precipitation’ is plain English. Maybe it’s the judges that need to be re-evaluated. It’s not just us, the public that use the site. The BBC rely on the MO for forecasts, I don’t think they would be too happy to tell the viewers that there is a ‘chance of rain’ if in reality it might not be the case. Orwell predicted this. Let the babies have their bottle. Just accept the award with a gracious ‘Ugg like’.

  5. To be blunt tell them to precip off.

    there is already to much dumbing down in the media as it is!
    Meteorology is a complex subject that requires complex language
    as you stated precip is NOT only rain!
    If The Plain English Campaign staff don’t understand this then
    they are not educated enough to make calls like this [/rant]

Comments are closed.